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GM CEO: Cadillac To Take On Tesla, One Day--With Plug-In Hybrid Sedan, Perhaps?

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Dan Akerson

Dan Akerson

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It looks like the success of the Tesla Model S all-electric luxury sedan may be starting to get under GM's skin.

CEO Dan Akerson told the Detroit News that General Motors will compete with Tesla Motors--"ultimately"--through its Cadillac luxury brand.

But, Akerson said, he remained unconvinced that battery-electric vehicles were "the panacea that I think the American public wants."

2013 Tesla Model S P85 service loaner vehicle [photo: David Noland]

2013 Tesla Model S P85 service loaner vehicle [photo: David Noland]

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That may indicate that GM believes a plug-in hybrid version of its future large Cadillac LTS sedan will be its Tesla Model S competitor.

$30,000 electric Chevrolet?

On Monday, Douglas Parks, the company's vice president of global product programs, told The Wall Street Journal that GM is developing a $30,000 electric car with 200 miles of range.

This past March, Akerson confirmed that GM was working on such a car, suggesting breakthroughs in battery technology were "on the horizon" that would make it possible.

At that price, such a car would more likely be a Chevrolet than a Cadillac. The least expensive compact 2014 Cadillac ATS today starts at about $34,000.

Range anxiety remains

Nonetheless, Akerson suggested that a 200-mile range would not "satisfy the range anxiety that persists," which he called "still a major issue" with buyers.

The solution, he said, remained an onboard generator to provide essentially unlimited range on a mixture of grid electricity and gasoline.

2013 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2012

2013 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2012

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That's the system used by the current Chevrolet Volt, which is likely to be replaced with a new, less expensive model for 2016 or 2017.

GM said last year it planned to downplay conventional hybrids to concentrate on plug-in cars, presumably its Voltec range-extended electric technology as well as battery-electric vehicles.

Moving up past ELR

The upcoming 2014 Cadillac ELR electric coupe will be a low-volume model using the Voltec range-extended electric platform pioneered by the Volt.

Akerson said the ELR is "certainly in the same postal code" as Tesla--a Tesla Model S carries a base price of $69,900 before incentives--but that "now we're going to move up."

That could indicate that GM wants to compete not only with Tesla's upcoming Model E $35,000 car, but also with the higher-end Model S as well.

Cadillac wil offer a new rear-wheel-drive sedan to compete with the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, thought to be called the LTS and scheduled to launch for 2016.

2014 Cadillac ELR winter testing

2014 Cadillac ELR winter testing

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Battery electric vs plug-in hybrid

But the Tesla Model S remains the sole high-end battery-electric sedan in the sector.

Plug-in rivals to the Tesla Model S, including the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid and the plug-in hybrid S-Class just launched, are all plug-in hybrids.

With Cadillac working to compete globally, a plug-in hybrid model of the LTS seems far more likely than a fully electric version.

The Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept, which became the 2013 Cadillac XTS large sedan, was shown as a plug-in hybrid at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show.

Today's XTS, however, uses only gasoline V-6 powertrains; Cadillac's Two-Mode Plug-In Hybrid system never went into production, largely due to its very high cost.

Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept

Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept

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Electric-car experience

In the interview, Akerson claimed that GM would lose less money selling Volts--even at a reduced 2014 price of $35,000--than Tesla would selling Model S cars.

And he sneered at the defunct Fisker Automotive, asking, "Does anyone even remember Fisker?"

With more than 20 years of electric-car development under its belt, it seems General Motors may view Tesla as a genuine competitive threat.

The takeaway would seem to be that GM plans to offer plug-in electric cars that compete on a variety of fronts.

If so, it looks like the first generation of plug-in electric cars--the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Tesla Model S--will be followed by a very interesting second generation, starting in 2016 or so.

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