By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Automakers are in a new race to be the first to market with an all-electric car so they can claim the mantle as the world's greenest automaker.
General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co, Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co Ltd updated plans on Sunday at the North American International Auto show in Detroit to offer consumers all-electric or hybrid-powered vehicles in the next few years.
GM had garnered the limelight at the 2007 show with the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt electric concept car and rolled the vehicle out again as a reminder the struggling U.S. automaker intends to have it on sale by the end of 2010.
Cheering GM employees, as well as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, waved signs at the show that read: "We're electric," "Charged up," "Game changer" and "We're here to stay" as they walked ahead of the Volt. GM has said the electric car will have a 40-miles driving range on one battery charge.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said the launch remains "very much" on track and a U.S. economic stimulus package could include "heavy federal incentives" for buying fuel-efficient cars.
GM research chief Larry Burns added that government backing for electric-car technology should be modeled on support for the semiconductor industry in the 1980s.
U.S. rival Ford said it will have a small electric car ready for launch in 2011 that would get 100 miles to a charge, as well as a plug-in hybrid by 2012. It also will offer an electric commercial van in 2010.
Ford officials said electric car sales would focus on urban markets with initial sales of 5,000 to 10,000 units.
"We are moving to more hybrids, whether they are regular hybrids or plug-in hybrids," Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally told reporters.
Not to be outdone, Japan's Toyota, the current king of green in the auto sector thanks to its Prius hybrid sedan, showed off its FT-EV electric concept and said it would launch an electric car for city commuting by 2012 in the United States.
"Last summer's $4-a-gallon gasoline was no anomaly," said Irv Miller, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. group vice president. "It was a brief glimpse of our future."
However, Toyota still considers gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles its long-term core powertrain technology. It said it plans to introduce a hybrid car for its Lexus brand this summer.
Japan's Nissan Motor Co Ltd is promoting plans to commercialize electric cars, but Toyota has stressed such cars, including its own, would be suited only for short-distance travel for the time being given the limitations on battery storage technology and recharging infrastructure.
Honda, meanwhile, said it will begin selling the Insight, the first of its next generation hybrid cars, in Japan in February, followed by launches in Europe and the United States in March and April.
The Insight has listed gas mileage of 40 miles per gallon in the city and 43 on the highway in the United States, but the company said the potential for as much as 72 mpg exists.
(Editing by Peter Bohan and Phil Berlowitz.)