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GM: Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid coming

CEO plans in speech for future electrically driven vehicles.



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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- General Motors is working on a plug-in hybrid version of its redesigned Saturn Vue SUV, the company's CEO announced today at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner used the appearance at the Los Angeles Auto Show Wednesday to highlight a development program the automaker hopes will be seen as a strategic shift and help distance it from its reputation as a company focused first on gas-guzzling trucks.

The effort, which focuses a greater effort on electric-driven vehicles including hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, is part of GM's bid to demonstrate how it is investing some of the $9 billion saved through a wrenching program of job cuts and plant closures.

Gallery: L.A. Auto Show Cars

California, the most populous and richest U.S. state, has become increasingly hostile ground for the Detroit automakers, who have watched Toyota ride its reputation for quality and fuel efficiency to a dominating No. 1 position in the local market.

GM's reputation in California suffered further from the controversy that surrounded this summer's release of the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

The critically hailed documentary focused on the role the world's largest automaker played in the decision to end California's experiment with all-electric cars that many environmentalists still see as the most promising alternative to gas engines.

Plug-in hybrids are seen as a more viable alternative to all-electric vehicles because, while they can be charged by plugging into a wall outlet, they also operate by driving and charging their batteries from a gasoline engine just as cars like the Toyota Prius do.

Environmental advocates and utilities in California have been pushing GM and other car companies to move such rechargeable vehicles into production, citing their potential to push gas mileage to 100 miles per gallon during short trips.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles will require major advancements in battery technology.

"I cannot give you a date certain for our plug-in hybrid at this point," Wagoner said. "But I can tell you that is a major priority for General Motors."

Next year, Wagoner said, GM will release a new version of its Saturn Vue Green Line that will offer a 45 percent improvement in fuel economy over the regular Vue. The current Vue hybrid offers a roughly 20 percent improvement.

GM has its first hybrid vehicle on the U.S. market now, the Saturn Vue Green Line SUV. It has also announced plans to introduce hybrid versions of its Yukon and Tahoe SUVs by late 2007 using technology it has developed jointly with BMW AG and DaimlerChrysler AG.

Hybrid versions of GM's Saturn Aura and the GMC Yukon are now on display at the Los Angeles show.

Wagoner also reiterated his GM's commitment to ethanol-powered vehicles. In the next three years, Wagoner said, all of GM's Hummer brand vehicles will be capable of running on ethanol.

At the end of Wagoner's speech two people from the audience went up onto the stage with a large placard. The placard, they said, was a pledge to make GM the global leader in fuel efficiency by 2010, and they asked Wagoner to sign it.

"I think my speech spoke for itself," Wagoner replied. "You have to leave now."

Gallery: Cars from the L.A. Auto Show

Reuters contributed to this report.

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