Chrysler charges into electric car race

(HO, AFP/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Firing a surprise shot across the bows of industry rivals, Chrysler revealed three functioning battery-powered vehicles Tuesday and thrust itself to the forefront of the race to build mass-market electric cars.

In unveiling a minivan, a Jeep Wrangler and a sports car, Chrysler’s executives spelled out plans for a future in which most, if not all, automobiles would use electric motors for propulsion -- essentially sounding the death knell for the internal-combustion engine.

Chrysler declined to say how much the vehicles would cost and would not discuss which would be released first. But the third-largest U.S. automaker said that it would put hundreds of electric cars in test fleets next year and would bring one of the models to market by late 2010, with more electric cars to follow soon thereafter.

“We’re not talking about a single electric car,” said Robert Nardelli, chief executive of Chrysler. “We’re talking about a full line of cars that . . . allows us to be energy-independent going forward.”

That such news came from Chrysler, the industry’s downtrodden underdog -- and the carmaker with the heaviest reliance on large pickup trucks and SUVs -- was almost astonishing. The smallest of the Big Three has seen its sales slip 24% so far this year, has been forced to end its once-lucrative leasing program and has all but ceded production of small cars to other automakers.

“I didn’t think they were a player,” said Jim Hossack, vice president at industry consultancy AutoPacific. “I’m impressed. This suggests a lot of bravado.”

While other automakers, from Toyota Motor Corp. to Renault, have made increasingly loud noises in recent months about producing electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, Chrysler has been almost invisible, doing little more than presenting a trio of electric concept cars in January.

As a result, Tuesday’s unveiling blindsided much of the industry. Just a week ago, General Motors Corp. unveiled its production prototype of the much-hyped Chevy Volt. But unlike Chrysler’s offerings, the Volt was not operational.

Some observers remarked on the timing of Chrysler’s announcement. In recent weeks, Chrysler, GM and Ford Motor Co. have been arguing that Congress should fund $25 billion worth of loan guarantees written into last year’s energy act. Those loans were designed to help automakers and suppliers pay for the costs of retooling factories to build vehicles that would comply with new, stricter federal fuel economy standards. But the loans were never funded.

By showing off new technology like electric cars, critics say, Chrysler and others are trying to curry favor with legislators.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that we’ve got GM and Chrysler showing off electric vehicles just as the industry goes to Washington to make their case,” said Erich Merkle, auto industry analyst at Crowe Horwath.

At the event Tuesday, Nardelli said that he had recently been in contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.). “We’re trying to be clear that these investments qualify for the loans,” he said. Executives at GM and Ford have also been in talks with lawmakers.

Two of the vehicles unveiled Tuesday -- the Town & Country minivan and the Jeep Wrangler -- are based on existing vehicle platforms. Each combines an electric motor, a battery and a 1-liter gasoline generator.

According to Frank Klegon, Chrysler’s head of product development, they will be able to go 40 miles on battery power alone before the generator kicks in, giving them another 360 miles of range. They will come in front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive options, so that “enthusiasts will be able to roam the planet while taking care of it at the same time,” Klegon said.

The third vehicle, a Dodge-branded coupe based on a platform designed by English carmaker Lotus, runs only on battery power. Tiny, flashy and lightweight, it accelerates to 60 mph from a standstill in less than five seconds and can travel 150 to 200 miles on a charge.

Those specs make it similar to an electric car already on the market, the Tesla Roadster. That $109,000 car is also based on a Lotus platform, runs on battery power alone and breaks the five-second acceleration barrier.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Darryl Siry, head of sales, marketing and service at Tesla Motors. “Developing a two-seat sportscar and putting it on a test track is not the difficult part. Getting it to market is.”

At the event Tuesday, Chrysler let journalists drive the Jeep and the sports car, both of which showed the rapid acceleration and continuous torque typical of electric vehicles. All were quiet. “That silence,” one onlooker commented, “is the sound of the death of gasoline power.”

Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press said that a recharge of the vehicles’ batteries, which could take about four hours on 220 volt current, would cost as little as 70 cents.

Battery technology is crucial in any electric vehicle -- particularly so with lithium ion batteries, the chemistry du jour but one that has proved difficult to perfect. Chrysler said it was working with several possible suppliers, including Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, which is also working on batteries for GM.

Toyota, which has become the industry leader in hybrid technology thanks to its Prius, has announced plans for a plug-in version of that car that would have a longer all-electric range and better efficiency. Test versions are due out in 2010. Other carmakers, such as Nissan and Mitsubishi, have said they will produce all-electric cars, with the latter planning to begin selling them in Japan next year.

Among U.S. automakers, Chrysler has been the slowest on alternative drivetrain technology. Although GM and Ford have had hybrids on the market for several years, Chrysler is only now delivering its first hybrids -- full-size Dodge- and Chrysler-branded SUVs -- to dealership lots.

Now, with its big bet on electric cars, Chrysler seems to be taking the lead on what people will be driving in the future.

“These are extraordinary times for the auto industry,” Nardelli said. “Meeting this challenge requires a major step forward.”

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