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.
But DaimlerChrysler is betting the Commander will generate a distinctly different reaction. That’s because it’s powered not by an internal combustion engine, but by a fuel cell. Fuel cells are powered by hydrogen. Combining that gas with oxygen from the atmosphere, the technology generates power for an electric motor. The only thing spewing from the exhaust of a fuel cell is water vapor.
The full-size Commander began life at the Detroit Auto Show last January, as one of the show cars from DCX’s U.S. subsidiary, the Chrysler Group. At first glance, the most notable detail was the SUV’s size, on a par with the full-sized big Navigator. Indeed, it shares Lincoln’s luxury cues, suggesting a move upmarket by the Jeep division. But a closer look revealed something even more significant about the Commander. Rather than rely on a big V-8 to move its massive structure, the prototype featured a fuel cell.
Chrysler traditionally gives a select few outsiders a chance to drive its concept vehicles, but bringing the Commander to life was no mean feat. These days, there are plenty of prototype fuel cell vehicles on the road, including Daimler’s own Necar 4, which is based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Until now, fuel cell vehicles, like Necar, have relied on either compressed or liquefied hydrogen gas. That’s a big problem, as there’s no hydrogen infrastructure—no mass market production or distribution facilities where a motorist could quite literally gas up. So, to get around the chicken-and-egg syndrome, industry engineers have been racing to develop an alternative fuel supply.
The answer, according to DaimlerChrysler, can be found under the hood of the concept Commander. Where you’d expect to find an engine, there’s instead an assortment of pipes, hoses and reaction chambers—an onboard reformer, in technical terms. Turn the ignition key, step on the accelerator, and the reformer goes to work, turning conventional liquid fuel into hydrogen gas, then piping it to the fuel cell neatly tucked beneath the sport-ute’s rear load floor. The heart of the Commander, it provides the 70 kW of power needed to drive the SUV’s electric motor.
Jeep Commander reformer
The Commander’s reformer takes about three seconds to change gasoline into hydrogen fuel for the Commander.
It takes about three seconds for the reformation process to take place. If you’re looking for a burst of passing power on a busy road, that’d be an eternity, so Commander also carries a battery backup, which can provide a burst of electricity while the fuel cell is waiting for hydrogen.
The process is supposed to be seamless, though things didn’t quite work out that way at Potter Park. A pair of Chrysler engineers spent much of their time frantically trying to reprogram the electronic control module attempting to oversee the complex dance needed to get Commander running. The system had trouble negotiating hills, though not for lack of power. And at times, the reformer wouldn’t pump out enough hydrogen. Yet despite the bugs in the system, the SUV did keep running.
It helps to understand Commander was designed to look good onstage; the design wasn’t optimized for the road. Hand-built, largely of fiberglass and composites, the SUV rattled, buzzed and squealed, a high-pitch whine echoing from the fuel cell’s air compressor. Commander is clearly not ready for the road. Nor is its fuel cell system, but it does serve to prove out the technology.
If DaimlerChrysler meets its stated goal, to put its first fuel cell car into limited mass production by 2004, it will almost certainly need an onboard reformer. The alternative would be to limit sales to the few fleet customers who could justify setting up hydrogen systems of their own. That would sorely limit the range the vehicles could travel from home. With a reformer, range would become essentially unlimited.
At least, that’s the vision. The original version of Commander was designed to reform gasoline into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, “It has never worked very well,” admits Larry Oswald, vice president of hybrid-electric vehicles at the Chrysler Group. So a second version of the Commander, using methanol, was developed. Currently, there are only a small number of filling stations offering that alcohol fuel, though proponents insist it will be easier to set more up than to create a hydrogen infrastructure—at least initially.
Obviously, some of the advantages of a fuel cell are lost when using a reformer. Whether cracking methanol or gasoline, such a system creates carbon dioxide, as well as hydrogen, but even so, fuel economy is notably better than with an internal combustion engine. The methanol-fueled Commander gets the equivalent of 24 miles a gallon. Similar-sized, conventionally powered SUVs typically get 12-16 mpg.
Spending a little time behind the wheel of the Commander, one comes away with a mixture of promise and pause. The technology certainly does work. It has great potential. But there’s a lot left to be done before it goes into mass production. And if DaimlerChrysler sticks to its schedule, it doesn’t have a lot of time left to work out the bugs.