GM to produce all-electric Chevy Spark

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co confirmed it will make its first all-electric vehicle, a version of the Chevrolet Spark minicar that will debut in 2013 and take aim at Nissan Motor Co Ltd’s Leaf.

“Chevrolet will produce an all-electric version of the Spark minicar for selected U.S. and global markets, including California,” Jim Federico, Chevy’s global vehicle chief engineer for electric vehicles, said at the company’s Detroit headquarters on Wednesday.

Electric cars have been slow to catch on. In the U.S. market, demand has been held back by the lack of models to choose from, skimpy infrastructure for charging the vehicles, high sticker prices, and low gasoline prices compared with other industrialized nations.

News of the electric Spark continues GM’s push to seize the mantle of “greenest automaker in the world” from Toyota Motor Corp, which makes the popular Prius hybrid car.

GM, like other major automakers, also needs more fuel-efficient cars as the industry pushes toward more stringent U.S. requirements that will be in place by 2025.

Further details about the electric Spark, including driving range and price, will be released closer to introduction.

The Volt has a 400-pound lithium-ion battery that provides an electric-only range of up to 50 miles. After the battery is depleted, a 1.4-liter gas engine provides power.

Nissan launched the five-passenger Leaf in Japan and the United States in December 2010. The vehicle has an EPA-certified driving range of 73 miles.

Marketing an all-electric vehicle will mark a break for GM. It has emphasized the Volt’s ability to continue driving under gas power even after its electric charge has been used as a way to prey on consumer anxiety about being stranded while driving an all-electric car.

Leaf’s U.S. sales through September were about 27,500, seven times higher than the larger Volt. The Leaf’s U.S. price starts at $32,780 before a $7,500 federal tax credit.

“We welcome competitors into the market,” Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan Americas, told Reuters. “We’re glad that GM has decided to go pure electric. This brings further validity to the segment.”

Ford Motor Co will introduce an electric Focus by the end of this year, and ramp up production in early 2012. The small car’s driving range has not yet been certified by the EPA, but the company expects it can travel up to 100 miles on a full charge, depending on conditions.

Toyota will offer a plug-in version of the Prius that can drive up to 15 miles on a charge starting next year. Other automakers also are rolling out plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Federico said the electric Spark’s global rollout will be similar to that of the plug-in electric hybrid Chevy Volt, which started in the U.S. market and has expanded from there.

The gasoline-powered Spark is now sold only in China, India and South Korea. A new version of the gas-powered Spark will debut next year and be introduced in the United States and other markets.

Federico declined to say where the electric Spark will be built, but the gas version is currently assembled in South Korea.

GM Chief Executive Daniel Akerson has driven the company more aggressively toward electric vehicles since taking the top job about a year ago.

The U.S. automaker’s push under Akerson has centered on rolling out plug-in hybrid technology in a broader range of vehicles to recoup its investment in the money-losing Volt. By using its electric-vehicle technology in more cars, GM could reap more profits and drive down the technology’s cost.

In August, GM said it would build a Cadillac ELR luxury coupe based on Volt’s plug-in hybrid technology.

A123 Systems Inc will provide the lithium-ion battery for the electric Spark, Federico said.

In August, GM said it had awarded A123 a contract to build battery packs for future electric vehicles, but it did not say which vehicles would use the batteries.

Sources told Reuters that GM executives were studying plans for an all-electric small car for the Chevy brand that included an A123 battery.

Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit