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]

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

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

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

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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