It’s the sort of perfect autumn day that makes you ignore the onset of another frigid Michigan winter. The trees in Lansing, Michigan’s Potter Park have turned an array of yellow and crimson hues, a gentle gust of wind sending them rustling down atop the Jeep Commander sitting off in a corner of the parking lot.
If one buys into the promise of this massive sport-utility vehicle, it’s an appropriate place to take the Commander for a ride. One doesn’t normally associate SUVs with the environment—unless you’re trampling all over it. With their big, gas-guzzling engines, sport-utes have become the vehicles environmentalists love to hate.
Possibly the most significant vehicle on the
The seat controls are wired backward, the side view “periscope” is broken, and the rear suspension is so rough you could use a kidney belt. That said, Chrysler’s ESX3 may be one of the most significant vehicles on the road.
Don’t go looking for it at your local dealer. The hand-built prototype is a demonstration vehicle built by DaimlerChrysler as part of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. The industry/government consortium aimed to push the envelope of automotive design and engineering, coming up with a midsize sedan that would be three times as fuel efficient as today’s models, yet just as roomy and no more expensive.
When the Big Three each rolled out show cars last winter, DaimlerChrysler was the only maker to fall short of the 80 mile-per-gallon target—the ESX3 hit 72 mpg. But company officials defend their project by insisting that of the three prototypes, theirs is the one that could be most easily put into production. TheCarConnection.com got a chance to see during a brief drive.
Built of lightweight materials, including plastic and aluminum, ESX3 doesn’t need much power to get moving—a 74horsepower, three-cylinder Direct-Injection Diesel. For fast take-offs, the DDI is supplemented by a battery-powered, 20-horsepower motor. The hybrid powerplant is mated to a breakthrough electromechanical six-speed transmission. Using a dual clutch configuration, it continually pre-selects the next gear. Shifts are made even faster than with an automatic, yet the six-speed eliminates an automatic’s mechanical losses—which normally drag down fuel economy.
On the limited course available, the ESX3 proved to have poky, but acceptable acceleration. The transmission was notably rough at low speeds, but above 15 mph, functioned as smoothly as an automatic. Chrysler engineers insist they can improve low-speed behavior by tweaking the transmission’s electronic controller.
There were plenty of other neat touches to the ESX3, though some were not functioning the day of our drive. To eliminate drag, designers replaced the side mirrors with tiny periscopes. The driver’s side was broken, and the passenger side’s image was fuzzy and distorted. Seat controls were mis-wired, and it took awhile to master the wheel-mounted transmission buttons. The steel-and-rubber rear suspension was far too harsh.That said, the ESX3 is still a bit of a rolling crystal ball. We’d expect to see some of its lightweight construction methods used in production cars before the decade’s out. And insiders hint that DaimlerChrysler is keen on putting the six-speed auto/manual transmission into production, as well. A gas/electric powertrain? The automaker will launch its first hybrid in 2003, a version of the popular Dodge Durango SUV.