Can GM's Electric Car Go the Distance?
Last month, Bob Lutz, General Motors' renowned car czar, stood before a room full of reporters and offered a stunning mea culpa. "A few years ago," he said, "we made a bad decision." That decision: GM failed to green light a hybrid car, even though it had the know-how and the technology left over from its failed EV1 electric car. Toyota, of course, made the opposite decision and today its Prius hybrid is the envy of the automotive world. "The value Toyota got out of the Prius, in terms of positioning themselves as the world technology leader, was incredible," bemoans Lutz. "Now we're in a position to play catch-up."
This week at the Detroit Auto Show, GM hopes to shock the car-buying public by unveiling its catch-up vehicle: The Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that GM says can go 150mpg or more. There's been plenty of buzz about plug-in hybrids over the last year. But so far there are no hybrids on the market that you can recharge by plugging into a wall outlet. Instead, today's hybrids recharge their batteries by capturing energy from braking. But the Volt is a different kind of hybrid. Unlike those on the market that are primarily powered by a small gasoline engine, this sexy little four-seater runs on pure electricity. The tiny three-cylinder gasoline engine under its hood is only used to recharge the batteries, never to turn the wheels. You can also recharge the Volt by plugging it into a standard socket for about six hours. By contrast, the 60mpg Prius can't be plugged in and only runs on pure electric power until it hits about 15mph. Then its small gasoline engine kicks in to supplement the electric motor. Other hybrids, like the Honda Civic, never run on pure electric power, but are driven by a blend of gasoline and kilowatts. Now, though, the race is on to have the first plug-in hybrid on the market.
While GM works on the Volt, the company has promised to have a plug-in version of its new Saturn Vue hybrid on the market by next year, though some technical experts are skeptical about that aggressive timing. The Vue hybrid now on the road isn't even as advanced as the Prius. The Vue is a "mild hybrid" that never runs on electric power, but gains most of its 25 percent fuel economy improvement from having a special system that shuts the engine off at stop lights and in stop-and-go traffic. The next-generation Vue will, like the Prius, be capable of running on electric power at low speeds. And GM says you'll be able to drive longer under electric power because you'll be able to recharge the batteries by plugging into your wall socket. Toyota and Ford are also working on plug-ins, but have not given a date for when they'll be available. Experts say plug-ins could take five years to develop, despite GM's promise.
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