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Ward's on Saab BioPower Vehicles


Saab BioPower Vehicles For North America - Ward'

By Alisa Priddle Oct. 12, 2006M

PARIS - Saab Autombile's 9-5 BioPower flex-fuel vehicles, which are proving hugely successful in Sweden and other parts of Europe, "definitely" are destined for the North American market, says General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

Lutz, who oversees global product development, makes the promise in an interview at the recent Paris auto show here, but does not provide specifics on when the turbocharged vehicles that run on E85 (85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline) will be available in the U.S.

The automaker could decide to debut E85 capability on the volume Saab 9-3 before the 9-5 for North America.

Saab introduced a 2.0t BioPower model of the 9-5 last year in Sweden, followed this year by the Saab 9-5 2.3t BioPower performance sedan and wagon for Scandinavia, the U.K. and Ireland, with other European countries to follow.

Saab's BioPower flex-fuel vehicles are proving a huge hit in Sweden, where the 2L 9-5 quickly established itself as Sweden's best-selling environmentally friendly vehicle.

About 80 percent of 9-5s sold in Sweden use E85, and they are gaining traction in other countries, says Carl-Peter Forster, president-General Motors Europe.

The vehicles not only have fewer emissions using an ethanol blend, but the BioPower versions of the turbocharged 2.0L and 2.3L engines have been calibrated for 15 percent-20 percent more power when running on ethanol compared with gasoline, he says.

Through September, Saab says it has sold 7,700 BioPower 9-5 models. The automaker now forecasts sales of 10,000 this year, double its initial projections.

Forster says the BioPower line is "exactly what we need for Saab," and perfect for its brand image.

The flex-fuel vehicles have helped boost total Saab sales in Europe 20 percent from last year, Forster says, with more growth projected as the 2.3L turbo BioPower engine rolls out in eight European countries with reduced emissions and increased power.

The 9-5 BioPower is especially popular in Sweden where the government gives a tax exemption for renewable fuels such as ethanol, biogas and biodiesel.

"Clean" vehicles enjoy free residential parking, Forster says, and government also has mandated any service station above a certain size (based on volume sold) must provide a renewable fuel, so there are many E85 pumps, resulting in a good distribution network for the fuel.

The flexible-fuel infrastructure is growing in the U.S., albeit slowly. And Saab could use a sales hit.

Sales through September are down 14.2 percent vs. year ago, despite an expanded lineup with the addition of 9-3 and 9-5 SportCombi wagons this year and introduction of the 9-7X SUV last summer.

While Lutz enthuses over the potential of E85, he is much less effusive on the future of diesels for the U.S., given the need to meet Bin 5 requirements for emissions next year that he describes as "six times" more stringent than Euro 5 regulations.

He also bemoans the loss of fuel economy from after-treatment measures to reduce particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen.

Cost remains an obstacle, adding another $2,000 to the already high premium for a diesel engine. "So it is double to triple the cost of today's cars," Lutz says, making it all but impossible to break even at today's diesel prices.

And it will only get worse, he says, because "California hates the word 'diesel.'" The state already is looking beyond Bin 5 to even stricter requirements, "which would regulate diesels out of existence (in the U.S.)."

If diesels get so expensive as to rival hybrid-electric systems, "you hit equilibrium," Lutz says, raising the question of "which do I do?"

On a more positive note, "I think we're going to see a huge diversity of powertrains," in the future, Lutz says, allowing automakers to select the proper one for each application.

Big commercial trucks universally opt for diesels, he says. When hybrids are less expensive, large urban areas where people drive less than 50 miles (80 km) a day could be havens for hybrids or plug-in hybrids.

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