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Electric Chevy Volt debuts with lofty ambitions

At its centennial party, GM unveils the production Chevy Volt, an electric car that can reach 100 mph and be driven for less than a dollar a day.

The Chevy Volt was the centerpiece of General Motors' centennial celebration on Tuesday with executives heralding the electric car as the first step in the reinvention of the automobile.

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner introduced the plug-in hybrid car in Detroit, showing a production version with a different look than the concept car rolled out in January 2007.

Chevy Volt production car debut.
A front view of the production electric Chevy Volt shown publicly on Tuesday. Click image to enlarge. GM

The company also released photos and a number of technical details, including a projected top speed of 100 mph and two in-car touch-screen controls. The five-door sedan, which GM calls an extended-range electric vehicle, is scheduled to be available for purchase in the U.S. in late 2010.

"The Volt symbolizes General Motors' commitment to the future, just the kind of technical innovation our industry needs to respond to tomorrow's energy and environmental challenges," Wagoner said in a speech to a gathering of partners, customers, journalists, and employees.

The car will be able to drive 40 miles on its lithium-ion batteries. An internal combustion engine--able to run on gasoline or E85, a blend of ethanol and gas--will extend the car's driving range to hundreds of miles.

Wagoner said that the auto industry is in the early days of a transition from mechanically-driven to electrically-driven vehicles, a trend that financially ailing GM intends to lead.

High-profile design guru and vice chairman Robert Lutz drove the Volt onto the stage before journalists swarmed to get a closer look at the car.

Chevy Volt production back
Another image of the Chevy Volt released by GM at its debut. Click on image to enlarge. GM

In the GM FastLane blog, Lutz said the Volt's introduction on Tuesday should quiet naysayers who said the Volt program was "vaporware" or GM "green-washing" meant to improve its public image.

Lutz also addressed the design changes, which were meant to make the car more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient.

When photos of the production Volt were captured and circulated last week, many commenters seemed disappointed, complaining that the Volt resembled existing fuel-efficient sedans.

"I submit that while it's typically design that makes an emotional connection with buyers, in this case, the Volt is going to be bought for emotional reasons, but it will be for the emotion tied to the technology contained therein," Lutz wrote.

He said the Volt will help reverse GM's fortunes and, if accepted by consumers, make an impact on society's concerns over energy security and the environment.

Tech specs
Most Americans will be able to drive their daily commutes entirely on the batteries, charging them at night for about 80 cents with electricity priced at 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, according to GM. It takes about eight hours to charge via a household 120 volt outlet and three hours on a 240 volt outlet.

Chevy Volt interior picture
A look at the interior controls of the Chevy Volt. Click image to enlarge. GM

GM estimates that it will cost about 2 cents per mile to drive while under battery power. By contrast, it calculates that people pay 12 cents per mile for gasoline at $3.60 a gallon.

Overall, GM figures that a Volt will cost one-sixth what it cost to operate a gasoline car. Charging the car daily will consume less annually than running a home's refrigerator and freezer units, the company said.

GM has also sought to make the interior fit with the car's high-tech image.

There will be two touch-sensitive screens, as well as a configurable liquid crystal instrument display.

A 7-inch touch-sensitive liquid crystal display provides navigation, and a touch screen controls in-car climate and "infotainment." There is an optional navigation system with an on-board hard drive for maps and music.

The Volt's 220 lithium-on batteries can store 16 kilowatt-hours of electricity and deliver the equivalent of 150 horsepower and a quiet ride.

Update at 2:45 p.m. PT with additional technical details: The projected acceleration is zero to 60 miles per hour in 9 seconds, according to GM representatives. The battery life--a significant question facing all new lithium-ion battery vehicles--will be 150,000 miles or ten years. The Volt will come in a variety of colors.