Special Coverage

Geneva
Auto Show

Hitachi Vehicle Energy Ltd., a subsidiary of Japan’s Hitachi Ltd., will develop the lithium-ion battery for General Motors Corp.’s new second-generation hybrid-electric vehicle system that will debut in North America in 2010 and roll out in high volume worldwide in the next decade.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner confirms Hitachi has won the battery contract today in a press conference at the Geneva auto show and webcast by the auto maker.

Wagoner says the more-powerful second-generation belt-alternator/starter system is the “next step in making hybrid technology affordable (and) will roll out globally, across all brands and regions.

“With this specific system, we think it’s going to take a number of years,” he says. “But as we roll it out globally, we expect to see volumes in excess of 100,000 units so that’s a fairly big ramp-up for this technology.”

Wagoner says Hitachi also is involved with Li-ion battery development for the Volt plug-in hybrid that is due sometime in or after 2010.

“They (Hitachi) are one of the people working now in the pre-selection for the Volt,” Wagoner tells Ward’s. “At this point, their work on the Volt has been more around power electronics than batteries actually.

“We’re working with several Li-ion battery suppliers, for instance A123 (A123Systems Inc.) for the Volt. Hitachi is going to be the selected supplier for this system. What is going on is, obviously the technology of Li-ion is ramping up, so several companies have differences in technology.

“Second of all, whoever is into it is going to have to radically ramp-up production. So it makes sense to have all major players participating.”

Wagoner says GM will offer nine hybrid models worldwide by the end of this year and will introduce 16 new hybrids over the next four years. “That’s an average of one every three months,” he says.

Meanwhile, GM Europe President Carl-Peter Forster says the upcoming Cadillac Escalade Hybrid SUV will be offered in Europe in 2009. That model is slated to join the U.S. lineup later this year.

Forster says the high-powered Cadillac CTS-V also will be available outside North America beginning in the fourth quarter. It features a detuned, 550-hp version of the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1’s 6.2L V-8.

Meanwhile, GM unveils its Meriva Concept, which it calls the next wave in monocab vehicle flexibility. Its key feature is its side doors, which are both rear hinged to present wide-open access to the interior.

Thanks to the continued presence of a B-pillar, the “FlexDoors” are able to open independently to a 90-degree angle. GM says the doors only can be opened when there is no risk to the passengers.

The Meriva Concept is powered by a 1.4L turbocharged gasoline engine with variable valve timing.

GM says monocab models account for a growing part of Opel/Vauxhall’s sales in Europe, totaling 335,000 units in 2007, or about one in every five vehicles sold.

That is expected to continue to grow with the introduction of the new Agila model, officials say.

The 5-seat Agila, also bowing here, hits the European market in the spring and will base at €9,990 ($15,225).

Two gasoline 4-cyl. engines make their world premieres in the new Agila, a 65-hp 1.0L and 86-hp 1.2L. The monocab model also will be offered with a 1.3L common-rail turbodiesel.

Separately, Wagoner declines to comment on discussions between GM and Russia’s OOO Avtomobilny Zavod GAZ.

Reports surfaced last week that GM and GAZ were in talks about a potential joint venture to build up to 50,000 sub-$10,000 vehicles annually.

GM already has a JV with OAO AvtoVAZ in Togliatti, Russia, and its own manufacturing plant near St. Petersburg.

“We do have a lot of interest in trying to grow our profile in Russia,” Wagoner says. “We’ve grown a lot, and we’re very optimistic about the future.”

GM says sales of Opel-brand vehicles in Russia jumped 230% last year, and Chevrolet-brand sales rose 70%.

– with Christie Schweinsberg in Geneva

dzoia@wardsauto.com