General Motors Corp. said Friday that it had reached a preliminary agreement that cleared the way for U.S. regulators to certify the Chevrolet Volt as the first 100-mile-per-gallon car. But the Environmental Protection Agency said testing guidelines hadn't been finalized.
The Volt, an electric vehicle that can be charged at home and has a range-extending gas-powered generator on board, is expected to start selling in late 2010. GM says it will be able to travel 40 miles before the generator kicks in.
Tony Posawatz, 48, vehicle-line director for the Volt in Warren, Mich., said the EPA agreed to a testing method that will produce a rating of at least 100 mpg. In a statement, agency spokeswoman Catherine C. Milbourn said the EPA won't confirm how it gauges fuel economy of plug-in models until testing methodology is finalized. The agency "hopes to have a final policy soon," she said.
Earning a 100-mpg certification would be a huge boost for Detroit-based GM, whose sales of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have slumped this year as gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon and credit became harder to obtain.
"It's a huge milestone to beat 100 mpg. It's bragging rights," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Mass. "To many people, GM is just about gas-guzzling SUVs. They never get credit for fuel economy. If Toyota were doing the Volt, they would be having parades and waving flags."
Toyota Motor Corp.'s hybrid Prius is the highest-rated car on the road today, achieving 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. It has a 1.5-liter gasoline engine, isn't rechargeable at an electric outlet and can drive only 2 miles on its battery, according to the company, which leads global sales in the category.
Like all automakers selling in the U.S., GM must increase the average mileage of the fleet as much as 40% to 35 mpg by 2020 to comply with new federal standards.
The Volt may sell for more than $30,000, said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. The sedan is the centerpiece of a drive by Chief Executive Rick Wagoner to narrow the technology gap with competitors, including Toyota.
For GM to obtain a 100-mpg rating, the EPA will have to develop a new way of measuring fuel efficiency for a car that's likely to rely more heavily on electric than internal-combustion power, GM's Posawatz said. The automaker promised to share mileage data from the Volt's onboard computers to verify real-world performance if the EPA would grant the certification now, he said.
"It's a new process. No one has done a vehicle like this before," Posawatz said. "We would like to have 80% of the people get better than the label."
A vehicle of the Volt's design should be able to exceed 100 mpg in tests, said Michael Duoba, a research engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., and chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers committee trying to develop fuel-economy tests for plug-in cars. Argonne is testing models that use similar technology to make its assessment.
Depending on assumptions about how much gasoline is consumed after the battery loses its charge on the road, the Volt could get 120 mpg to 200 mpg, he said. Modified Prius models, with an electric range of about 10 miles, may have difficulty beating 100 mpg in the same tests, he said.
Toyota may launch a plug-in Prius model for 2010 with an all-electric range of at least 10 miles, spokesman John Hanson said. Chrysler plans its own plug-in electric car for 2010.
"It's too early to say what the overall miles-per-gallon figure is going to be" on the plug-in Prius, Hanson said.
Some experts say the miles-per-gallon measure needs rethinking as automakers move toward electric vehicles.
"Reliance on an mpg standard alone will soon be outdated and will not accurately reflect the need for higher fuel efficiency," Don Foley, executive director of the Progressive Automotive X Prize, said Friday in a statement.
The contest is a $10-million competition to "design, build and bring to market 100-mpge [miles per gallon equivalent] vehicles that people want to buy and that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance."
Organizers of the X Prize have proposed mpge as a new measure of efficiency. Mpge expresses fuel economy in terms of the energy content of a gallon of gasoline. Energy delivered via electrical cord would be converted to the number of gallons of gasoline containing an equivalent amount of energy in order to calculate mpge.
GM, at least so far, is not participating in the competition.