Chrysler absent from buzz on electric cars

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Among Chrysler Group’s toughest challenges in life after bankruptcy is changing the perception that it lags competitors in bringing affordable small or midsize hybrid electric vehicles to market.

Last September, Chrysler said the first of its battery-powered ENVI models, which contain a small gasoline engine, would reach showrooms by the end of 2010. Three other electric vehicles were to be introduced by 2013.

But today, it is unclear whether new CEO Sergio Marchionne, who has been actively revamping Chrysler’s product plans, remains committed to that plan. Fiat, like many European automakers, including Chrysler’s former owner, Daimler AG, has been more committed to diesels than hybrids or electric models.

Chrysler declined to make any executives available for this story.

“Chrysler really isn’t in the game at the moment, at least not near enough for us to expect something in showrooms in 12 to 18 months,” Stephanie Brinley of AutoPacific Group, an auto research firm in Troy, Mich., said about the hybrid market.

About a year ago, Chrysler produced some hybrid versions of its Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUVs that achieved about 22 mpg, but stopped making them when it closed its Newark, Del., assembly plant. Those models are no longer sold.

But interest in hybrid, electric and other green powertrain technology has been growing again in the United States after falling in the first half of this year. According to hybridcar.com, the industry sold 35,429 hybrid vehicles in July, up 35 percent from June.

But President Barack Obama wants 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015. And consumers have come to expect fluctuations, with occasional spikes, in gas prices that are leading them to seek out more fuel-efficient models such as hybrids.

With that backdrop, General Motors Co. two weeks ago boasted that its Chevrolet Volt would be rated for an astounding 230 mpg in city driving.

Last week, Ford Motor Co. unveiled new touch-screen technology it developed with several utilities that enable plug-in electric vehicle drivers to know how soon they need to recharge and where they can do it. Ford sold more hybrid vehicles than Honda in July.

That makes the continued silence on Chrysler’s new product plans conspicuous. Those plans, which are expected to be unveiled later this year, remain focused on such gas-only vehicles as the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2011 Chrysler 300, according to internal sources familiar with the process.

While Fiat is better known for its diesel engines than hybrids, Chrysler’s new partner is developing a lithium-ion hybrid system that could be coupled with a new 900-cc, two-cylinder engine, according to Quattrouote, an Italian automotive magazine. That system could be offered in the 500 minicar that Chrysler is expected to put on sale in the United States sometime in 2011. Fiat also is designing the system so it can have plug-in capability.

Chrysler is making progress on its own, too. The U.S. government is granting more than $300 million to Chrysler and its battery partner, A123 Systems, to produce a fleet of 100 plug-in hybrid Dodge Ram pickups and 100 Chrysler Town & Country minivans. In May, Chrysler and A123 pledged to deliver 165 Town & Country battery-powered minivans to the U.S. Postal Service.

“In terms of basic technology, they’re not really lagging that much,” said Mike Millikin, editor of Green Car Congress, a Web site that tracks alternative fuel technology. “In terms of actually getting cars in showrooms, they are behind.”

So far, however, Chrysler’s ENVI program has coordinated the work of suppliers such as A123 and General Electric, rather than developing Chrysler’s own battery systems.

“That is not a bad way to go if the suppliers are good at what they do,” said Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst with IHS Global Insight in Troy. “They haven’t had the scale, and for all those years they were controlled by Daimler, which was putting more money into diesels and fuel cells than batteries.”

(c) 2009, Detroit Free Press. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.