Gm Envisions Design for the E-flex

By: Anthony Fontanelle

The General Motors Corp. thinks it can clear technological barriers involved in creating a plug-in electric car for the mass market. Critics said that the automaker's success hinges on whether it can produce battery to make car appealing to the masses.

Now the pool of engineers and designers behind the automaker's Chevy Volt and other environmentally-friendly vehicles is going all out to make sure the cars' visual appeal blends with its ultra-modern magnetism. "GM is once more a design-driven company, so it's only natural that design keeps pace with the engineering development of the E-flex system," Vice Chairman Bob Lutz recently wrote in a blog on GM's Web site.

The E-Flex is the powertrain system behind a new generation of electrically driven vehicles GM intends to manufacture by the end of the decade. The system matches battery power with several different energy sources. The largest American automaker's success is anchored on the development of a lithium ion battery with the durability, endurance, and affordability to make the car appealing to average consumers. While hundreds of engineers and a number of battery suppliers undertake that job, Lutz said that GM's top designers will dig in as well.

The Detroit automaker has opened a design studio inside its Warren Technical Center campus to fine-tune the design of the Volt and vehicles built on the same architecture. Bob Boniface, the GM director of advanced design, will lead the design work on the Volt. He was lead designer for the Chevy Camaro concept vehicle and the hydrogen fuel cell Sequel concept vehicle. Boniface previously worked for DaimlerChrysler's Advanced Product Design Studio, managing the architectural design of Chrysler minivans.

Lutz said that the exterior styling of the Volt is 90 percent complete and will include all the key design cues of the Volt concept GM showed off in January at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The Volt's front end, with its brawny face, wide bumper and narrow headlights separated by the narrow dual port grille, will be slightly less dramatic, he said, to accommodate safety regulations while fitting with GM's global architecture for small cars.

"This vehicle is so important that it is getting maximum attention from all of the top Product Development leadership and from the senior people in powertrain," Lutz noted. "A Volt leadership team meets every two weeks to hammer out glitches and keep up momentum on the project."

The steps taken by GM are not that unusual. The design of the in connection with the company's lineup would also reflect the same. But the level of detail GM is making public is out of the ordinary. GM's strategy aims to cultivate an Earth-friendly image at a time when the environment is a hot-button concern, while discrediting critics who have dismissed the Volt as a publicity feat.

Lutz said last month that GM had probably spent "at this point" $100 million, "but ramping up very fast as it becomes a high-priority product for launch in 2010." GM has spent about $4 billion on advanced propulsion budget the past five or six years, he said.

GM must walk a fine line in designing the Volt, said Rebecca Lindland, a Global Insight analyst in Lexington, Mass. History has reflected that hybrid shoppers gravitate toward distinct vehicles. The Toyota Prius hybrid, for one, looks unlike any other vehicle on the road. It is outselling the Camry hybrid more than three to one this year.

The Volt would not succeed unless it is visually appealing, Lindland said. Lutz has promised that the Volt would not "look like a science experiment." Hybrid buyers, Lindland said, "really want people to know what good people they are."

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