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Sustainable Energy

General Motors Raises Its Ante on Electric Cars

The Detroit automaker will soon debut its first all-electric vehicle, a fast-charging vehicle that also rides well.

Initial sales of electric cars have been sluggish, so the next generation of the vehicles will be crucial for the future of the technology.

The Chevrolet Spark EV isn’t General Motors’ first pure electric vehicle—that would be the EV1, which was quashed in 2003. But this time around, GM is more serious about these vehicles.  

GM showed off the battery-powered car and let journalists make test drives this week prior to its debut November 28 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Compact, powerful, and easy to maneuver, the Spark EV looks like a good next step for GM into plug-in vehicles. However, its price has yet to be revealed. That will be crucial, because there has been limited demand for costly electric cars that can’t go long distances without being recharged.

Charged up: The compact electric Chevrolet Spark is due to hit dealerships in 2013.

The Spark joins a list of all-electric cars that includes the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus Electric, and Tesla’s Model S. Sales of these plug-in electric vehicles, as well as electric-and-gas models like the Chevy Volt, are important not only for the carmakers, but also to establish markets for advanced battery technologies and battery charging infrastructure. 

By 2017, GM wants to build as many as 500,000 cars a year with electrification technologies, said Mary Barra, senior vice president for global product development. That’s not trivial, considering that today GM sells nine million vehicles annually. In addition to the Spark EV, which will begin with small production runs for limited U.S. and Korean markets, GM plans to make plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt and cars with “eAssist technology,” which is a form of hybrid technology. However, Barra says, GM will focus mainly on developing plug-in technologies rather than the traditional gasoline engine hybrids, where Toyota and Ford have made larger investments. 

Even as GM plans to send the Chevy Spark EV to dealerships in the middle of next year, the company is still struggling with the Volt, which, unlike the Spark, has a small gasoline tank to extend its battery range. The Volt has had a slow start since its 2010 debut (see “As GM Volt Sales Increase, That Doesn’t Mean It’s Successful”). GM won’t be close to its goal of selling 60,000 Volts this year. Last month it sold fewer than 3,000.

But the Spark could help justify GM’s earlier investments. Its electric powertrain, which will be manufactured in Maryland, borrows heavily from the Volt. GM engineers tinkered with the design to achieve more horsepower and faster acceleration. For example, they custom-shaped each square copper wire inside the motor’s coil. Their goal is to broaden the car’s appeal by selling its “fun-to-drive factor.” I found that getting the car from 0 to 45 miles an hour down a short stretch of road required only a pleasantly light touch on the pedal.  

The Spark’s 560-pound lithium-ion battery, positioned underneath the rear seats, is supplied by A123 Systems, the manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy protection in October. Extending the range of such batteries and bringing down their cost are two of the biggest challenges holding back plug-in vehicle adoption. GM plans to use the Spark battery pack it developed at its center in Warren, Michigan, in future classes of plug-in vehicles.

GM isn’t yet saying how far the Spark can go on a charge. But during my test drive, the car’s dashboard projected that there were 58 miles left on the battery, after 25 percent of the charge had already been consumed by many short test drives earlier in the day. The estimate was based on how the car had been driven over its previous 30 miles, and the dashboard indicated that the range could be about 10 miles further or shorter depending on different driving patterns. The dashboard also could coach me to drive with maximum efficiency.

In hopes of reducing “range anxiety,” or the worry about running out of charge, GM is making the Spark the first car on the market to use a new North American “fast-charging” standard, approved in October. In special charging stations equipped with the technology, a driver could power 80 percent of the battery in 20 minutes—compared to seven hours for a full charge at home. None of these fast-charging stations are on the road yet, but General Motors expects some will come online by the time the Spark gets into dealerships.

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