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Toyota and GM set for plug-in power play

Cop that: GM chairman Dan Akerson climbs aboard a Chev Volt ahead of his blast for Washington lawmakers.

GM’s Volt and Toyota’s Plug-in Prius to face off in California freeway free-for-all

31 Jan 2012

THE car-pool lanes of Californian freeways are set to become the new environmental battleground for automotive giants General Motors and Toyota, with both companies securing special green sticker status for their latest plug-in petrol-electric models.

GM has modified its Chevrolet Volt range-extender hatchback for cleaner petrol-mode emissions to help it qualify for the Californian Air Resources Board’s green sticker that enables drivers to use the so-called high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on freeways from this year, regardless of the number of passengers.

Toyota’s new Plug-in Prius, which is scheduled to arrive in Californian showrooms within weeks, also qualifies for access to the lanes, which means drivers can bypass many Los Angeles peak-hour traffic jams.

Unfortunately for drivers of older Volts and standard Prius hybrids, the lanes are off limits under the new rules that came into play on January 1.

So far, the revised Volt and Plug-in Prius are the only vehicles to make the grade for green stickers, although a number of pure-electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Tesla Roadster, and Honda’s super-clean CNG-powered Civic GX, qualify for a separate white sticker that also allows access to the transit lanes.

 center imageLeft: Chevrolet Volt. Below: Toyota Plug-in Prius.

The qualification also means a $US1500 ($A1415) state tax rebate for buyers of the Volt and Plug-in Prius, on top of up to $US7500 ($A7075) in federal tax breaks.

The Californian rules are part of the Golden State’s aggressive carrot-and-stick approach to the switch to low-emissions vehicles, with legislators last week ruling that close to one-sixth of all new light vehicles must be zero-emissions by 2025.

A further 10 other American states are expected to fall into line with California, which itself accounts for almost one in 10 vehicle sales in the US.

So far, GM has failed to achieve its sales targets for Volt, selling 7571 of the ground-breaking cars across the US in 2011 – nearly a quarter of them in California.

Automotive News reports that many Chevrolet dealers are knocking back their full allocation of Volts, especially after reports surfaced of an investigation by road safety officials into a fire caused by fluids leaking from lithium-ion batteries ruptured in a side-impact pole test.

The negative publicity forced GM onto the front foot, modifying crash protection around the underfloor battery pack, launching a new advertising campaign and sending GM chairman and CEO Dan Akerson to Washington to give an impassioned defence of the car before a US House subcommittee.

Mr Akerson said GM did not design the Volt to become a political punching bag, and that the events had cast “an undeserved, damaging light on a promising new American technology”.

Apart from modifying the crash safety protection of the Volt, GM has also improved the tailpipe emissions by adding a secondary air-injection pump to the catalytic converter of the 1.4-litre petrol engine.

While the modification has no effect on the fuel-efficiency or driving range of the Volt, it cuts the amount of noxious emissions when running in petrol-engine mode.

The Volt’s petrol engine only kicks in once the plug-in 16kWh battery is depleted. The car can run on the electric motor for up 80km on a full charge, with the petrol engine extending the range to more than 500km.

The Volt will be launched in Australia by Holden late this year, priced from about $60,000.

Toyota’s rival Plug-in Prius can run longer in all-electric mode than the standard Prius – about 23km – before the 1.8-litre petrol engine kicks in for an extended ranged of more than 700km.

The latest Prius, which adds a bigger battery and plug-in charging facility so owners can top up the batteries from a power point, will be rolled out across 14 US states initially before a full national release in 2013.

Although the Plug-in Prius is also expected to go on sale in Australia, Toyota is yet to reveal local launch timing or pricing.

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