General Motors Corp. Wednesday detailed its commitment to building new electric vehicles as it attempts to shed its reputation for producing gas-guzzling trucks.
Stung by criticism that it conspired to kill the electric car, the world’s largest automaker said it plans to make a plug-in electric hybrid version of the Saturn Vue Green Line, with double the fuel efficiency of any current sport utility vehicle.
GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner called the plug-in hybrid technology a “top priority” for the automaker.
“The technological hurdles are real, but we believe they are also surmountable,” he told reporters at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.
The Saturn Vue Green Line is GM’s first hybrid in the U.S. market, running on gasoline and a battery that is charged while it is moving. A plug-in hybrid would run longer on a battery that can be recharged from an external electrical outlet.
GM also plans to expand the hybrid system to the Saturn Aura Green Line and Chevrolet Malibu sedans in 2007.
The effort is part of a GM effort to demonstrate how it is investing some of the $9 billion saved through a wrenching program of job cuts and plant closures in hybrid technology, an area where it has lagged Toyota Motor Corp.
In Washington, Toyota North American President Jim Press said the Japanese automaker was “really enthused that the industry and other auto companies are embracing this technology.”
Toyota has expressed interest in developing plug-in hybrids and Press said the company’s lead in hybrid sales “gives us an advantage.”
GM recognizes that to change consumer attitudes about its brands, it has to address criticism that it has not done enough to drive advances in fuel economy, a GM executive who asked not to be named told Reuters ahead of the announcement.
Other fuel-saving options
Wagoner said vehicles that run on a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, as well as fuel-cell vehicles, which use hydrogen to create electricity and emit only water, are part of its plan to reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil.
Wagoner also said all versions of its Hummer SUVs will offer an engine powered by bio-fuels within three years.
GM is pushing its green image amid falling U.S. sales — down 9.4 percent through October. It has also been losing U.S. market share to Toyota, which has ridden its reputation for quality and fuel-efficiency to a No. 1 position in the local market.
In 2007, GM plans to debut a two-mode hybrid system in the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon full-size SUVs and plans to launch it in the Cadillac Escalade full-size SUV and the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks in 2008.
A two-mode system uses two sets of gears and two electric motors and maintains two driving modes — one for city driving, the other for highways.
The GMC Yukon hybrid, made in partnership with German automakers DaimlerChrysler AG and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, will have 25 percent better fuel economy than the gasoline version, GM said.
Wagoner said he is uncertain about when a plug-in hybrid will be commercially available.
Not worried about battle with Kerkorian
Wagoner also said on Wednesday he is “not excessively worried” about a possible proxy fight with the automaker’s largest individual shareholder, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
“We’re just running the business every day to do the right thing for the business and our shareholders and not excessively worried about the rest of that,” Wagoner said, referring to a possible proxy fight with Kerkorian.
Kerkorian’s associate, Jerry York, resigned from GM’s board in October in a dispute over board oversight and strategy triggered by GM’s decision not to pursue an alliance with Renault-Nissan.
York’s resignation — and his public criticism of the oversight the board provided — led many analysts to believe Kerkorian was gearing up for a proxy fight to seek control of the board and oust Wagoner.
Nissan unveils hybrid
Nissan Motor Corp. will roll out a new Altima hybrid sedan and coupe as well as a souped-up version of the Sentra small car early next year, company officials said.
The automaker showed off the new versions at an event on the eve of press days at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The hybrid, powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine as well as an electric motor, initially will be sold in eight states mainly in the Northeast starting in January. The full-sized car will get 41 miles per gallon of gasoline in the city and 36 on the highway, the company said.
It is Nissan's first hybrid powered car, company officials said.
Nissan has capacity to build 50,000 of the hybrids annually, but expects to sell 25,000 to 30,000 per year in 2007, the company said.
It will be sold in California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
"We think those markets are a good place to start," said Bill Bosley, vice president of the Nissan Division in North America.
The Altima will establish Nissan in the hybrid market, and the company is looking into spreading its hybrid technology to models in its lineup, Bosley said.
Nissan also unveiled a sleek coupe version of the Altima and a 200-horsepower sportier version of its Sentra small car called the SE-R. Versions of the Altima and Sentra went on sale this fall.
Nissan’s new Mexican import
Nissan Motor Co. will begin producing its Versa subcompact car at a second plant in Mexico next year, the company announced.
The Versa, which is also called the Tiida in international markets, will be exported from Mexico to the United States. The Japanese automaker's Cuernavaca facility will join Nissan Mexicana's other plant in Aguascalientes in making the Versa.
Strong demand for the Versa in the U.S. market has led to low inventories since the model was introduced in June, Nissan said in a news release.
"Versa's success in the United States and Nissan Mexicana's commitment have given us a great opportunity to add Cuernavaca's craftsmanship and quality to the project," Shoichi Miyatani, president and general director of Nissan Mexicana said.
The Cuernavaca plant about 50 miles outside Mexico City became Nissan's first wholly owned manufacturing facility outside Japan in 1966.