AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — In a surprise move here this morning amid struggling sales numbers from its dealers and fuel-efficient buzz from competitors, Chrysler announced that it's charging into the electric vehicle market a lot sooner than expected. The automaker just unveiled a trio of battery-powered vehicles—including an all-electric, 200-mile-range Dodge sports car that we revved up near its 120-mph top speed on the test track and think could give the Tesla Roadster a run for its money—and plans to bring one of them to market by 2010, aligning Chrysler with the timetable for General Motors' Chevy Volt.
Chrysler officials, who reinforced their case for an entirely hybrid fleet at least partially powered by batteries, said at a news conference on Tuesday that they're aiming to sell all three cars—extended-range plug-in versions of a Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler Town & Country were unveiled in addition to the Dodge EV—within a decade. But how fast they reach dealerships, CEO Bob Nardelli cautioned, may well depend on whether the federal government comes through with a package of loan guarantees for Detroit's Big Three.
"You're going to see the electrification of all vehicles" in the years ahead, said Frank Klegon, Chrysler's executive vice president for product development. That will range from full battery power to simpler systems, like Stop/Start, which temporarily shuts off an engine at a stoplight. Indeed, Klegon forecasts that "at least 50 percent of the market" will consists of pure EVs or extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs) by around 2020.
The former category very well could include the Dodge EV. If the look is familiar, that's because the body and platform are borrowed from the Lotus Europa sportscar (not the Lotus Elise, as you might first imagine). There have been minor modifications made to squeeze in a 200-kilowatt motor and a lithium-ion battery pack that, in production, would yield somewhere between 150 and 200 miles on a charge. Doug Quigley, engineering lead for Chrysler's ENVI advanced powertrain division that is also working on three concepts we saw at the Detroit auto show this year, said the rear-drive two-seater should be able to launch from 0-to-60 in under 5 seconds. He wouldn't say how much under, but the goal is to be faster than the Lotus with a target of the mid-13-second range for the 1/4-mile run. And if our 20-minute test drive on the 2-mile track here is any indication, that should be very doable. The new EV handles like a charm, with sharp steering and some serious giddyup—we could feel the 100-plus-mph beneath us while hearing nary a thing.
The Jeep and Chrysler plug-ins, like the Volt, both fall into the extended-range category to combine battery and gasoline power. And like GM, Chrysler is aiming for a 40-mile range on electric charges alone, claiming that both vehicles should be able to hit 400 miles with an 8- or 9-gal. tank of gas. Chrysler modified its newest Jeep Wrangler for the white plug-in truck unveiled here today—and that should mean the same off-road capabilities. The minivan is a slightly upmodded version of the popular Town & Country, with the underbody tubs—used to hide the Stow-and-Go seats in a conventional Chrysler minivan—housing the large battery packs.
So which of the three new electric cars will come to market first? Chrysler isn't saying—in part, President Tom LaSorda acknowledged, because the company has yet to decide. There are serious questions to answer, including what batteries the company will use—and who will supply them. The good news, Klegon said, is that the number of potential battery vendors has "tripled" in recent years. Coming up with reliable, high-power batteries is a clear challenge, but there's also the issue of cost. Lithium-ion technology is phenomenally expensive, but Chrysler, like its competitors, believes that in high volume, costs should plunge.
Meanwhile, the automaker is launching a new joint venture with General Electric (where Chrysler CEO Nardelli first rose to prominence) aimed at developing even more advanced battery systems. One approach that the partners plan to study would pair two different types of batteries, such as lithium-ion and sodium-sulfur, to see if they can yield improved levels of power and performance.
Admittedly short on cash and struggling with sales, Chrysler officials recently have spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., meeting with the lawmakers who would have to approve a loan guarantee package that might exceed $25 billion for Detroit. Nardelli said he was "very impressed" with the feedback he has gotten, but stressed that without that assistance, there will have to be some "very tough decisions" made about what Chrysler can afford to fund.
Chrysler actually put a fourth product on display here, too: the buggy-size "Peapod" Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) from the automaker's GEM division. NEVs are, effectively, gussied-up electric golf carts; they have found a small but comfortable niche in places like retirement villages and college campuses. Newly renamed Green Eco-Mobility, GEM will launch the 25-mph Peapod and its 30-mile-range sometime next year, with more eco-friendly rides to come from the division—and its parent company, suddenly back in the game in a big way—in the new decade. —Paul Eisenstein