RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
General Motors is taking a second shot at the electric car. The company is producing a small number of Chevy Volts to check for quality and reliability. They'll go on sale here in California later this year.
As Michigan radio's Tracy Samilton reports, the automaker is trying to win back customers who, a decade ago, bought GM's first electric car, the one that was canceled.
TRACY SAMILTON: Kris Trexler is visiting an old friend at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. KRIS TREXLER (Video/Film Editor): Oh, gosh.
SAMILTON: Here, sitting in a place of honor in the museum's electric car exhibit, is the very EV1 that Trexler leased from GM in the late 1990s. The car is unlocked, so he gets in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TREXLER: Oh, gosh. Wow, this brings back some serious memories here. This is just amazing to see this car again.
SAMILTON: GM made 500 of the all-electric, two-seaters in a test program to see if they were viable in the marketplace at the time. Trexler is a car buff. He says at first he wanted one because it was the latest, hottest thing. But owning an electric car made him a convert.
Mr. TREXLER: It really was the most reliable car I've ever driven. It was just a car that I took home, plugged in at night, got up the next morning. It was like having a gasoline station in the garage.
SAMILTON: The car was perfect for Trexler. But it had lots of limitations. It was smaller than your average sports car. It looked like something out of "The Jetsons." And you could only drive it only for about 70 miles before the battery ran out of juice.
Mr. ANDREW FARAH (Chief Engineer, GM): Range anxiety was a big issue.
SAMILTON: That's GM's Andrew Farah. He worked on the EV1 program, and now is head of engineering for the Volt. He says it was hard to calculate how far you could drive that little car. In fact, he got stranded on his way home from work one day. Engineers designed the Volt to correct for this and other shortcomings, so the Volt has a gasoline generator to recharge the battery on longer trips.
Mr. FARAH: You get all the benefits of a pure battery electric vehicle with none of the detriments. And then you can continue to drive hundreds of miles on longer trips burning fuel, and do it as efficiently as the hybrids do.
SAMILTON: Farah says the gas generator gives the Volt a big advantage over an all-electric car like Nissan's Leaf, which will also be launched this year. The Leaf will have about the same range as the EV1.
The Volt will be more expensive. Even after tax rebates, it's likely to cost more than $30,000. But Farah says a Volt will still be cheaper than buying a Leaf for the daily commute, plus another car for longer trips.
Mr. FARAH: What's the cheapest car I can buy? Add it in there, it's going to be more than the Volt.
Ms. CHELSEA SEXTON (Marketing Expert): So is it frustrating it took us 10 years to get back to where we started? Yeah. But I'm just glad we're here.
SAMILTON: That's Chelsea Sexton. Ten years ago, she was in charge of marketing for the EV1. She left GM in a public huff after the company killed the program. Now she directs a nonprofit that supports the adoption of electric vehicles.
Ms. SEXTON: I joke a lot with some of the old EV1 guys that are now working on the Volt that, you know, it's almost like the band's getting back together, but now we finally have an audience.
SAMILTON: GM hopes it can sell up to 60,000 Volts a year. That's a huge number compared to its hopes for the EV1. The company isn't taking a single potential customer for granted. GM wants to sell Volts to its former EV1 customers, too. And this time, GM plans to keep the cars on the road, instead of in a museum.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.
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