DETROIT General Motors Corp (GM.N) could launch a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue crossover in 2010, possibly making it the first commercially available electric vehicle, a GM executive said on Monday.
"It could precede the Volt," GM's head of North American operations, Troy Clarke, told reporters at the North American International Auto Show, referring to GM's much-touted concept electric car, which it hopes to produce by the end of 2010.
"For the Volt we are re-engineering an entire vehicle to be optimally designed to support the architecture," Clarke said.
"At the Saturn Vue we are adapting an electric drive system to an existing architecture. It's a quicker way to do it."
Unlike earlier gasoline-electric hybrids, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, plug-ins are designed for short trips powered entirely by an electric motor and a battery charged through a socket at home.
Automakers say lithium-ion technology remains the biggest challenge in producing a plug-in as they try to lower the cost of the batteries and boost their power and storage capacity.
But GM product chief Bob Lutz said on Monday that the battery technology has shown no problems so far and a working lithium ion battery pack for the Volt could be demonstrated by June 2008.
He said the time-consuming part of the development process would be the complete re-engineering of the vehicle.
GM is testing lithium-ion battery technology developed by its two suppliers -- A123 Systems and Compact Power Inc, a subsidiary of South Korea's LG Chem (051910.KS).
Clarke said the Volt and the Vue could end up using different kinds of batteries within the lithium ion range.
The Saturn Vue would run 10 miles on battery power alone, while the Chevrolet Volt is being designed to run 40 miles.
"In the Volt, they are counting every amperage of power and where that goes ... to minimize the use of electricity in the vehicle," Clarke said.
"We don't want to deteriorate the capability of the Vue," he said. "It still needs to tow 3,500 pounds, which the Volt will not do. But then the Volt will be one of the most energy-efficient vehicles in the world."
Saturn's announcement came shortly after Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) on Monday said it plans to market a test fleet of plug-in vehicles to companies or government agencies by the end of 2010 -- providing a timeline on production for the first time.
As the race to bring a mass-market, rechargeable electric vehicle to the market heats up, GM executives have said the Volt is crucial to the largest U.S. automaker's efforts to snag the environmental technology crown from Japanese rival Toyota.
Clarke said GM was under pressure to be first to market with an electric vehicle regardless of external competition.
"All that proves is that the technology is on a similar path ... the technology issues the two companies face are very similar ... and our time frames are based on realistic assessments," Clarke said.
(Editing by Brian Moss)