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Plans for Buick “Volt” Not Yet Locked in Stone

GM sources deny a Buick version of Opel Ampera is on tap.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Some reports say Buick will get a version of the Opel Ampera plug-in, but sources say the brand will likely have to wait - then get a more distinctive variant of the Volt-based plug-in.

Not long ago written off for dead, the Buick brand is staging a remarkable recovery and, so far this year has outsold Lexus and come close to tackling BMW.  No wonder General Motors is rushing to expand Buick’s relatively modest line-up.

Could a plug-in hybrid be in the works?  That’s been the subject of some intense speculation in automotive and media circles, with some reports suggesting that the brand will soon get a version of the Chevrolet Volt – or more precisely, a version of the Opel Ampera, itself the restyled version of the Volt being launched by GM’s European subsidiary.

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Several well-placed sources confirmed that is one of the possibilities under consideration – and according to one of those, there are “a slew of opportunities we’re looking at.”  But don’t expect to see a Buick plug-in rolling into showrooms anytime soon, if the project even happens, those sources stress.  There are a variety of factors that will influence where GM next rolls out a product using the so-called Voltec drivetrain shared by Volt and Ampera.

The likelihood of additional models does seem certain, especially in light of the comments GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson made at an industry gathering, this past January.  He did confirm another version of the Chevy Volt is under development, suggesting it will have a crossover-style body – as opposed to the current hatchback – and will “probably” reach market “in the 2012 or ’13 timeframe.”

Akerson also suggested “We want electric cars for all four (surviving North American) brands….at least one model in every brand.”

But those sources say that refers to a variety of different forms of electric propulsion, from the eAssist system being introduced by Buick all the way up to fully battery-powered vehicles.

What the sources rule out – for now, anyway – is using the Voltec drivetrain in a GMC model.

Several factors will influence the speed at which GM does expand the use of its new plug-in technology – which the company prefers to call an extended-range electric vehicle drivetrain, since the wheels are, under almost all circumstances driven by electric motors.

For one thing, there’s the market acceptance of the Volt itself.  So far, GM has yet to deliver even 1,000, though that reflects the slow ramp-up of production more than potential demand, one executive stressed.  The maker had hoped to build 10,000 this year, 45,000 in 2012, but Akerson has been pressing to get the numbers up more quickly.

“And that’s a concern because we have to make sure we can get the components we need,” asserted an insider.  Production of electrified vehicles is expanding rapidly, but sources of batteries, motors and other components are struggling to keep up.

Compounding the situation is the crisis in Japan.  At least one major source of conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries was severely damaged by the country’s huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  The Volt used Korean-made lithium-ion batteries, but it shares other components, some Japanese-made, that could be in short supply for some time to come.

Eventually, if demand really does support GM’s high hopes for the Chevrolet Volt, don’t be surprised to see the underlying technology show up in the Buick – and Cadillac – product portfolios, confirms a source.  But by then GM may well likely opt for a much more distinctive shape than simply re-badging the Opel Ampera.

Also expect to see a more upscale interior reflecting Buick’s luxury aspirations.

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