Is General Motors Having an Electrification Renaissance?

With regards to newly revealed electrified vehicles, has 2015 been General Motors’ year to shine?

Since January the Detroit-based automaker has revealed four new electrified benchmarks – one a second-generation 50-mile range extended-range EV, one a mainstream 200-mile pure EV, another an all-new 47 mpg hybrid, another a luxury over 30-mile range plug-in hybrid.

Each one of these arguably raises the bar in its respective categories. That is, each sets a new standard or vies closely against standards for four different types of electrified vehicle, and GM indicates more is in store.

What will come next after the Chevrolet Volt, Chevrolet Bolt, Malibu Hybrid, and Cadillac CT6 PHEV is an open question, but no other automaker this year has swung quite as hard for the bleachers, and this appears quite the turnabout, or is it?

Electrification Agenda

Despite what critics and even some supporters have said they suspected, GM is working some well-kept secret of a plan to electrify its products.

Its goal is to go well beyond relatively lukewarm sales and market acceptance suffered during the beginning few years of its more-recent electrified offerings.

In Detroit this January when the Volt and Bolt were revealed, we asked Executive Chief Engineer for Electric Vehicles Pam Fletcher if GM really has an “electrification strategy?”

GM predicted in 2013 it was developing a 200-mile range EV but few saw the Bolt coming when revealed alongside the Volt in January. It’s been confirmed for production, is expected after incentives to cost around $30,000.

GM predicted in 2013 it was developing a 200-mile range EV but few saw the Bolt coming when revealed alongside the Volt in January. It’s been confirmed for production, is expected after incentives to cost around $30,000.

It’s not like there was no reason for doubt, after all. A couple years ago GM had demoted the Volt to “niche,” it was missing opportunities with its Spark EV holed up in California and Oregon, and its answer to the hybrid Camry, Accord, and Fusion were eAssist mild hybrids.

SEE ALSO: How Committed is GM To Electrification?

But with the “largest battery lab in North America” and R&D taking place under cover around the world by this company with over 200,000 employees, GM has maintained it was committed, and will be into the future.

“Yes,” said Fletcher with a smile. GM is working a plan to electrify the automobile.

Can you tell us more about it? — knowing the answer that would be next.

“No,” she said laughing. Absolutely not.

In New York this month she was again smiling as she spoke of GM’s “electrification trifecta” which now included the estimated 47-mpg Malibu Hybrid, and which would soon be joined by the Chinese-rated 37-mile EV range CT6 PHEV since shown in Shanghai.

Despite what looked like a tepid commitment as recently as a year ago, it appears GM wasn’t kidding.

Actually, despite Internet commenters who make it their business to pile it on GM for its track record and perceived foibles, GM has said it wasn’t kidding all along.

In November 2012 now CEO and then Senior VP of Global Product Development Mary Barra had said by 2017 GM expects to be producing a half-million electrified vehicles annually.

GM co-developed the Malibu Hybrid from the time it began work on the second-generation Volt. Its 47 mpg estimate would nearly tie the Accord Hybrid, and it tops hybrids from Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia by 5 mpg. Its system could be utilized in plug-in and regular hybrids across GM’s lines, if GM so chose. Question is, will it? And if so, how soon?

GM co-developed the Malibu Hybrid from the time it began work on the second-generation Volt. Its 47 mpg estimate would essentially tie the Accord Hybrid, and it tops hybrids from Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia by 5 mpg. Its system could be utilized in plug-in and regular hybrids across GM’s lines, if GM so chose. Question is, will it? And if so, how soon?

“I want to state clearly, here and now, that a major focus of GM’s electrification strategy will center on the plug,” said Barra at the Electrification Experience in San Francisco three-and-a-half years ago.

That was a five-year forward-looking statement, and at the time it was said eAssist mild hybrids would comprise a good portion of “some form of electrification” but the 2016 Malibu’s hybrid system wasn’t revealed then, either.

With four bar-raising cars revealed in the past four months, including the far-better hybrid architecture that can be full hybrid or turned into plug-in, is GM now hitting stride?

“We think the plug offers a unique opportunity to change the way people commute,” said Barra back in 2012. “That’s why I am proud to say that plug-based solutions will play a significant role in our technology portfolio going forward … Traditional hybrid technology is important, of course. But we think plug-in technology will play an increasingly important role in the years to come, and that’s where a significant part of our focus will be.”

Who Revived The Electric Car?

As for “who killed the electric car,” it was GM according to the documentary of the same title, and which added fuel to GM’s desire to vindicate itself.

“Revenge of the Electric Car” followed crediting GM with the Volt, along with others in bringing production all-electric and plug-in hybrids back and reviving the species almost gone extinct.

