20 Years Ago, The GM Ultralite Delivered 100 MPG, And It Really Worked


Most EV fans are familiar with General Motor’s ill-fated EV1 electric car, a program that came to an unfortunate and early end. But few people (me among them) have heard of GM’s Ultralite, a concept that two decades ago offered a 1,400 pound car that could get 100 mpg.

The most amazing aspect of this concept though was the fact that it worked, just like GM said it would.

The GM Ultralite Concept debuted at the North American Auto Show in Detroit in January of 1992, and at the time it was a totally functioning vehicle. Highlights included a drag coefficient of 0.19 (for comparison, today’s Toyota Prius has a drag coefficient of 0.27), a weight of around 1,400 pounds, seating for four, and an experimental three-cylinder, 2-stroke engine.

You’d think that such a car would be an absolute dog to drive, with nothing in the way of modern amenities…and you’d be wrong. In addition to a self-leveling air suspension, the GM Ultralite concept had air conditioning and a 0-60 mph time of around 8 seconds, with a top speed of around 135 mph. Most importantly though, at highway speeds the GM Ultralite could deliver 100 mpg. Even more amazingly, the EPA rated the Ultralite at 88 mpg.

It is, by any measure, an incredible achievement, and GM reportedly looked into actually building it on a small scale before corporate priorities changed. With California law dictating that GM would have to build zero-emissions vehicles, the Ultralite concept was shelved in favor of development of the EV1. And we all know how that turned out.

Today, creating and selling a car like the Ultralite would be damn near impossible. Yet for a brief time in the early 90’s, GM presented some of the most innovative and amazing vehicles ever conceived. Too bad GM didn’t build or sell most of them.

Instead we have the Volt, the first real chance GM has taken in decades when it comes to providing an exceptional, low-emissions driving experience…and the Volt is starting to pay off. Imagine if GM had built the Ultralite instead though? The entire automotive world would have been turned on its head.

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.
  • Jason

    If it worked so well, why did General Motors discontinue it? That doesn’t make sense at all.

    • Jcmarching

      It makes lots of sense if you know all the oil interests that sat on the GM board of directors or the amount of capital sitting in ICE mfg tech.

      • Jason Carpp

        The problem is that GM has never looked out for our customers’ interests. They’re always looking out for themselves or the money they make. I’m not against the ICE (internal combustion engine), but people want to be allowed to make the decision what powers their cars, and not the marketing people, and certainly not the govt.

    • One word, “Oil”…

  • Oollyoumn

    Also in the mid to late 90 GM had a 5 passenger car that got about 80 mpg. It was a diesel hybrid with an air cooled engine in the rear. They receive a lot of government money to develop the concept, but it was never seriously considered. Toyota and Honda took it very serious. They were afraid the Americans would be far ahead in hybrid technology, since all three receive government funding. Both Toyota and Honda were so concerned with being left behind, they made a big push into hybrids without any assistance. Once the exercise was over, all of the American manufacturers all but abandoned all that was done in the project, leaving Toyota and Honda to fight for the lead in hybrid technology.

  • Beeble

    >>>> Today, creating and selling a car like the Ultralite would be damn near impossible.<<<<

    I don't understand why that would be the case. All the technology was proven in 1992, a whole lot of it has been incorporated in current models (or current office furniture :-). And there's now an established market for high-mileage, high-tech vehicles.

    • Christopher DeMorro

      @ Beeble

      Building a 1,400 pound car that has all the mandated safety equipment and “optional” infotainment systems that customers demand would be incredibly challenging/prohibitively expensive. 20 years ago, cars didn’t even have cupholders.

  • was that shot at the NUMMI assembly plant in san francisco

  • t_

    My father had a german two stroke car. The name was Trabant. It was really light and burned little fuel.
    There is one problem with two stoke engines, though. they wear out quickly. The engine needed major repairs after 100 000 km (~ 63 000 miles) – grinding of the engine block, new seals, pistons(almost all engine parts needed to be replaced. Even if GM had the technology to doble the mileage, it is still not enough. Maybe this is the reason not to build the car.

  • bob

    emissions would be a big problem nowadays on a two stroke engine; and safety and amenities would add to the weight.

    things like passenger access, difficult with that areo shape for obese Americans, or sight lines might make it hard for it to reach market. the volt is an example of covering all the bases, but the final product costs twice as much as the market can bare.

  • Great article! What were the main direct competitors to the ultralite concept at the time? Were other manufacturers going down the same route?

  • age

    I heard GM recalled all 100 ultralight that they actually built. They made up a fake recall And the owners that didn’t want to return eM basically had their cars repossessed. The car companies basically couldn’t afford to let us have 100mpg after we would only buy gas once a month. And imagine if it was diesel. Maybe once a year….