DETROIT--Just when we all thought we couldn't bear another word regarding the seesaw battle over California's electric vehicle (EV) mandate, General Motors Corp. abruptly steps up to announce at the North American International Auto Show that it has a market-ready EV all prepped for sale. As in right now, this year--not 1998.

The vehicle is the EVI, a "consumerized" version of the sharp-performing Impact experimental EV prototype first shown in 1990 and that GM's had in test markets for more than a year.

GM President John F. Smith Jr. unveiled pre-production examples of the 2-seater at auto shows here and in Los Angeles. EVI is "the first product in a portfolio of high-technology products that we (GM) will be bringing to market in the years ahead," says Mr. Smith.

GM will offer the EVI--the first vehicle in the automaker's history to carry a GM designation rather than a car brand--through 25 Saturn dealers in Los Angeles and San Diego, CA, and in Phoenix and Tucson, AZ.

GM says it won't make a profit on the vehicles, which will be priced in the mid-$30,000 range, not including the cost of a 6.6-kW inductive charger--GM has dubbed it Magne-Charge--designed for homes and offices. Top speed is limited to 80 mph (129 km/h). With advanced lead-acid batteries and a full charge, the city-country cycle range is 70-90 miles (1 13-145 km), depending on ter-rain, temperature, accessory use and driving style. Real-world testing suggests a range of about 60 miles (97 km) might be a more practical expectation.

The EV1 initially will be sold with an 1,100-lb. (500 kg) lead-acid battery pack, although it is designed to accept a more advanced 1,100-pound nickel-metal hydride (Nimh) battery pack at a later date that would double its range.

Delco Propulsion Systems (DPS)--the 3-unit alliance of GM components groups Allison Transmission, Delco Electronics Corp. and Delphi Energy and Engine Management Systems--plays a pivotal role in providing much of the EVI's advanced compo-nentry.

In addition to the Magne-Charge system, DPS supplies a battery-pack optimization unit that controls recharging and safety functions, the actual lead-acid battery pack and the three-phase AC induction drive units, which GM say"s require no maintenence for 100,000 miles (162,000 km). The drive is rated at 138 hp of peak power.

As with the original Impact, passenger compartment HVAC and propulsion-system cooling is provided by a heat pump from Delco. Delco similarly designed the sophisticated antilock braking (ABS) and traction control systems, which integrate the regenerative braking crucial to regaining energy normally lost during braking:

Creature comforts in the EV1 include power windows and locks, a sophisticated monitoring system to evaluate and warn the driver as to the status of several critical driving operations, and fully electronic power steering that functions only in an on-demand basis, drawing no energy from the battery system when steering assistance is not required.

The vehicle will be built at GM's Delta Township, MI, assembly plant, where the pilot already is in production, using a specially designed, low-automation production system.

Now for the "intrigue" portion of the play. With California's Air Resources Board (CARB) obviously on the ropes as far as making its 1998 EV deadline stick, why does GM say now that it's ready to market the EVI later this year? After all, almost all the automakers who stand to be affected by CARB's EV mandate fought tooth-and-nail to prove to the world--and particularly to the Californians--that consumer-ready EVs just plain couldn't be produced in time to meet the deadline.

Some speculate GM knows the car will not fulfill expectations and thus will sour the milk for any serious EV "mandates" in the future. The less critical take GM at its spin-doctoring word and believe the company genuinely wants to be the first to market with what most admit is a fine example of current EV development.

Ingrassia to GM? He just smiles

During his seven years as The Wall Street Journal's Detroit bureau chief (1987-93), Paul Ingrassia proved to be a tough but highly respected journalist. His coverage, with staffer Joe White, of the General Motors Corp. board of directors revolt that began in 1992 won a Pulitzer prize and formed the basis for their highly acclaimed book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry. Now based in New York, Mr. Ingrassia not long ago was named vice president and executive editor of the Dow-Jones News Service. But things may have turned out differently. WAW sources say Mr. Ingrassia was a leading candidate in 1995 to take over the top public relations job at General Motors Corp. During a Detroit visit, Mr. Ingrassia just smiles awkwardly when asked to verify the report, saying he's delighted with his new post. As for cash GM may have heaped upon him, who cares? Mr. Ingrassia's wife recently collected $3.7 million in the New Jersey lottery.

GM comes up from the rear in profit-sharing sweepstakes

Profit-sharing payments are due this month, and there will be greater parity among the Big Three. Early projections are that General Motors Corp. will pay out an average of between $1,200 and $1,800 to its hourly and salaried workers in the U.S., more than double last year's $550. Chrysler Corp.'s troops still will walk away with the biggest reward, an average of $3,200, but far below last year's bounteous $8,000. Ford Motor Co. is expected to pay considerably less than last year's $4,000 per U.S. worker, but probably enough to cover a 10% down payment on a new Taurus (about $2,000).