GM readies Volt unveiling to shift focus from crisis

DETROIT Mon Jul 7, 2008 4:16pm EDT

A Chevy Volt is on display at the Plug-in Electric Vehicle Conference 2008 in Washington June 11, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A Chevy Volt is on display at the Plug-in Electric Vehicle Conference 2008 in Washington June 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Corp is rushing to finish the production version of its Chevy Volt and plans to unveil a showroom-ready model of the heavily touted electric car in September, people familiar with the project say.

Battered by a deepening slump in sales and concerns about whether it can ride out the downturn, GM (GM.N) is counting on the Volt to break its costly association with gas-guzzling vehicles at a time when truck sales are tumbling and gas prices are near record levels.

GM is likely to complete the production version of the Volt by early August and plans to show it off in September, just when the embattled automaker celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding, people familiar with the plans said.

A GM spokesman declined to comment on the timeline for its next announcements on the Volt, which will include naming a supplier for the vehicle's lithium-ion battery pack, the single most expensive element of the vehicle and the component seen as critical to its success.

"Everyone is waiting for the next steps," Rob Peterson, spokesman for GM's electric vehicle program, told Reuters. GM designers and engineers are "getting very close" to a production-ready version of the Volt, he said.

GM showed off a concept version of the Volt in January 2007 but has retooled the look of the vehicle significantly since then, in part in order to improve its aerodynamics, representatives of the automaker have said.

GM has already shown a near-production version of the Volt to a Los Angeles-area focus group of consumers as it pushes toward production of the vehicle by late 2010 under a development plan the GM board approved in June.

By unveiling the final version of the Volt at a centennial observation in September, GM will be looking to shift the focus for investors and consumers from its current sales slump toward the more fuel-efficient vehicles it has in development.

The automaker, which saw its stock hit a 54-year low last week, is expected to use the circuit of major auto shows that begins with Paris in October to unveil a series of upcoming vehicles that will underscore its effort to move away from a reliance on light trucks.

Those include the production version of the Chevy Beat, a replacement for the Aveo hatchback, and a replacement for the Chevy Cobalt, a small sedan.

VOLT: READY FOR ITS HOLLYWOOD CLOSE-UP

In a further bid to create buzz, the Volt is one of several GM cars set to make an appearance in the action movie "Transformers 2," scheduled for release next summer, a person familiar with the matter said.

GM was heavily involved in the production of the first Michael Bay-directed "Transformers" film, released last summer, and provided a concept version of its 2009 Camaro for a central turn in the movie.

GM is designing the Volt to run for 40 miles on a lithium-ion battery pack that can be recharged at a standard electric outlet. The Volt will also capture energy from braking, like a traditional hybrid, and feature an on-board engine that will be used to send power to the battery on longer trips.

GM is racing Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) to bring the first plug-in car to the marketplace and has already featured the Volt in its advertising, part of a bid to improve the public image of the fuel efficiency of its car line-up.

Just as the Detroit-based automakers once rolled out limited-edition performance cars to create a buzz around their brands, the Volt has emerged as a kind of environmentally friendly "halo car" that GM hopes will have as much impact as the Prius hybrid has had for Toyota.

Two suppliers have been in the running to provide lithium-ion batteries for the Volt: A unit of Korea's LG Chem (051910.KS) said last month that it was ready to supply batteries for the Volt, and German auto parts supplier Continental AG (CONG.DE), adapting battery technology used by privately held A123 Systems, is also competing for the Volt battery contract.

The Volt marks one of the first attempts to adapt lithium-ion batteries, widely used in consumer electronics, for a car, although Toyota and others are pressing ahead with their own work on the same technology.

GM celebrates its centennial on September 16, the anniversary of its founding by Billy Durant. It kicked off a series of events last year to mark the date, but those have been overshadowed by concerns about its performance and whether it has sufficient cash to ride out the downturn in U.S. sales.

GM's U.S. sales are off 15 percent this year, and analysts expect the automaker to raise additional capital to shore up liquidity as it looks to turn around its U.S. operations.

(Editing by John Wallace)

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