At GM, Dreams of an Electric Cadillac
Despite opposition from the Treasury Dept. and others, some GM execs
still want to put the Chevy Volt engine in a luxury vehicle
By David Welch
The Cadillac driver is hardly the target audience that springs to mind
for electric cars. Battery-powered green efficiency seems an odd fit
with Cadillac's brand image of power, prestige, and pampering. But Bob
Lutz has long dreamed of an electric Caddy, so it may yet come to pass.
General Motors had been working on a gasoline-electric luxury car, the
Cadillac Converj, with an eye toward producing a vehicle based on the
drive system that will power the Chevrolet Volt. It showed a concept
version of the Converj in January at the Detroit auto show. The car was
shelved when some members of management and the U.S. Treasury Dept.'s
auto task force questioned the economics of such an expensive model. But
now some of the Converj's opponents have been pushed out in the wake of
GM's bankruptcy reorganization, and Lutz—GM's powerful vice-chairman,
who is in charge of design, marketing, and communications—and other
executives are trying to find a way to get the car engineered and funded.
The Volt, which is supposed to go on sale late next year, is expected to
lose money even after GM ramps up to its projected annual production
rate of 10,000 cars. It may not break even until it reaches its third
generation later next decade. GM had originally discussed making a car
like the Volt for Cadillac and Buick, not to mention a small crossover
sport-utility vehicle for Chevrolet, but some of the ideas were killed
when budgets got tight.
As Opponents Exit, Converj Plans Revive
The Converj idea was effectively dead last spring. Former GM North
America President Troy Clarke and Mark McNabb, who ran Cadillac, Hummer,
and Saab before leaving the company in May, both opposed the idea.
Clarke was squeezed out when CEO Frederick A. "Fritz" Henderson slimmed
GM's management ranks.
With some of the opponents now gone, others still inside the
company—especially Lutz—are pushing to find a way to build the car, say
three sources familiar with GM's planning. The vehicle has not been
approved for funding yet. Lutz declined to comment.
If built, the car would run on the same system as the Volt, which GM
recently said would get 230 miles per gallon in the city. The Volt uses
a small, four-cylinder gasoline engine to charge its battery and power
an electric motor. It can go about 40 miles before the engine kicks in.
The Converj could be tuned to get a little more power at the expense of
fuel economy. But it would still have high mileage.
Lutz and some other executives think the Converj, which could get a
different name if it goes to market, would do wonders to burnish the
Cadillac image as a technology leader in the luxury market. If GM gives
the car the green light, it wouldn't hit the market until 2014.
Appealing to Wealthy Green Crowd
"It's like a BMW Z8. You do it for the brand," says James N. Hall,
principal of 2953 Analytics, a Detroit-area consultancy. "Plus, they
could probably get $3,000 to $7,000 more in price than the Volt will."
There has been heated debate within GM about whether the idea should be
resurrected. GM has done a lot of research on luxury buyers and hybrids,
according to one source who worked on the project. The company concluded
that traditional luxury buyers don't care much about hybrids or electric
But one contingent within GM argues that researchers were talking to the
wrong kind of consumer. Toyota's Prius owners make an average of about
$100,000 a year, so they could afford something pricier than a $25,000
Prius, the reasoning goes.
At the same time, GM decided to kill a plug-in version of a Buick SUV
because the car itself did poorly in consumer research.
If GM builds the electric Caddy, it could help it appeal to the wealthy
green crowd, says Hall. "There's an argument that says the Volt should
have been a Cadillac all along," he says. "Many Prius buyers would have
bought a Lexus hybrid, but there wasn't one." Soon, there will be: The
Lexus HS 250h is being launched this month.