General Motors Develops Hybrid, Hydrogen Strategies

With the GMC Graphyte, General Motors announces it's serious about hybrids. With GM's Sequel, more performance and better range enter the nascent hydrogen fuel-cell market.

Jan. 9—With the GMC Graphyte, General Motors announces it's serious about hybrids. With GM's Sequel, more performance and better range enter the nascent hydrogen fuel-cell market.

Both vehicles will be unveiled today in Detroit, when media previews for the North American International Auto Show begin. One of the world's most influential auto shows, with elaborate booths and multimedia displays, the event will feature 65 introductions of new cars this week.

Some will be production cars, like the 2005 Toyota Avalon sedan. Others are concept cars that foretell forthcoming designs. Others, like the Graphyte and Sequel, are concepts that aren't destined for production but display evolving technology.

Also today, Ford Motor will announce it plans to produce four more hybrid vehicles in the next three years. The availability of the previously announced Mercury Mariner hybrid has been pulled ahead, and it will now go on sale later this year.

Another small SUV that shares its platform with the Ford Escape and Mariner, the Mazda Tribute, will be hybridized in 2007. Then, in 2008, Ford will offer two hybrid sedans, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.

GMC's Graphyte, a four-wheel-drive mid-size sport-utility concept, shows off the two-mode hybrid system that GM announced in partnership with rival DaimlerChrysler last month.

Tom Stephens, GM's vice president of powertrains, described it as offering "guilt-free performance." It promises a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy from its 5.3-liter V-8 gasoline engine, two electric motors and battery pack. The four-wheel-drive 2005 Chevy Tahoe SUV with a 5.3-liter V-8 gets 13 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway.

It's a two-mode system, Stephens said, in that it allows electric propulsion during low-speed and stop-and-go city driving and also helps improve fuel economy at highway speeds. The latter is accomplished, in part, by GM's already-in-use Displacement on Demand (DOD) system that shuts down half of the engine's cylinders when they're not needed.

Toyota and Honda have been selling hybrid cars to U.S. buyers for several years. Waiting lists still exist for the award-winning Toyota Prius, and Honda started selling its third hybrid, an Accord sedan, in December. Ford Motor put its first hybrid, an Escape small SUV, on sale in the fall.

GM now only offers full-size Silverado and Sierra trucks that are very mild hybrids, offering 5 percent to 13 percent fuel-economy gains, according to the EPA. A hybrid Saturn VUE sport-utility and Chevy Malibu sedan arrive in 2006, with the two-mode Tahoe and Yukon after that.

Still, GM isn't behind its rivals, Stephens said. It's just a difference in strategy.

GM wanted to deal with "the highest-fuel-consuming vehicles first" — buses and then full-size pickups.

"Granted, the decisions that we made with our strategy didn't get us the highest miles per gallon and so maybe the perception isn't there," he said at a media briefing in San Francisco. "Our approach will save the most fuel and our approach will, in fact, I think, help the environment the most."

The Graphyte, designed in GM's Coventry, England, studio, probably doesn't look the way the next-generation Tahoes and Yukons will look. However, its smooth sides and 40-degree raked windshield give it an aerodynamic, contemporary presence.

GM, Stephens said, is working on a variety of hybrids, on improving gasoline and diesel engines, on creating more efficient transmissions and on hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

In fuel-cell vehicles, oxygen and hydrogen are used to create electricity with only water vapor as a byproducts.

With the Sequel, GM is hoping for more "The Godfather: Part II" and less "Porky's II: The Next Day."

A sport-utility-shaped vehicle that's about the size of a Cadillac SRX, the Sequel can travel up to 300 miles on its hydrogen. It can reach 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Currently, said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development, the industry standard for fuel-cell cars is 170 to 250 miles of range and a 0-to-60 time of 12 to 16 seconds.

The Sequel follows two other GM hydrogen fuel-cell concepts. The difference is that the Sequel's technology makes it nearly production-ready. GM has said it wants to make fuel-cell vehicles that are equal to an internal-combustion engine using gasoline in terms of durability and performance by 2010.

By then, Burns said, GM will have designed and tested a fuel-cell vehicle "that allows you to have the acceleration, range, high-temperature and low-temperature performance that a customer expects in their vehicles."

Ford also has fuel-cell news. It will announce that it is ready to sell hydrogen internal combustion engine shuttle buses. The state of Florida has said it will buy eight of them.

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