Some credit Tesla more, and to be sure Tesla’s Roadster – and the Toyota Prius – were credited by former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz as goading GM to push the Volt toward the display stand at the 2007 Detroit auto show and then into series production.

GM once crushed EV1s in Arizona and it's had to come out from those dark days. To detractors, the company has yet more to prove.

GM once crushed EV1s in Arizona and it’s had to come out from those dark days. To detractors, the company has yet more to prove.

Tesla with its Model S, pending Model X, Gigafactory, Superchargers and more is still a comparatively pure and focused force pushing for electrification. But GM – despite paying the bills with record truck profits and developing high-horsepower gas sports cars – has played its more conservative sustainability hand consistently and has been busy in its own right.

It started with the Volt which was tripped out of the starting gate. The car became a lightning rod with some who seemingly loved to hate it, and others who just loved it, period.

“And it’s still here!” said Fletcher in January this year at the generation-two debut exclaiming GM did not kill off the Volt as some feared it might, but improved it and took the PR beating besides.

And the Volt has surely paid some dues. Having done so, and after selling over 77,000 since December 2010 – far fewer than estimates initially projected – it will be the first plug-in car that’s gone through one complete product life cycle.

The replacement is due this summer and GM says it does have a better marketing budget reserved for it this time around.

It's head Chevrolet marketer Steve Majoros' job to help make the slogan behind him true for the 2016 Volt. The company stopped advertising gen-one outside of California and tech events where people were perceived ready to comprehend and embrace it. The new car is hoped to appeal to a broader audience. Social media-based and other communications strategies are in the works.

The Volt promises 50 miles EV range – more than double competitive, but larger PHEVs – and 41 mpg on gas. It’s head Chevrolet marketer Steve Majoros’ job to help make the slogan behind him true for the 2016 Volt. The company stopped advertising gen-one outside of California and tech events where people were perceived ready to comprehend and embrace it. The new car is hoped to appeal to a broader audience. Social media-based and other communications strategies are in the works.

And it’s starting to look like GM’s plan is unfolding, what ever it may specifically be.

The gen-two Volt’s drive unit – electrified transmission – has been revised to make it compatible – the former one wasn’t – to graft into other models, with the Malibu Hybrid being the first of potentially more hybrids in different shapes and sizes.

SEE ALSO: Here’s Why The 2016 Malibu Hybrid Could Launch GM’s New Hybrid Era

This follows through on what had been said in January 2014, when things looked still uninspiring. Then, GM’s Kevin Kelly, manager, Electric Vehicle and Hybrid Communications held the line.

“Gen two of our E-REV technology is far under development and so we’ll have more to say about that,” he said. “I can’t tell you when, but we’ll have more to say about that. Rest assured we are committed to the technology.”

Data and innovations developed from the Volt will lead to more, he had said.

“The technology is vital to us, but the technology that’s in the Volt has already paved the way for us to do things with Spark EV [and other cars pending],” said Kelly who mentioned hardware, software, algorithms, and more that were pioneered with the Volt.

What’s Next?

Whether GM can keep up the pace is anyone’s guess but the competition doesn’t sleep either, and global pressures conspire to push it and all others.

Accusations remain that automakers are only doing just enough to stay ahead of regulations.

Automakers cite challenges limiting them to the pace they’ve been able to run.

Whatever is true, GM is known to keep its cards close to its chest. Closer than Mercedes-Benz, for example, which up and announced 10 new plug-in cars will be here by 2017.

GM by contrast meant the Bolt to be a complete surprise out of left field – or rather Australia – but a GM employee blew the secret the weekend prior to its January reveal. Also, key details about the Volt and CT6 PHEV were unknown until GM chose to disclose them, and few saw the Malibu Hybrid coming.

Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen says the 335-horsepower CT6 plug-in hybrid will get 37 miles (60km) on the Chinese test cycle, which is similar to the liberal EU cycle. Its battery is a reconfigured 18.4-kwh unit from the 2016 Volt and is double the size of other luxury PHEVs.

Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen says the 335-horsepower CT6 plug-in hybrid will get 37 miles (60km) on the Chinese test cycle, which is similar to the liberal EU cycle. Its battery is a reconfigured 18.4-kwh unit from the 2016 Volt and is double the size found in other luxury PHEVs.

What we do know is GM has said it wants half a million electrified cars by 2017. It has in quick succession shown new competitive products and says at the same time this is not all we’ll see.

Or, perhaps in the ebb and flow of automakers’ productivity, GM’s latest spurt of benchmarks is just a random fluke? Maybe we’ll soon hear of a next-step forward from Ford, or BMW, or Tesla, or someone else?

And it remains true GM has had a checkered track record in the eyes of critics while it has insisted it’s managed its portfolio against cost and marketing constraints known most clearly to it.

There are more unknowns than knowns, but GM is at the moment looking pretty solid.