GM finally plugs into hybrid fever

Buick Enclave on display at the L.A. Auto Show

PHOTO GALLERY: L.A. Auto Show

KAI RYSSDAL: A couple of days ago I wandered over to the Los Angeles Auto Show. It's just down the street from our studios here in L.A. I'd never been to an auto show before. I wasn't really sure what to expect.

But y'know what? It's not really all that different from what you might have seen on TV or in the papers. Hundreds of cars, from the exotic to the mundane. All of them shining under banks of halogen lights. Auto detailers running around, wiping the fingerprints off of every vehicle in sight. And models wearing skimpy clothes. And somehow, the entire building had this . . . new car smell.

Usually, car shows are just that: showcases for the coming year's models. A chance to show off the latest concept cars. But this year's L.A. show is a little different. And you could tell as soon as you heard the keynote address. Call it a recognition of an inconvenient truth By an unlikely convert.

RICK WAGONER: Going forward it is highly unlikely that oil alone is going to supply all of the world's rapidly growing automotive energy requirements.

Rick Wagoner's the CEO of General Motors.

WAGONER: And in that regard, I'm pleased to announce that General Motors has begun work on a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid production vehicle.

A plug-in's a slighty different beast than the Priuses you see on the highway now. It's got a big battery, runs on electricity until the charge gets low, and then a gas engine kicks in. If you recharge it from a wall socket every night, you'd barely ever need to fill up the tank.

But let's put Wagoner's conversion to hybrids and alternative fuels into context. GM lost $10.5 billion last year. All of Detroit's been falling way behind foreign car makers. Cranking out Hummers and full-size pickups with gas at two and a half bucks a gallon and consumers wanting less, not more. For GM and Wagoner to be catching hybrid fever marks a huge change in attitude. So, after the speech, I walked the floor with Dan Neil, the car critic for the Los Angeles Times. And I asked him about GM's change of heart.

DAN NEIL: Well, you know, it's like they were being dragged kicking and screaming and now suddenly they are saying — and, you know, a lot depends on how they execute this — but they're saying, "You know what, we've changed our mind. We're gonna go forward. We're gonna try and get ahead of this curve.

GM didn't give a delivery date for its plug-in hybrid, or say how many it plans to build. The company does have a history, though, of making big announcements with less-than-stellar follow-through. Ten years ago, GM built the EV-1, the world's most-advanced battery-powered vehicle at the time. And then they killed it. I had a chance to talk to Rick Wagoner that day at the car show. I asked him whether GM could get back the lead in technology that it squandered to Toyota and Honda?

WAGONER: We see today when we bring out a product that's really breakthrough, people buy it. I mean, people buy Corvettes. They're not hard to sell. People buy our full-sized utilities to the tune of 70 percent of the market. People buy our large pickups. People buy Cadillac CTSs.

So if we develop terrific products, we will get consumers. It may take a little longer than we want, but people will buy our products.

GM's sales have turned around a bit lately, but it's still losing ground to Toyota. So standing in a field of shiny new Lexuses, I went back to Dan Neil to talk about something Wagoner barely touched on: Whether GM can design a hybrid car that Americans are gonna want to buy.

NEIL: That's the thing that Toyota and Lexus have been so successful at. I mean, we're looking at this LS600h Hybrid. Well, this is a huge, beautiful, desirable luxury sedan that's also fuel efficient. It's twice the car of anything GM sells now. So, you know, can they catch up? Will they catch up? Do they have the time and resources — mental and financial — to do it? Nobody knows.

Nobody does know. But here's a hint. The other big splash from GM at the show was the 2008 Buick Enclave, a 270-horsepower V6 crossover SUV. EPA mileage ratings not yet announced.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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