GM hopes to get Volts into lagging sales

General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner poses with the Chevrolet Volt electric concept car at the GM exhibit at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in January.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Oil tumbled more than $5 today. Crude closed at $95.71, the first time it's been under $100 since March. As it happens, a company whose fortunes are closely tied to that price has a big birthday coming up. General Motors is celebrating its 100th anniversary. A big bash is planned for tomorrow in Detroit. But at the party GM is expected to focus more on the future than the past. And on one very important car.

From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer reports.


DUSTIN DWYER: The car is the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in sedan that many say could open a new chapter in automotive history.

GM unveiled a concept version at the Detroit auto show in 2007. The Volt is designed to go 40 miles using only electricity. After that, a small gas-powered engine kicks in to recharge the battery. GM unveils the production model tomorrow.

ERICH MERKLE: This is really a much different vehicle than anything we've ever seen in the past. And I think it's a sign of things to come.

That's analyst Erich Merkle of the consulting firm Crowe Horwath. He says the Volt will be on the leading edge of new electrically powered vehicles, and it could change people's perceptions about GM.

Whether that happens or not, the hype has started. GM's already featured the Volt in TV ads. And last week, photos appeared unexpectedly on the Internet. GM insists it was an accident.

John Walkonowicz is with the economic research firm Global Insight.

John Walkonowicz: GM has to make sure that the folks on Wall Street realize that there are some neat tricks up their sleeve. They can't just go on current performance.

But despite the hype, the Volt won't hit showrooms for another year. And there are still questions about how much the battery will cost and how long it will last.

Walkonowicz says those concerns don't seem to worry GM.

Walkonowicz: Yeah, sure, there's some probability there, but they must have assessed it and determined it was low enough not to worry about it.

Meanwhile, GM's nemesis, Toyota, is preparing a plug-in hybrid of its own. Toyota's been more secretive about its plans, but it's targeted a launch date of 2010, just about the same time the Volt comes out.

I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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