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Detroit Auto Show 2009: Green Rules

Motor City carmakers GM and Ford are under pressure to produce hybrids and electric vehicles to compete with upstart carmakers out of Silicon Valley and China. Check out our photo gallery.

At this year's North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public on Jan. 17 in Detroit, automakers pledge they'll offer even more alternatives to gas-guzzling models, with many planning electric-only vehicles (EVs) within three years.

GM says it will start selling the plug-in hybrid Volt in the U.S. next year.
(click for image gallery)

It's a lofty goal, with lots of unanswered questions and unsolved problems. Will consumers warm up to the idea of plugging in their cars for a recharge every night? How would they recharge on a road trip? Can automakers mass-produce electric vehicles at affordable prices?

But the Detroit auto show has always been as much about what's possible as what's real, and Detroit automakers, in particular, are out to prove that they "get it" with green technologies and clean engineering.

Aside from their financial woes, they're feeling the pressure, too, from California startups, new Chinese automakers, and their traditional competitors all joining the race to the mass-produced EVs.

General Motors plans to start selling its hybrid Volt sedan in the U.S. next year, and at the auto show this week unveiled a concept luxury sedan that uses the same Volt technology, the Cadillac Converj.

Now GM wants to be at the forefront of solving the clunky issues of current hybrid and EV technology, and announced Monday its plans to open a battery research lab in Michigan. GM said it's hiring more engineers to work on battery technologies, is partnering with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on its research efforts, and will open up a Michigan plant to assemble battery packs based on lithium-ion batteries supplied by LG Chem Ltd. of Korea.

GM, meanwhile, has tucked its latest Hummer models, like wayward and embarrassing stepchildren, into the back corner of its floor space at Detroit's Cobo Hall. Indeed, with so much focus on fuel efficiency and green technologies at this year's show, the Hummer's presence feels awkward.

By contrast, those attending the show will hear much more about the Volt, which will run purely on electricity for up to the first 40 miles following a three-hour charge on a 240-volt outlet. After that, the gas engine kicks in and recharges the battery for a few hundred additional miles.

Fisker Automotive, a California startup unveiled its $90,000 hybrid convertible due in 2011.
(click for image gallery)

GM has said it will spend $758 million on Volt technology by 2012 (part of its promise to Congress in exchange for recent emergency funding) and seems intent on going head-to-head with the Toyota Prius within a few years.

Prius has a big head start, though. At Monday's show press preview, Toyota debuted the 2010 model, which was redesigned for more fuel efficiency and aerodynamics, is about one inch longer and wider, and will offer 50 miles per gallon with combined city/highway use. Toyota said it hopes to sell 400,000 of the vehicles this year, putting it in the production range of the Camry and Corolla.

Ford, which has offered the hybrid Escape SUV for several years, will start selling a hybrid Fusion sedan this spring. Between the two models, it expects to sell 55,000 hybrid vehicles this year, said Praveen Cerian, Ford's Fusion hybrid program leader, in an interview at the show on Monday.

The hybrid Fusion will get about 41 mpg on the highway and 36 mpg in the city, which compares to 22/34 for a nonhybrid Fusion, he said. The price delta between the two is about $3,000, but that doesn't include savings from green-technology tax breaks. The hybrid version will offer the same deluxe features as the Fusion SEL, he said.

Ford is among the automakers at the show giving firm numbers for their first fully electric vehicles in the United States. For Ford, it's the year 2011.

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