General Motors could have an “affordable” electric car on the road as soon as 2010.

A concept model, which GM will unveil at Frankfurt next month, will start real-life durability and quality testing at the beginning of next year.

Chief engineer Frank Weber said that full winter and summer testing, along with crash and safety tests, would take around two years.

He stressed that the car giant was working “full steam” to get the car into production and had some 600 engineers worldwide dedicated to developing GM’s E-Flex system which will power the vehicle.

The car will be based on a “global compact” vehicle – that means Astra-size – and will be powered entirely by an electric motor cutting fuel running costs four or five-fold.

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The Frankfurt concept further develops the E-Flex strategy first seen in the Chevrolet Volt at the Detroit show at the beginning of this year. E-Flex still uses an internal combustion engine – but only as a back up to run a generator to charge the car’s lithium-ion battery when it runs low.

This means the battery’s normal 40 mile range can be extended to nearly 500 miles without a fuel fill-up or a battery recharge.

While current hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic employ a battery-powered electric motor to supplement or complement a petrol engine, the E-Flex runs only on electric power until the battery runs down.

Only then does the internal combustion engine kick in to feed the onboard generator. Energy normally lost in braking also is recaptured and sent to the battery which can also be recharged by plugging into an electrical outlet. Full charge time is three hours.

While the Volt used a one-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine as a back-up, the Frankfurt car will feature a 1.3-litre bio-diesel engine – or ‘range extender’ as GM likes to call it.

“This has extremely high torque characteristics,” said Weber, “similar to what you would get from a V6 engine and it is available from zero revs.”

This would give 100mph (160km/h) performance capability and a 0-60mph (96km/h) time of less than nine seconds.

The E-Flex system of the future will also be able to run on ethanol or operate with a hydrogen fuel cell ‘range-extender’, added Weber. It uses common drive components so it can be adapted to a variety of chassis and vehicles.

In terms of running costs he said that the E-Flex would work out at EUR1.50 (GBP1.07) per 100km (62miles) against EUR6.84 (GBP4.90) with a conventional diesel engine car.

This is work in progress, however. According to Weber, the system works in computer simulations, but the real test will come when the trial vehicles take to the road next year.

“We have to see how the battery performs in very hot and very cold conditions and what sort of drain is put on it by other systems such as heating and air conditioning, audio systems, lights and windscreen wipers.

“But we are not looking at this essentially as a long distance vehicle. This is for people with daily and relatively short commutes although there is the ability to go longer distances when necessary.”

How affordable will it be? Benoit Schlumberger, product planning director for global compact vehicles, said: “Obviously there is a lot of development cost and there will be a price premium on these vehicles, but we are expecting to sell a large number in China, for example. The environmental challenge there is greater than most other areas of the world but it is where interest in the E-Flex system is developing fastest.”

In the bigger scheme of things, E-Flex saves the environment some 4.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide that might otherwise be emitted into the air in a year, GM said.

“There is a real move in the industry towards finding alternative fuels,” added Schlumberger, “and for my part I want to leave the planet in better shape for my grandchildren.

“To that end we need to find ways of displacing conventional petrol and diesel fuels. Whatever alternatives you look at they all point towards the electrification of vehicles. The price of oil is now up at $US70 a barrel and we are using it at a rate of 1,000 barrels a minute. Prices in Europe alone have risen 20% in the past two years.

“We know this is not sustainable.”