GM, Toyota venture into the unknown

DETROIT -- Neither General Motors nor Toyota Motor Corp. knows what it is doing. That’s what makes the next few years so thrilling.

Starting in late 2009, picking up speed through 2010 and especially in 2011, GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Toyota’s Prius-derived plug-in hybrids will arrive in markets in the United States and around the globe.

Don’t be deceived. These are not two similar cars racing for the same parking space.

Yes, they are both plug-ins, using a gasoline engine combined with batteries that can be recharged from your home electrical outlet overnight. When running on battery power, the two cars should cost less than a nickel a mile to drive -- vs. gasoline prices of, well, who knows? Best guess: around 15 cents a mile.

Moreover, the gasoline engines mean that the cars’ owners won’t suffer “range anxiety.” That’s the auto industry’s term for nervously looking at your battery gauge and wondering whether you have enough juice to get home. Without the gasoline engines, drivers could get stuck on a lonely highway wondering how far to the nearest extension cord.

Different cars, strategies

But that’s where the comparisons end. The two auto giants are facing off with very different plug-ins and very different strategies.

The Volt will go 40 miles before it needs to start burning gasoline. That will be sufficient for the daily commute of at least 80 percent of Americans.

Use the Volt as a weekday commuter, then park it in favor of your other car for longer weekend trips, and you could go for months without stopping at a gas station. All, as I said, for pennies a mile. But take it on a cross-country trip, and your savings shrink quickly.

Toyota aims to sell a car capable of going just 10 miles on electricity alone. (Its current prototype gets eight miles, the company says. The target is 10.)

The theory here is that on each trip, you drive the first 10 miles for, oh, 50 cents. Because Toyota’s car doesn’t have to go as far on electricity, its battery pack will be lighter, so its fuel economy in gasoline mode should be much better than the Volt’s.

The savings from the Toyota vehicle won’t be as great as from the Volt. But the Toyota will be more affordable.

GM expects to sell the Volt for -- sit down, please -- about $40,000. It hopes the government, in the name of promoting energy independence, will subsidize the car in one way or another to the tune of about $7,500.

Toyota’s plug-in hybrid will cost around $20,000.

If you’re shopping for a plug-in, get ready to pull out your calculator. You’ll need a realistic assessment of how many miles you drive daily, how you plan to drive over an entire year and how long you expect to keep the car. Then you can start computing your up-front costs vs. your costs over the life of the car.

Until you crunch the numbers, you won’t know which car is best for you.

Both good

Both cars will be good, I’m sure. Both companies are capable of producing fine vehicles, when they resolve to do so.

When GM’s engineers and designers are allowed to strut their stuff -- free of bean counters who nickel-and-dime them to death and free of marketers demanding that they bland away any distinctive vehicle personality so that a platform can be given to two or more brands -- they can be stunningly good.

And when Toyota decides a car should have excellent performance as well as great looks -- rather than settling for practical and reliable mechanicals and vanilla looks -- it also can wow the world.

So I expect both cars will be first-rate. But which package of performance and price will more customers want?

You probably have an opinion on that. I do, too. Obviously, so do the product planners at GM and Toyota.

But we’re all guessing.

The world has not seen cars like this in numbers that go beyond the core of electric-vehicle true believers.

GM is spinning the roulette wheel. Toyota is rolling the dice.

One could win, or both, or neither. Until the cars are on the market, we just won’t know. But look at the size of those bets and hold your breath.

This is exciting.

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