Is GM as Green as Its Super Bowl Ads?

The automaker's environmental cred is improving—but watch out for trick plays.

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In between the football, Super Bowl watchers will encounter a supersize claim: that General Motors is suddenly a green car company. Along with hyping other vehicles, GM plans to tout the virtues of its new GMC Yukon hybrid, the first big SUV to run on a combination gas engine and electric motor.

Has the company that once derided hybrids as a fad and dismissed small cars as un-American suddenly found green religion? Sorta. GM appears to be reversing billions in losses and turning itself around, with healthy sales gains in January that bucked the economic downturn. But it's still in no position to spend money on do-gooder activities to save the planet.

Instead, company executives now see hybrids and other alternatives to conventional gas engines as a business necessity that GM must pursue to compete effectively with Toyota. Turns out that sustained $3 gas, concerns about global warming and imported oil, and the huge success of hybrids like the Toyota Prius amount to a pretty good business case. "We strongly believe that we need to go to alternative fuels," Tom Stephens, GM's powertrain chief, told me at the Detroit auto show in January. "We need to displace petroleum and get off this knife's edge of supply and demand."

But Toyota and Honda still lead the industry when it comes to hybrids and gasoline alternatives. Here's how GM's rhetoric matches reality:

Hybrid SUVs. The Yukon hybrid and its sibling, the Chevrolet Tahoe, do in fact represent important advances in hybrid technology—with caveats. GM is correct in saying they're the first full-size hybrid SUVs, which will average about 20 miles per gallon—a 25 percent improvement over the baseline gas-only model. And they rely on a new "two mode" system that's more advanced than the technology in the Prius. BMW and Chrysler, which shared in the development of the technology, will introduce their own two-mode hybrid SUVs later this year. But two-mode systems are so pricey that the only buyers are likely to be well-heeled enviros. The Yukon hybrid starts at about $50,000, for instance, and GM knows it's going to sell only a small number of them.

Other hybrids. GM also offers a hybrid version of the Chevy Malibu, the Saturn Vue, and a few other vehicles. But these are "mild hybrids," a generation behind that Prius. They get slightly better gas mileage than their conventional siblings, but not by that much. GM knows it has to catch up to Toyota, Honda, and other manufacturers on basic hybrids, but that might not happen for several years, at best.

Flex fuels. One of GM's corporate slogans is that it has 2.5 million "flex-fuel vehicles" on the road today. For those wondering if this refers to SUVs that do yoga, "flex fuel" is basically a fancy phrase for ethanol. In many of its vehicles, GM has installed inexpensive add-ons that allow the engine to run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol.

That might sound Earth friendly, but one reason GM does it is to earn federal credits that ease its fleetwide mpg requirements. Plus, ethanol-powered cars get lower mileage than gas-powered ones, making it a more expensive fueling option for most drivers. Ethanol isn't widely available, either. So for now, flex fuel has minimal marketplace appeal, no matter how many of the vehicles GM builds.

Futuristic fuels. This is a long-distance race between the two biggest carmakers—GM and Toyota—and any upstarts that can break through with a killer app. GM hopes that the Chevy Volt, due late in 2010, will launch it into pole position on electric vehicles, but there's a lot that could go wrong and delay the program.

Other technologies, like hydrogen-powered cars and ethanol made from cheap crops or even garbage, sound promising in theory but are unproven and prohibitively expensive. For now, the most impressive thing GM has to crow about is a 5,000-pound SUV that gets a modest 21 miles per gallon. Not bad, but the Super Bowl will probably showcase more-impressive feats.