Toyota, GM race for next-gen hybrid

The race between General Motors Corp. and Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp. to produce a rechargeable car is meaningless because the companies' vehicle designs are so different

JOLIET, Ill.–The race between General Motors Corp. and Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp. to produce a rechargeable car is meaningless because the companies’ vehicle designs are so different, GM’s top product executive said Thursday.

Vice chair Bob Lutz said Toyota’s plug-in hybrid has a much shorter electric range than the Chevrolet Volt and must use a gasoline engine to go any farther. The Volt, he said, runs only on electricity but carries a small gasoline engine to recharge the batteries when they are depleted.

Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe said Thursday that Toyota will speed up delivery of its plug-in hybrid from 2010 to the end of 2009, while the Volt is due in showrooms in late 2010.

But Lutz said he expects Toyota’s plug-in will debut in controlled fleets and not in large numbers. He said GM will have production versions of the Volt working in a large test fleet in late 2009.

Lutz, speaking at an event in Joliet where GM showed reporters its 2009 model lineup, said the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries can take it 40 to 50 miles on a single charge. If a driver stays within that range, the car would never use gasoline. To go farther, the motor would come on to recharge the batteries.

Toyota has not released an electric-only range for its plug-in hybrid, which operates similar to its current Prius model by using both gasoline and electricity to propel the vehicle.

Lutz said such hybrids generally have a short electric-only range.

“After eight or 11 miles it reverts to being a completely normal gasoline-electric hybrid, which means you get about a 25-30 percent fuel savings, but the point is they do burn fuel,” he said.

Lutz said GM has chosen one of two competing battery suppliers for the Volt, but he wouldn’t say which one.

Two battery makers – Compact Power Inc. of Troy, Mich., which is working with parent LG Chem of Korea, and Frankfurt, Germany-based Continental Automotive Systems, which is working with GM and A123 Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass. – are competing to win the Volt battery contract.

Lutz also stopped short of predicting when GM would return to profitability, but said if it can further reduce structural costs, get higher prices for small cars, and if the U.S. auto market recovers, its top executives say they hope to return to black ink in 2010. GM reported a $15.5 billion second-quarter loss and has been burning cash this year at a rate of more than $1 billion a month.

Justin Ward, manager of the Toyota’s advanced powertrain program in the U.S., said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that Toyota’s design of blending gasoline and electric propulsion will be less costly than the Volt’s design.

He said “series” designs like the Volt have larger, heavier battery packs and bigger electronic components to go with them, making them more costly.

Ward would not reveal the target price for Toyota’s new version, but GM has said it will price the Volt between $30,000 and $40,000. The current Prius, which can’t be plugged in for recharging but runs on both gas and electric power, has a base price of $21,500.

Industry analysts say despite differences between the vehicles, there is image value for whichever automaker can come out with a rechargeable car first.

But Lutz says the two vehicles can’t be compared.

“A plug-in hybrid with a limited range is a very nice thing to have,” he said. “It’s wonderful that Toyota is working on this. If they have some test fleets out next year that’s great. But it’s not the same thing as a Chevy Volt, which is not a plug-in hybrid.”

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