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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Buick developing hybrid model using Volt technology

DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- General Motors Co. is developing a Buick brand car using the Chevrolet Volt's plug-in hybrid technology as the automaker expands its line of fuel-efficient vehicles, according to two people familiar with the project.

Designers and engineers are working on a version of the plug-in hybrid Opel Ampera, which was modeled after the Volt and scheduled for sale in Europe this year, with a Buick grille and front-end styling, said the people, who didn't want to be named because the plans are private.

Sales of the Buick version would begin in 2013 if it gets final approval, the people said.

The challenge for GM will be making the car different enough and adding amenities to justify selling it for a higher price under the Buick brand, said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., a consulting firm in Birmingham, Mich.

The Volt sells for $41,000 before a federal tax incentive of $7,500.

Reducing weight

"The Volt is already well-equipped," Hall said in an interview. "It's missing power seats and that's about it. What else can you add to make it a premium car?"

The plan could work if GM equips the Buick version with expensive advanced materials that reduce weight and improve the car's electric-only range or driving performance, Hall said.

GM CEO Dan Akerson has said he plans to sell a car using GM's Voltec gasoline-electric drive system among each of the automaker's four brands.

He told analysts at a conference in January that GM must continue developing new technology to prepare for higher fuel prices.

Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman, declined to comment on a possible plug-in hybrid Buick and reiterated Akerson's comments that GM wants to do more with its Voltec technology.

"We have talked about a variety of ways to leverage the Voltec drive system," Peterson said.

Buick, Opel

The Buick version of the car may not be drastically different than the Ampera or the Volt because GM wants to begin sales quickly, the people said.

GM already shares vehicles between Buick and Opel, with the new Buick Regal midsize sedan and the Opel Insignia featuring similar styling and platform.

If the new car is too similar to the Volt, some consumers may see it as only a look-alike version of another vehicle in GM's line, a practice referred as "badge engineering," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, a research firm based in Lexington, Mass.

"Why are they badge engineering?" Lindland said. "The Ampera really is just the Volt."

GM is looking at putting the Voltec system in other future models, people familiar with the matter have said.

Using the system in larger models is a challenge because they need more battery power, which adds weight to the car and reduces the vehicle's pure electric driving range, Hall said.

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