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Cadillac Developing SRX Plug-In Hybrid

System would differ from Chevy Volt technology.

by on Dec.22, 2010

Cadillac is developing a plug-in hybrid version of its new SRX crossover, sources say.

General Motors’ new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid could soon get a little brother, this time wearing a Cadillac badge.  Make that a big brother, as the maker will likely add a battery-based version of Caddy’s SRX crossover.

Several GM sources tell that a battery-based model is under development and could reach market in the next two to three years as part of a plan to expand Cadillac’s line-up while also positioning the brand as a serious player in advanced – green – technology, a sector where it currently lags many of its import and domestic rivals.

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Two years ago, Cadillac gave a hint of what could come when it unveiled the Converj concept vehicle.  The distinctive little prototype was intended to use the same driveline as the Chevy Volt.  But while there was initially a push to bring the car to market, interest waned as GM managers had to turn their attention, last year, to the company’s desperate financial problems.

Now, however, Caddy  is again looking at its options – and for good reason.  In the mid-2000s, the brand underwent a significant product renaissance, but after the launch of the well-reviewed first-generation CTS sedan things started to go south.  The response was downright hostile to the larger STS sedan and only a bit better for the first version of the SRX.  So, for all intents, Cadillac operated as little more than a two model brand for several years, with only the CTS and massive Escalade generating any volume.

Complicating matters, it largely on the sidelines as its foreign rivals pushed into greener space with an assortment of hybrids and other advanced vehicles.  Lexus now offers four different hybrid models.  Mercedes-Benz is adding hybrids and even launched a fuel cell vehicle in the Southern California market earlier this month.

Caddy did bring out a hybrid Escalade but it is more showpiece than sales generator.

But the maker, sources say, believes it can draw serious numbers with a plug-in hybrid.  For one thing, said a well-placed insider, “People buying a luxury car are less worried about paying a premium for battery technology than someone who has to shell out $42,000 for a Chevy,” referring to the list price of the Volt.

While some of the technology used by the Chevy plug-ins so-called Voltec drivetrain would be shared with a Cadillac SRX plug-in, there will likely be significant technical differences between the two models.

GM prefers to refer to the Chevrolet Volt as an extended-range electric vehicle.  It’s designed to operate almost entirely on electric power, even when its batteries run down.  When Volt’s small four-cylinder gasoline engine fires up its primary duty is to serve as a generator, sending current to the sedan’s two electric motors.  (Under certain high-demand conditions, however, the gas engine can directly provide some torque to help power the vehicle.)

A plug-in Cadillac SRX will be more like the hybrid that GM was developing for its Saturn division, those sources suggest.  It was originally intended for use in the Vue, a vehicle similar in size to the SRX.  The project was scrubbed when General Motors shut down Saturn following its 2009 bankruptcy.

That means the SRX plug-in would rely on pure electric power for an initial period, perhaps 20 miles or so – compared to anywhere from 25 to 50 miles with Volt – then switch to gas power.  At that point, its four-cylinder gas engine would provide the primary power to the crossover’s wheels, with some electric assist, more like a conventional hybrid vehicle.

General Motors officials will not confirm they are working on a Cadillac hybrid, though senior executives, including CEO Dan Akerson and Mark Reuss, president of North American operations, have made no secret of their plan to develop additional plug-ins and extended-range electric models.  A variant of the Volt, dubbed the Opel Ampera, is the first, and will go on sale in Europe later next year.

The strong initial interest in the Chevy Volt is encouraging GM to seek ways to boost first-year production, which had been set at 10,000.  Part of the challenge the company faces is ramping up output of the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack – a bottleneck a number of makers have faced with conventional and more advanced battery-based vehicles.

If anything underscores GM’s expanding interest in electrification it was the announcement, earlier this month, that the maker will hire about 1,000 new engineers and support staff for battery-based programs.

Competition in the emerging market is quickly becoming fierce, even though the current crop of hybrids, plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, only command about 2% of the total U.S. market—and even though skeptics contend the market will take decades to develop, a recent study by J.D. Power and Associates forecasting that all forms of battery vehicles will generate just 7.3% of global car sales by 2020.

The battle is particular fierce between GM and Nissan.  The U.S. maker has scored a number of victories, in recent weeks, Volt being named Green Car of the Year, for example, and Motor Trend Car of the Year.  The Nissan Leaf, however, took honors as European Car of the Year.  Both are vying for the coveted North American Car of the Year trophy.  Due to be announced at the Detroit Auto Show, next month, Hyundai’s Sonata is also in the running.

But there’s an equally bitter rivalry between GM and Toyota, the maker that two years ago knocked GM out of its throne as global auto sales leader.  Earlier this month, GM CEO Akerson took a surprising shot at Toyota’s Prius, the world’s most popular conventional hybrid, describing it as a “geekmobile,” and something he had no interest in driving.

Toyota has its own plans for a plug-in hybrid, though it has pushed the project back from late this year to sometime in 2012 – about the same time it will launch its first new BEV in nearly two decades.

By the middle of this coming decade most major makers, including Ford and Hyundai expect to have both plug-ins and BEVs in their line-up.  But GM, like Nissan, is betting it can score points with a first-mover advantage.

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