General Motors Europe has confirmed to just-auto that it is considering leasing the lithium ion batteries in its Chevrolet Volt/Opel Flextreme electric cars, thereby solving a number of issues that would otherwise significantly slow their launch.

Due to the high cost of battery technology, a GM Europe spokesman acknowledged, however, that there would still be a significant price premium on the vehicles when they are eventually put into production.

“Although the Opel Flextreme will be of Astra/Zafira size, it will retail for a car of Vectra size,” the spokesman said. Currently, the Opel Astra’s starting price is around EUR17,000 in Germany, whilst the Vectra starts at EUR22,500.

The Chevrolet Volt electric car was unveiled to a massive fanfare at the Detroit motor show last January and subsequently became one of the most talked-about concept cars of 2007. This is not least because of GM’s bullish claims about how quickly it can bring the car to the mass market.

At the Frankfurt show last September, GM showed a variant of the Volt, this one called the GM Flextreme. Both cars are equipped with GM’s E-flex system. Classed as ‘series hybrids’, their primary energy source is a plug-in lithium ion battery, which can power the car for up to 55km (about 32 miles).

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The cars are also equipped with conventional internal combustion engines (ICE) – a one-litre flex-fuel bioethanol/petrol unit in the Volt and a 1.3-litre turbodiesel in the Flextreme. Unlike ‘parallel hybrids’ that are on sale at the moment – such as the Toyota Prius – whose internal combustion engine (ICE) actually powers the wheels, the ICE in GM’s cars is connected only to the battery which it recharges, and never powers the car directly.

GM has long talked of an “internal target” of 2010 for the launch of this range of cars, which would be a real coup if achieved. However, a number of major issues sit between the concept cars that exist today and putting them into mass production.

Not least is a host of problems associated with their lithium ion batteries, including cost, reliability, safety and size. Many consider these issues insurmountable in the timeframe that GM has specified.

If GM were to sell the cars but lease the batteries, at least this would allow it to more tightly control and monitor battery usage for testing purposes, and make constant improvements to the battery as the technology evolves.

It would also bring down the cost of the car significantly, otherwise it would either be prohibitively expensive for the consumer to buy, or crippling unprofitable for GM to subsidise, if sold outright with first-generation batteries.

Other potential barriers to take-up of electric cars include the absence of a public plug-in recharging system in Europe and possible consumer resistance to plug-in cars.

Despite criticism from certain rival manufacturers that plug-in electric cars do not make sense in Europe if the electricity is drawn from coal-fired power stations, GM is standing by its strategy, insisting that these cars will emit just 40g/km CO2 according to official test cycles.

Rebecca Wright

See also:

FRANKFURT SHOW: GM shows ‘Flextreme’ green MPV concept

FRANKFURT PREVIEW: GM eyes “affordable” electric by 2010