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Will the Electric Volt Recharge GM?

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After taking a PR licking for killing off its experimental electric car, the EV1, GM got alt fuel religion and ramped up work on the Volt, a battery powered sedan slated to arrive in dealer showrooms in May 2010.

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Frank Weber, the executive in charge of making sure the Volt gets built, showed me that 111 KW's of power could compete with horsepower as we hit the track in a pre-production tester. He assured me that you needn't worry about driving off with the cord still plugged in -- it won't start unless it's unplugged -- but will the public pony up an estimated $40,000 to put the Volt's electric ponies in their garages?

Even though a $7,500 government subsidy will bring the Volt's sticker jolt down to $32,500 and the company's engineers may squeeze some more cost savings out of the car without sacrificing its considerable charms, it's unclear if this will be enough to transform hordes of techno-intrigued lookers into buyers. But if it remains a low-volume, "halo car," it's still going to have an impact. Which coincidentally was the name for the concept car that led to the EV1.

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One ride-along and quick tour of the engineers' assembly line mock up, where they're bolting a few Volts together to help them figure out how to build these revolutionary vehicles before the cars go into production at GM's Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant in the Spring, isn't enough to qualify as an expert on this car or the viability of alternative power systems. But, the car's torquey, smooth performance is unlike the halting, wimpy ride of my beloved Prius. Can I say -- it's electrifying?

The Volt's electric power is impressively immediate -- no lag. There are no gears. Its 100 mph top end is a factor of battery size and Weber said that a 200 mph Volt would be, "no problem." But we probably won't be seeing Volts competing at the Daytona 500 any time soon since the car's range on pure electric power is only 40 miles before you need to plug it in for a recharge.

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Which according to the US Department of Transportation is enough for about 80% of Americans to make it from home to work and back without a recharge. The other 20% might be able to plug-in at work or rely on the small on-board gasoline engine to get them home. You'll also need the engine for the occasional trip to visit grandma or to tool up the coast, which should give you another 250 plus miles of road time. Unfortunately, the gasoline engine doesn't recharge the battery and you'd have to top off the tank to continue your journey or pull over to jolt your Volt with some electricity. Unlike a flashlight battery, the big, heavy, (400 pound), tee-shaped Volt power source is not something you can easily swap out. Some of the Volt's competitors (Shai Agassi's Better Place) see quick-change batteries as the key to the electric car future.

Agassi envisions drivers tooling into a gas/service station and exchanging their depleted batteries for a fully recharged battery pack in about the same amount of time it takes to top off a fuel tank today. Like King Gillette, who made a fortune selling disposable razor blades and not the razors, Agassi hopes to make money leasing batteries to consumers around the world as he partners with carmakers who adopt his technology, and governments who underwrite the creation of the necessary infrastructure and enact tax incentives, to drive buyers to electric vehicles.

Finding a plug for Volt buyers who are homeowners will be easy but will be a challenge for apartment dwellers, condo owners, or travelers. The Volt is set up to accept power from typical 110 outlets but Weber said "220 would be provide a faster charge." So you might want to have the electrician put a 220 outlet in the garage. If you're garageless -- you're either going to have to rely on the kindness of your employer providing a daily dose of kilowatts or a combination of public charging stations that might be built (do I hear infrastructure?) or long extension cords dangling out of apartment windows.

Exactly what kind of mileage you will experience after you master the art of replenishing the power source is a tricky question. GM issued a press release claiming that you can "expect 230 Mpg in city driving." But this figure is arrived at applying a laborious alchemical transmutation developed by the EPA "that uses kilowatt hours per 100 miles traveled to define the electrical efficiency of plug-ins," according to GM's statement. Exactly how electrical current used translates to MPG is "difficult" to determine according to a GM source and the company wasn't ready to divulge the mileage you can "expect" from using the gasoline engine alone. But, no matter how you do the math, the Volt will get better mileage than a typical SUV.

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If the Volt's new technology doesn't charge your batteries GM is hoping buyers consider the line up of 25 new fuel-sipping cars it has in the pipeline, like its Toyota Corolla fighting Chevrolet Cruze (also due in the Spring of 2010), or its 32 Mpg Equinox crossover (better mileage than the Toyota Rav4) that CEO Fritz Henderson describes as, "smokin' hot."

To lead GM's marketing and communications charge into a fuel-efficient future, the company brought back "America's oldest car executive," the 77 year-old, Bob Lutz. The controversial, always quotable, Lutz has a storied career that's taken him to top-level posts in a number of American and European automakers. He made his mark championing high horsepower vehicles like the Dodge Viper and the car that triggered the SUV revolution the Ford Explorer. Some see Lutz as an odd choice for helping the company convince the world it's gone green and that it's not "going back to doing business as usual."

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The ruggedly handsome, impeccably tailored exec still strikes a Pattonesque ramrod straight posture that immediately telegraphs his guy's guy, Marine pilot background. The gravely voice, straight out of central casting, and his movie star, military demeanor aren't what gives some observers pause, it's his staunch belief that global warming is, to paraphrase Henry Ford, "bunk." Lutz has used other more colorful language to describe his disdain for most mainstream climate scientists (including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) but suffice it to say, he sees, "no correlation between CO2 and temperature, whatsoever," as he said when addressing an audience GM assembled this week to introduce its changed self.

After a somewhat convoluted defense of his position that included blaming "sunspots," Lutz slipped into complete Marine mode when talking about his response to the Commander In Chief's a.k.a. President Obama's order (actually Congress's law) that vehicles attain 35 Mpg. He said "I salute and say 'Yes sir.'"

Lutz and the rest of GM have their marching orders, and a company free of debt, but will they be able to take the hill and truly liberate the automaker from its self destructive past?