April 7, 2009 at 5:02 pm

New York International Auto Show

GM to roll out two-seat, urban electric prototype

Two-seater targeting city driving to hit 35 miles per hour

A Project P.U.M.A. prototype is taken for a test-drive Saturday in Brooklyn, N.Y. (General Motors)

General Motors Corp. will announce today that it is building a prototype two-seat electric vehicle with Segway Inc.

An early prototype of the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility vehicle -- dubbed Project P.U.M.A. -- will be shown off in New York this morning, a day ahead of the press previews for the New York International Auto Show.

The small electric vehicle is likely to garner quite a bit of attention at the show -- along with some new luxury vehicles, which usually are highlights of the New York show and will be again this year despite plummeting auto sales, a 17-month recession and fewer big Wall Street bonuses.

The P.U.M.A. is an upright two-wheeler, much like today's Segway Personal Transporters, but it seats two people and has a windshield for protection from the elements.

This first prototype is not attractive, said GM's Chris Borroni-Bird, director of advanced technology vehicle concepts, but shows the possibilities and is drivable. "We need to prove out the performance, but from a cost perspective it looks feasible," Borroni-Bird said.

The next-generation prototypes will be available for test-drives in the fall and by early 2010 GM will have finished concepts to show and drive at the New York auto show. GM hasn't yet decided if it will mass-produce the vehicles.

The prototype has a top speed of 35 miles per hour and a range of 35 miles with its small lithium-ion batteries. That is enough, Borroni-Bird said, given that half of the world's population lives in urban centers, with an expected 60 percent moving into that range by 2030.

In New York City, the average speed is less than 18 mph and the average trip is less than 10 miles, he said. The cost of owning and operating an urban vehicle would be 25 percent to 33 percent less than a conventional vehicle, Borroni-Bird said.

Other automakers are going in the opposite direction for their displays in New York.

Porsche AG is unveiling its fastest, most powerful 911 GT3 -- a $112,200 sports car. BMW AG will unveil its new X6 M and X5 M -- a pair of new V-8, 555-horsepower four-door crossovers. BMW introduced the X5 crossover in 2000. BMW calls the X6 M "a sports activity coupe."

Acura will show off a prototype ZDX that it plans to start building this fall to take on BMW's X6.

Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at IHS Global Insight, said luxury vehicle sales were holding on a bit better than the market as a whole, predicting that premium vehicles would account for 12 percent of total auto sales in 2009, up from 11.5 percent 2008.

"Luxury vehicle sales are a little more resilient and are going to recover a little faster than the market as a whole," she said, adding that luxury car owners are reluctant to drop down in the market. But she noted that luxury carmakers were being hurt by changes in consumer attitudes "toward conspicuous consumption" in the face of 10 percent unemployment figures. "It's a little like wearing a miniskirt to a funeral. It's not entirely appropriate," she said.

In total, 33 new vehicles are being unveiled at the New York auto show at a time when auto shows are fighting to keep automakers.

Chrysler LLC is showing off its redesigned 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee set for introduction in late 2010 -- a critical vehicle for its lineup.

Chrysler told the Treasury Department in February the new 2011 model Jeep would get 19 percent better fuel economy than the current generation.

Many automakers, including Ford Motor Co., aren't holding a press conference in New York this year and automakers are getting more selective in what shows they attend to conserve cash in the worst auto market in decades.

dshepardson@detnews.com">dshepardson@detnews.com (202) 662-8735

The P.U.M.A., shown here in early design sketches, would have a range of ... (General Motors)
GM is developing the diminutive vehicle along with Segway Inc. (General Motors)
The P.U.M.A. is an upright two-wheeler, much like today's Segway ... (General Motors)
The prototype has a top speed of 35 miles per hour and a range of 35 miles ... (General Motors)