GM’s Latest Plans for Plug-in Hybrid SUV, Now As Buick
A mash-up of the Chevy Volt, GM’s full-size SUV “two-mode” hybrids, and the Buick brand.
General Motors announced last week that it plans to produce the world’s first plug-in hybrid SUV, in the form of a new yet-to-be-named Buick crossover. The new model will first be released in 2010 as a gas-powered vehicle available with two sizes of direct injection engines—a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a 3.0-liter V-6.
The plug-in version, planned for 2011, will curiously use a larger 3.6-liter engine.
The company said the new vehicle would appeal to customers who like the Buick Enclave, but want a smaller more fuel-efficient version. GM claims the plug-in version will get double the fuel efficiency of the gas-only version—but specific targets were not provided. Charging the plug-in Buick’s 8-kilowatt hour battery pack—packaged under the cargo floor—is expected to take four to five hours at 110V.
Excitement, But Potential Customer Confusion
The Buick plug-in will use some of the same technology GM is developing for the Chevrolet Volt. For example, it will be powered by a lithium ion battery pack provided by South Korea’s LG Chem. But there will be key differences. Unlike the Volt, a plug-in series hybrid capable of 40 miles of all-electric driving regardless of traveling speed—and exclusively using electricity to power the wheels—the Buick plug-in crossover will take a blended approach in which gasoline and battery power are combined, especially at high speeds. At lower speeds, the Buick plug-in will be capable of all-electric driving for as much as 10 miles, according to GM.
Tom Stephens, GM vice chairman of product development, said that the Buick would be “the company’s first plug-in hybrid.” That claim may confuse some customers, who consider the Volt—due in late 2010—to be a plug-in hybrid because it uses an electric motor and a gasoline engine. GM uses the term “extended-range electric vehicle” for the Volt’s technology, and “plug-in hybrid” for the approach used in the Buick.
To make matters more confusing, the plug-in Buick will also borrow from GM’s “two-mode hybrid technology,” a form of hybrid designed for larger SUVs requiring heavier loads and towing capacity. GM had planned to introduce its plug-in hybrid SUV as a version of the Saturn Vue, which was selling as a “mild hybrid”—yet another flavor of GM hybrid—and which was planned for production also as a “two-mode” hybrid. The hybrid Vue—at one point branded as “Green Line” and then simply as “hybrid”—would have therefore eventually been available with three different forms of gas-electric technology. But all of those plans were jettisoned when GM discontinued its mild hybrid vehicles, and then sold off the Saturn brand.
Top Priority, Again
When General Motors unveiled the plug-in Saturn Vue concept in late 2006, former CEO Rick Wagoner proclaimed, “This is a top priority program for GM.” In July 2009—three years and a bankruptcy later—Stephens sought to reassure green car fans that the program would not die. He said, “I can tell you that I won’t lose one day in terms of customers being able to walk into dealerships and actually purchase a plug-in.” He promised high production numbers and a speedy time to market, now set at 2011.
Stephens made the announcement last week at the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich. He said, “Buick has always been at the forefront of new technology, so it is only fitting that the brand should debut our new plug-in hybrid technology in a beautiful new crossover.”
GM had been using Saturn as the primary brand for its hybrid technology. The switch to Buick is an apparent attempt to find a home for the plug-in SUV, and to redefine Buick for younger customers. “One of the things we wanted to do is bring the age of the Buick customer down, and we thought one of the things associated we could do to do that would be to add this advanced-propulsion technology onto the Buick brand,” said Stephens. According to data from J.D. Power, the average age of Buick buyers last year in the United States was 63, which is 16 years older than the average car buyer.