Chrysler Electric Cars Trump Chevy Volt, Prius--Or Do They?

September 23, 2008
Chrysler EV, Jeep EV and Dodge EV

Chrysler EV, Jeep EV and Dodge EV

After all the hoopla around the official reveal of the production Chevrolet Volt, preceded by equally breathless press around an apparent leak of unofficial photos, I was about to emit a strangled scream: "STOP already, the damn car won't be here for more than two years!"

Well, this morning Chrysler dealt with all that. In a CNBC exclusive interview, Detroit's perennial underdog and favorite whipping boy stole a bit of buzz from the omnipresent Volt. By announcing it intends to produce three EVs—one of them by the end of 2010—the company has gone GM one better, by giving each of its three brands an uber-cool electric-drive halo car. (Most commentators have justifiably ignored the oddly styled GEM Peapod, although it may spawn a limited-range urban vehicle—of which more later.)

To me, the interesting questions are: Who's supplying the batteries? Will the cars share anything at all with any vehicles Chrysler now builds? And will it actually build any of these cars itself?

Chrysler says the lithium-ion batteries in each of the three vehicles come from a different maker. This morning's Wall Street Journal reports that the company is talking to usual suspect A123 Systems, which recently filed for its initial public offering (IPO) and needs all the publicity it can get. Others include LG Chem (it is vying with A123 for the Volt contract), EnerDel, and JCI-Saft.

More intriguing, Chrysler may not adapt an existing platform for upcoming electric vehicles, as GM has done. The upcoming GM "global compact car" architecture, to be used for the 2010 Chevrolet Cruze and a zillion other vehicles, has been engineered to accept the Volt's E-Flex components, as well as standard gas and diesel engines for all the other variations.

But in a piece I wrote just before Chrysler's announcement at (you'll have to register, sorry), ENVI president Frank Rhodes nixed the idea of a single platform with two masters. Asked about integrating new powertrains—battery packs, electric drive, small range-extender engines—into architectures also built to accommodate standard engines, he reacted sharply. "Sharing platforms? We don't think that makes sense. We believe that end result is sort of the worst of all."

(He did suggest that unique designs and architectures didn't preclude shared production lines and intermingled assembly. That's an ambitious task, if the aluminum structures and reorganized packaging of the company’s Detroit show concepts carry over into production.)

Finally, Chrysler seems to be drifting toward outsourced vehicle assembly. The Dodge EV was the only "new" vehicle of the three it showed off today, and that appears to be a converted Lotus Europa—albeit in bright yellow with Viper-style double black stripes. Lotus already assembles the Tesla Roadster, which is based on some components of its Elise. Now Chrysler and Lotus are reportedly discussing assembly of the Dodge EV in Hethel. Do I hear an echo? Tesla can’t be particularly happy about this one …

Chrysler has also outsourced assembly of its not-yet-arrived small cars, both an unnamed version of the Nissan Sentra and its "Waiting for Godot" Chery small car. On the flip side, it's serving as an outsourcer to Volkswagen, for the Routan minivan (nee Dodge Caravan) and Nissan, for the next Titan pickup truck (nee Dodge Ram). Whether Chrysler decides to build its all-new EVs in house or finds a partner to assemble elsewhere—reducing all those annoying capital expenditure for things like plants and machinery—will be one to watch.

About that urban car, by the way: Chrysler may be serious about the idea of a limited-range city vehicle. In that same piece, the company gave strong hints that it thinks there's a market for a car that offers a range higher than 40 miles, but far lower than the 300 expected of a "regular" car.

Taking a stance against GM’s notion of "range anxiety," Chrysler suggests that it sees a group of buyers—apparently anal-retentive list-makers and mileage loggers—who'd be entirely comfortable with such a vehicle. The secret sauce may be that Chrysler owns Global Electric Motors (GEM), which has sold almost 40,000 "neighborhood electric vehicles" over the past 10 years. In other words, the company probably has a fair grasp on what EV users actually like and want. It promises to be a fascinating market exercise, if it actually happens.

In the end, I'm happy that Chrysler dropped this bombshell into our hidebound little world. For a long time, GM was the only North American electric-drive pioneer out there—and you know what they say about pioneers. (Something about arrows in the back…) Of course, Toyota is quietly spending hundreds of millions of dollars (cash the U.S. makers don’t actually have) to maintain its decade-long dominance of hybrid vehicles. And it's said to be thinking about making the Prius its own brand, with its own lineup of vehicles. One day soon, those cars will start rolling into showrooms, with less hoopla and much shorter lead times.

Meanwhile, let's give Chrysler two cheers. I'm keeping the third one until I actually drive production-ready versions of these suckers. And by the way, GM: That goes for the Volt, too.—John Voelcker

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