MICHELE NORRIS, host:

2010 is shaping up to be a big year for GM. In a few months, the company will launch its most anticipated vehicle in ages the Chevy Volt. After years of hype, the Volt will compete with Nissan's Leaf as the nation's first mass market electric cars. The vehicles are dramatically different. And how consumers will respond, nobody knows. But everyone in the auto industry will be watching to see what works, what doesn't. And if America's automotive future is electric.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: When you drive the Chevy Volt, there's a moment when everything changes. You can actually hear it.

(Soundbite of car)

Ms. CHRISTI LANDI (Chevy Volt Product Manager): There, you switched over.

LANGFITT: Okay, so now we're in...

Ms. LANDI: Now you're in the extended-range mode.

LANGFITT: Okay, it sounds different now. You can hear the gas engine.

Ms. LANDI: Yeah.

LANGFITT: I'm test driving a Volt around RFK Stadium parking lot in Washington, D.C. Next to me is Christi Landi, the car's product manager. And we've just experienced one of the Volt's key selling points. The car can only drive 40 miles on electric battery power, but it also has a gas engine that's just kicked in an engine that allows the Volt to drive a lot farther.

(Soundbite of car)

LANGFITT: If this was all charged up and I filled up the gas tank, how far could I go right now if I just wanted to take off?

Ms. LANDI: About 300 miles.

LANGFITT: That range is the Volt's competitive advantage. Many people worry an electric car will run out of juice and strand them. They also wonder about the strength of a battery-powered engine.

(Soundbite of car)

Ms. LANDI: You want to see the pickup, you can experience it here straightaway.

LANGFITT: I slam the accelerator to the floor. The car takes off.

(Soundbite of car)

LANGFITT: And that's all on battery.

Ms. LANDI: That's all on battery.

LANGFITT: Wow, I'm going about 46, 47, and that is that's pretty good pickup.

GM expects early adopters to snap up the car. It plans to build 10,000 the first year. And citing what it called huge interest on its website, the company is boosting production the following year to 45,000. Now, that's still small by American standards. And after the initial excitement, will ordinary drivers go for the Volt?

Mr. BILL VISNIC (Senior Editor, AutoObserver.com): Cost is going to be an impediment.

LANGFITT: That's Bill Visnic. He's senior editor at�Edmunds' AutoObserver.com, which covers the car business.�Like a lot of people, he's concerned about the Volt's whopping price tag: $41,000. Volt owners can apply for up to $7,500 in tax credits. But, as Visnic points out...

Mr. VISNIC: This is a Chevy sedan. It's a four-seat sedan. It is not a large car.

LANGFITT: And for the same money...

Mr. VISNIC: You can buy an entry-level Mercedes sedan. You can buy any number of nice Audis.

LANGFITT: Nissan seems to have an answer for this in the Leaf, a four-door, all-electric hatchback. It's pricing the car $8,000 below the Volt.

Mark Perry is head of product planning for Nissan in North America. He pitched me the car at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year.

Mr. MARK PERRY (Product Planning, Nissan, North America): What you're looking at is a production version of the all new Nissan Leaf: 100-percent battery electric, zero-emission vehicle.

LANGFITT: You ever put gasoline in this thing?

Mr. PERRY: You don't put gasoline in it. You don't put oil. There's not even a tailpipe.

LANGFITT: How far can you drive on a charge?

Mr. PERRY: On a single charge you can go 100 miles on a single charge.

LANGFITT: That seems like a lot.

Mr. PERRY: It is a lot. Think of how...

LANGFITT: And how are you able to do that when the Volt can only go 40?

Mr. PERRY: We have a more efficient battery pack.

LANGFITT: The Leaf is a very green car. But keep in mind: Much of the electricity that will fuel it will come from burning coal, just like the electricity in many American homes.

And then there's the question of infrastructure. At the Detroit Auto Show, Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation stopped by to look at the Leaf. He pointed out that there's no easy way to charge the Leaf on long trips or easy answers for people who live in apartments.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Transportation Department): I agree with you. I think this is the next generation for people, but there have to be charging station opportunities for people. I think the workplace is obviously - and the home. But then I don't know whether it's at malls or at rest areas or what.

Mr. PERRY: Yes, movie theaters, stadiums, museums, parking garages downtown. Absolutely.

Sec. LAHOOD: Yeah.

LANGFITT: But that day is at least years away. In the meantime, Nissan is bullish. It plans to build 50,000 Leafs in the first 12 months. That's five times what GM plans for the Volt. Then, it's up to consumers to decide.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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