General Motors Corp unveiled a proposed electric car designed to help fight Toyota's lead in the US hybrid market - and GM's reputation for resisting eco-friendly innovation.
Built with sports-car looks, the four-door Chevrolet Volt would combine a lithium-ion battery, chargeable overnight from a wall outlet, with a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder combustion engine that creates electricity to recharge the battery while driving.
GM chief executive Rick Wagoner unveiled the sleek, silver prototype with much fanfare at the 2007 Detroit auto show Sunday, calling the Volt a "significant and important step in our commitment to an electrically driven future".
The E-Flex engine would work on petrol, ethanol, bio-diesel or hydrogen, making it flexible for fuel preferences that vary from country to country - and allowing GM to stake a claim for global leadership.
No date has been set for rolling out the Volt, and Wagoner acknowledged that the battery design still needs work. But GM clearly hopes the project will boost its brand as high oil prices drive US car buyers away from Detroit-built petrol guzzlers.
The Volt is partly a bid by GM to regain innovation momentum from Toyota, which experts believe will end the US giant's 75-year reign as the world's largest automaker this year. In contrast to hybrids, the Volt's engine would never directly power the drive train.
The Volt would be designed to run for 64 km on one charge. As more than half of Americans live within 32 km of their workplace, many Volts would never burn fuel at all, GM says.
The capacity to recharge while driving would extend the car's range to about 1,000 km. Overall, the Volt could be about three times more fuel-efficient than current petrol-electric hybrids on US roads, GM says.
GM's renewed interest in electric cars is a reversal from just a few years ago, when it abandoned the EV-1 project saying the market was not there.
A critical documentary now playing in US cinemas, "Who Killed the Electric Car", chronicles how GM produced the EV-1 from 1996 to 1999, then recalled the vehicles it had leased to 800 users and scrapped them.
GM vice chairman Bob Lutz may have had the movie in mind when he helped present the Volt with a dose of self-deprecating humour.
"I am shocked, truly shocked. A GM electric vehicle is an inconvenient truth," he told several hundreds journalists and industry experts at the unveiling.
But no one should doubt that GM is serious, Wagoner said.
"We don't take these announcements lightly," he said. "There may be scepticism; we're just going to execute."