The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has gotten all the attention lately, including a narrow second-place finish in our GreenCarReports 2011 Best Car To Buy award, but General Motors also has a significant hybrid-electric vehicle program.

While its full-size Two-Mode Hybrid trucks have had mixed success, the company’s mild-hybrid Belt-Alternator-Starter system did not do well from 2006 to 2009.

From BAS II to eAssist

But GM is nothing if not dogged, and as we reported more than a year ago, a new and far more powerful generation of the BAS system is under development.

Now, as our colleague Vik Vijayenthiran reports, what used to be called “BAS II”—it has now been re-branded eAssist—will be launched as standard equipment on 2012 Buick LaCrosse four-cylinder models.

Will eAssist fare better than the ill-fated first generation? We can’t help but think it will.

Leaky battery packs

First, it doesn't use the nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for the first BAS cars that included cells from Cobasys.

While the packs performed as specified, a manufacturing defect that might have caused cell leakage into the pack itself was uncovered after thousands of packs had been built and installed in cars.

That meant that GM had to recall roughly 9,000 mild-hybrid Saturns fitted with first-generation system, both Saturn Vue Green Line crossovers, plus a handful of just-launched Saturn Aura Green Line models.

That significantly delayed the rollout of the Aura hybrid, plus a totally redesigned Vue model, along with the more important Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, which was projected to sell in higher volume than either niche-market Saturn model. It also impacted the previous-generation Buick LaCrosse EcoHybrid, the only hybrid model GM has sold in China to date.

Fast forward to 2012

Fast forward through collapse, bankruptcy, painful restructuring, and even GM’s initial public offering this week, and look ahead to the 2012 model year.

The eAssist system (nee BAS II) uses a more powerful electric motor—up to 20 kilowatts vs. 5 kW—and a larger lithium-ion battery pack with cells from Hitachi. Apparently unlike Cobasys, Hitachi should have pretty good quality control.

And more than that, the U.S. is now on its way to corporate fuel-economy averages well above 30 miles per gallon, which will require some proportion of every carmaker’s fleet to be hybrid.

Buick eAssist Hybrid Technology

Buick eAssist Hybrid Technology

Competition: smaller, more efficient engines

That means that gasoline engines will get smaller and more efficient, and be mated with far more thrifty transmissions. In the end, that combination was part of what hurt the Malibu Hybrid.

By the time the recalls had been dealt with and GM could build enough hybrid models, it also offered a Malibu with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

That combination gave almost as good fuel economy at a base price a couple of thousand dollars lower, since it didn’t need an expensive battery pack and electric motor.

We tend to think the prospects for mild hybrid systems—from Honda, as well as GM—are not particularly bright, since they don’t offer the ability for drivers to run at least some distance entirely on electric power.

2010 Buick LaCrosse

2010 Buick LaCrosse

NOT calling it a "hybrid"

That’s a distinctive driving feature that none of GM’s first-generation BAS vehicles offered. As fully electric cars start to show up at dealerships, we think at least some electric running ability will only become a stronger selling point.

But we also suspect that if it’s fitted as standard on four-cylinder Buick LaCrosse models and NOT called “hybrid,” the eAssist technology will marry the benefits of start-stop systems and a bit of electric boost in a way that consumers may accept.

Early in 2009, GM spokesman Brian Corbett confirmed volume goals for the new system, perhaps reaching the vicinity of 100,000 units a year by the 2014 model year.

2010 Buick LaCrosse

2010 Buick LaCrosse

Would you buy one?

So would YOU buy a Buick LaCrosse with eAssist if it offered better fuel economy, an engine that seamlessly switched off when the car was stopped, and maybe slightly better acceleration from electric boosting?

Or is the very notion of anything hybrid anathema to you? Weigh in by giving your thoughts in the Comments box below.