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http://www.modbee.com/life/cars/story/67828.html

Saturn will put General Motors Corp.'s first plug-in hybrid -- a Vue compact SUV that can run up to 10 miles solely on electricity and switch to an engine for longer trips -- on the road "very quickly," brand general manager Jill Lajdziak said Wednesday.

"In 2009-ish," Lajdziak said.

Saturn showed its latest production model, the European-engineered, designed and built Astra compact, to journalists Wednesday near the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany.

Other automakers are working on plug-ins, but that timetable gives Saturn at least a fighting chance to give GM the high ground in the battle for environmental leadership and the huge PR benefits that go with it.

It also would be a major win in GM's fight to reclaim the mantle of technical leadership it held for decades.

The Vue plug-in will become the third hybrid version of the popular Vue SUV. It will combine lithium-ion batteries and GM's innovative two-mode hybrid system with the ability to recharge from 110-volt household current.

Saturn already sells what it calls a mild hybrid version of the Vue that uses electric power to reduce fuel consumption.

The Vue plug-in will use different technology from the electric drive powertrain GM is developing for the Chevrolet Volt.

Another hybrid using the first generation of GM's powerful two-mode system is to go on sale in the second quarter of 2008. The two-mode system debuts later this fall in the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs.

The stylish and sporty Astra compact hatchback is to go on sale in the United States and Canada late this year.

"It's so appropriate the first phase of our revitalization comes with the kind of car Saturn first built," Lajdziak said of the brand GM created to win small-car buyers away from foreign brands. "We are finally fulfilling the promise of Saturn, marrying beautiful products to a great dealership experience."

The brand will have grown to an unprecedented five models when the Astra arrives, and it has access to every model coming from GM's German Opel brand, Lajdziak said.

The engineering link with Opel means Saturn might boost its environmental credentials further by offering the new generation of fuel-efficient European diesel engines in the United States, Lajdziak added.

"It's a natural for us to consider diesel," she said of the engines, which typically use 30 percent less fuel and produce 30 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines. Diesels account for more than half of new car sales in Europe, and Opel builds a wide range of them, including several used in the Astra.

Saturn is conducting research to see if its target buyers want diesels. Beyond that, the decision will come down to evaluating the cost of technology to meet stringent U.S. emissions standards.

Saturn is also in the midst of remodeling its 500-odd sales outlets in the United States and Canada. Saturn of Warren, Mich., is the first to sport the face-lift, which was designed to help the brand with the upscale customers new models like the Sky roadster and Outlook SUV are drawing.

"Our retailers know we have to raise the brand's image, and they're working with us," Lajdziak said. "If somebody's not interested in expanding with us, they've got to make other plans."

The moves sit well with Joe Serra, who owns two Saturn dealerships in Michigan.

"Many of us retailers need to adjust, improve, increase the size of our facilities to properly service and sell (Saturn's) current product portfolio," Serra said. "The picture we built years back has changed, and fortunately for us Saturn retailers, it has changed in a positive way; thus we need to change -- improve our facilities."
 
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