Is the Public Ready for Plug-in Vue?

By: Anthony Fontanelle

Automakers are scrambling to develop the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid vehicles as the demand for less environment-damaging vehicles increases. Although Chevrolet and Toyota are receiving more attention than other automakers, another General Motors brand is looking to become the first to offer PHEVs to the auto buying public.

Saturn, the fastest growing General Motors brand, has succeeded in capturing the attention of auto buyers as they produce the most European American cars. With their tie-up with Germany's Opel, another General Motors marque, Saturn has come up with a revitalized lineup. In fact, the new Aura was named earlier this year as the North American Car of the Year. But in terms of eco-friendliness, the Vue takes the cake among Saturn auto models.

The redesigned Saturn Vue was redesigned with the help of Opel. Initially, the Vue will be offered with a Green Line trim, or a hybrid variant. But by 2009, the General Motors marque is expected to market a plug-in version of the Vue. The announcement from Saturn means that a plug-in Vue will enter the market before the Chevy Volt or the Toyota Plug-in HV.

Currently, the Vue Green Line is equipped with General Motors' two-mode hybrid system. This hybrid powertrain allows the Vue to consume less fuel thus producing less greenhouse gases compared to its conventional gasoline-only variant.

The plug-in Vue is expected to have a bigger battery pack which will allow the vehicle to run on electricity alone for longer distances. The expectation for the Volt in terms of cruising range for battery power alone is 40 miles. Saturn though is still yet to announce their expectations for the plug-in Vue.

With the European styling of the new Vue which shows in every styling cue including the and its apparent fuel economy, it can be foreseen that it will generate more income for the Saturn brand. One issue that Saturn faces is how the auto buying public will welcome PHEVs. The automaker should also consider whether the abundance of PHEVs will affect the grid.

According to a study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the widespread use of PHEVs will significantly cut down the amount of greenhouse gas produced by American motorists. This potential to cut down emission is enough for many auto buyers to buy PHEVs.

The widespread use of these vehicles though can also affect the grid since these vehicles will be using up huge amount of power from the grid. Mike Omotoso, a senior manger for J.D. Power and Associates, has this to say: "We haven't looked at that sort of extreme scenario in terms of that level of volume for plug-ins, but the increased demand would possibly put a strain on the grid - especially in places like California that are already under strain some times of the year, like in peak summer periods with everyone using their air-conditioning."

With that in mind, the widespread use of PHEVs can result in an energy crisis. "So you could have possible power outages," said Omotoso. "Or they would raise the price to a level where only wealthier consumers would be able to afford to have a plug-in hybrid."

The electric industry is more optimistic though. Jim Owen of the Edison Electric Institute argued: "The way it works is, you come home at night, and you plug your car into a conventional socket. And at night, when the demand on the electric power system is at its most modest, everybody's recharging their car for the next day."

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