For the Record: Chrysler is Clueless About Green Cars

Last Updated May 27, 2011 5:18 PM EDT

The Dodge Ram plug-in hybrid: in search of a market?
When it comes to green, Chrysler just doesn't get it. The company has a long history in the field, but its tiny test programs have never gone anywhere, and a once-ambitious hybrid and electric strategy has shrunk down to a few below-the-radar efforts that are mostly window dressing. Plus, the company has the tendency to repeat its past mistakes, and kill programs it spent a lot of money developing.

Chrysler's approach to electrification has always been confused and tentative, and it has consistently underestimated the potential of the green car market -- usually deferring to the safe haven of big cars and trucks. It's unclear why the company has never simply hybridized one of its small or midsized cars, such as the new 200.

Instead, the latest Chrysler entry is a small fleet of plug-in hybrid Dodge Ram 1500 pickup trucks, developed in partnership with the Department of Energy and delivered to the agency this week. If there was a contractor market for huge hybrid trucks, then Chevrolet's hybrid Silverado would be selling, but it isn't. General Motors sold 29,342 Silverados in April, and only 103 of them were the very thirsty (21 mpg combined) hybrid version.

No production version
The program is already a success for Chrysler on one level, because it snared $48 million in DOE funding, but it's unlikely that the 140 test trucks produced will ever lead to a vehicle that would actually sell on dealer lots. Chrysler is already saying that it has no plans to produce a plug-in hybrid version of the Ram.

Worse, Chrysler has been down this road before, with the "Contractor Special" hybrid version of the Ram that was the company's big green effort for 2004. A retail sales plan was abandoned in favor of fleets, but there were problems with the hybrid system and few, if any, were sold.

A turning point
Chrysler might have gone the other way. It developed an excellent two-mode hybrid system with GM, but citing an inability to "formulate an appropriate business case" (duh) it abandoned plans to incorporate that powertrain into a Ram pickup that would have debuted this year.

Chrysler launched the ambitious ENVI electric division in 2007, when it was under the heavy hand of Cerberus Capital Management. Things started out with a bang: ENVI showed off a veritable fleet of cars, including a Tesla-killer called the Dodge Circuit, electric Jeeps and a Chrysler minivan. And some of them were going into volume production--Chrysler said it would have 500,000 EVs on the road (I'm not making this up) by 2013. Instead, the company unceremoniously killed ENVI in 2009.

Another moment lost
Another golden opportunity was squandered when, as part of the federal Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, Chrysler developed a hybrid car, the ESX3, which could have been an early competitor for the Prius. The 72-mpg car was delivered in 2000, but never produced. There was no business case, either, though Toyota proved otherwise.

I'm leaving out the ultra-tentative 1997 electric minivan, the EPIC -- I think I saw one once. Perhaps Chrysler's biggest green claim to fame is that it owns GEM, the prime supplier of golf cart-like electric service vehicles in the U.S. Ford abandoned this market when, like Chrysler, it killed its own Think EV division.

Chrysler could boast of an ambitious hydrogen fuel-cell program when it was hooked up to Daimler, but now the German automaker is carrying on alone -- and plans on going into production in 2015.

The Fiat 500 will plug in, but how many on the road?
All this brings us to electric version of the Fiat 500, a very quiet program if ever there was one. It doesn't help that Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne proclaimed:
Until the (battery) storage gets resolved, I think electric vehicles are going to struggle.
The plug-in Fiat program definitely has a hard road ahead. Ideally, Chrysler and Fiat would be out there promoting it, signing up charging partners, announcing launch markets and the like. But the companies been largely quiet since announcing last year that the 500, with batteries from A123 (also the ENVI supplier), would debut in 2012.

Soon after, A123 CEO David Vieau told me that his company and Fiat were going separate ways, in part because the program had been "significantly diminished in scale from our earlier expectation." He also told the Boston Globe that "a rival vendor said it could provide batteries at below-market cost."

So it's far from clear how many electric Fiats will be produced. Back to the new plug-in hybrid. This is one big truck, with Chrysler's Hemi V-8 under the hood. It will achieve just 22 mpg when the 5.7-liter engine is running, and have 50 miles of electric range. But it's hard to imagine that contractors are the ideal market to take advantage of that ability, and other reports put the electric range at 20 miles. "I don't get it," someone posted at Left Lane News. "Of what possible use is 20 miles of pure electric to anyone interested in buying a pickup?" I don't get it, either, or Chrysler's whole approach to the green car.

Related: Photos: Chrysler (the Ram), Jim Motavalli (Fiat)
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