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General Motors’ 100 mpg Car – The Platinum Anniversary That Could Have Been

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GM Ultralite Concept 1992In 1992, I built my first PC, the same year Microsoft Windows 3.1 and Works hit the market. Bill Clinton became President of the US, and Space Shuttle Endeavour made its successful maiden voyage into space. Ahead of its time, AT&T also released the first video phone, and not many people know this, but General Motors [GM] also introduced to the world the first 100-mpg vehicle. Wait, we’re still driving vehicles that average only 22.7 mpg twenty years later?

Yes, the GM Ultralite, a working concept vehicle, was shown to the world at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1992, the centerpiece of the GM exhibit that year. It had seating for four, was equipped with air-conditioning and load-leveling air suspension, and was powered by an experimental three-cylinder, two-stroke, engine that could launch it from zero to sixty miles per hour in under 8 seconds.

The concept weighed in just around 1,400 pounds, had a drag coefficient of 0.19, and had an 88 mpg EPA combined estimate. For comparison, the 50 mpg EPA-combined-estimate 2013 Toyota Prius c weighs 2,500 pounds and has a drag coefficient of 0.28. If this vehicle had been released as planned in 1993, the whole automotive world would have been changed forever.

So what happened? California law required the building of a zero-emissions vehicle, so corporate priorities changed, the Ultralite concept was shelved, and the design team was reassigned. Some of the design team even resigned. All the new research and development went into the GM EV1 electric vehicle [EV], which was finally released in 1996. Ultimately, failing to make a profit, GM scrapped the EV1 project a few years later.

Today, GM is again setting foot in the electrified-vehicles niche, and having released the Chevy Volt extended-range EV, looks to be making better margins with the new technology. The sad thing is, if GM had pursued this concept further, today’s vehicles would be so much further along regarding efficiency and performance.

Just for comparison, the average vehicle mpg in 2008 was only 22.7. The US Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency just signed into law fuel economy regulations that require, by 2025, the average fuel economy to be 54.5 mpg. Could it have been 54.5 today? I guess we’ll never know…

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