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.


Christopher DeMorro

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.