Is Chrysler Charging into EV Segment?

July 14, 2008
Dodge Durango Hybrid

Dodge Durango Hybrid

Is Chrysler getting charged up about electric vehicles? That's the word going around in Detroit this week, as the automakers confirms published reports that it is working up a line of extended-range EVs, often referred to as plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, or PHEVs.

Chrysler has taken its share of lumps from environmentalists for being slow to market with greener technology, and in the current environment of $4-a-gallon gas, buyers haven't been too pleased, either. The automaker's first hybrids, including a version of the big Dodge Durango SUV, will just hit market later this year. Meanwhile, the automaker will market a high-mileage diesel version of its Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was developed with its former partner, the German automaker Daimler AG.

To take things further, the automaker created a new unit last autumn, dubbed ENVI, to help it push into alternative propulsion systems. And one of its highest priorities is to develop a line of PHEVs, spokesman Nick Capa has confirmed, and possibly other forms of electric propulsion.

Specific details haven't been released. "It's too early to get down and dirty with this technology," cautioned Chrysler spokesman Nick Capa. But he pointed to three concept vehicles the automaker unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show last January, which can provide a few hints.

The little Dodge Zeo has a pure electric drive system, with an oversize battery pack to extend range. The ecoVoyager mates fuel cell and range-extender technology, while the Jeep Renegade's plug-in drive is backed up by a clean diesel.

It appears Chrysler's push into extended-range and related technology is driven, at least in part, by the overwhelming response to General Motors' own extended-range EV, the Chevrolet Volt. GM promises that sedan will get at least 40 miles on a single charge, more than enough for the typical daily commute. For longer drives, Volt's compact internal combustion engine will kick in, allowing it effectively unlimited range.

What's unclear is which technical path Chrysler will take. Conventional gasoline-electric models, such as the Durange Hybrid - or Toyota's best-selling Prius - are so-called parallel hybrids. That means their wheels can be directly driven by either the vehicle's gasoline engine or its electric motors - or both. Volt, however, is a series hybrid. The production version's wheels will only be driven by electric motors. When the battery runs down, the internal combustion engine will act as a generator, sending current to either the vehicle's battery or its motors.

How broad a range of plug-ins Chrysler plans has not been revealed, but given the shift in the American market, the automaker is clearly under pressure to expand a green lineup likely to include more conventional hybrids, next-generation clean diesels - and plug-in technology.

As to timing, Capa said it's unclear when ENVI will bring these new products to market, though, "We feel pretty confident...with three to five years."

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