Chrysler’s Trio of Electric Vehicles

Exactly one week after General Motors unveiled its much-publicized Chevy Volt, Chrysler tried to steal some of the general’s electric-vehicle thunder by announcing three prototype electric vehicles of its own. The trio on display at the company’s headquarters in suburban Detroit included a Dodge sports car based on the Lotus Europa coupe, and we were there to drive it.

The Dodge EV sports car, the Chrysler Town & Country EV, and the EV are all candidates to become the first electric-drive vehicle that Chrysler will offer; the company promises it will hit the market by sometime in 2010. Chrysler is clearly trying to have a vehicle in consumers’ hands by the same time as GM, which plans to have the Volt at dealerships by November 2010.

While the Dodge EV is a pure electric vehicle with an expected range of between 150 and 200 miles from a lithium-ion battery pack, the Chrysler and Jeep vehicles are what Chrysler calls “range-extended electric vehicles.” Like the Chevy Volt, they would use solely electric power for about 40 miles, then rely on a small gasoline engine to run a generator that would produce additional electric power as needed. In the Town & Country, the battery packs are stored in the underfloor cavities that normally serve as repositories for the stow-n-go seats. In the Jeep, electric-drive components are packaged underhood without compromising ground clearance, and company engineers note that the battery pack is mounted low enough in the vehicle to actually lower the center of gravity and improve handling.

Chrysler is unwilling to specify which of these three vehicles it will bring to market first, nor to speak about expected volumes or retail prices, but company executives speak boldly about their plans for widely introducing some form or another of electric power to all of their products within time. “We expect that, by 2020, at least 50 percent of the U.S. market will consist of extended-range electric vehicles,” notes Frank Klegon, Chrysler’s head of product development. Company chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli adds: “We have a social responsibility to our consumers to deliver environmentally friendly, fuel efficient, advanced electric vehicles, and our intention is to meet that responsibility quickly and more broadly than any other automobile manufacturer. The introduction of the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge electric vehicles provides a glimpse of the very near future, and demonstrates that we are serious and well along in the development of bringing electric vehicles to market.”

Dodge EV Sports Car At first glance, the low-slung yellow car with black stripes is confusing to the eye. The car has the familiar proportions of the Lotus Europa coupe, which itself is a derivation of the Lotus Elise roadster, but its front end is decorated with a tacked-on Dodge rams-horn badge, and the Europa’s front-end styling actually does have some features in common with the , what with its voluptuous front fenders flanking the hood. But then you realize that this is indeed nothing more than a Europa with a quick-and-dirty paint-and-badging job.

Open the driver’s door and step in, and there is no doubt this is a Lotus-based automobile, what with its very low ride height and its extremely wide side sills, a consequence of its lightweight, adhesive-bonded aluminum body structure. Release the console-mounted hand brake, hit one of three buttons in a panel astride the center tunnel to engage drive, punch the accelerator, and you’re off in a cocoon of silence.

The Dodge EV’s electric-drive system consists of three components: a 268-hp electric motor, an advanced lithium-ion battery, and an integrated power controller. The battery pack is immediately behind the seats, in the same place an engine would normally be located in this Lotus chassis. Strangely, though, it feels as if much of the car’s weight is located in the front of the vehicle, which is the opposite of how a stock Lotus feels.

Steering feel, though, is a more familiar sensation: lots of direct communication with the road, in the familiar Lotus manner, although we wished for faster response. During our quick drive, the brakes were well modulated and strong, with good pedal feel.

As we eased out onto Chrysler‘s windy, scenic test track, the Dodge EV quickly settled into a dynamic rhythm that was familiar to us after many miles in the Lotus Elise/Europa platform. Body control was super, but what was really a revelation was the incredibly strong, seamless torque band: press the accelerator, and this thing really moves, smoothly and without interruption. We saw an indicated 90 mph and the vehicle felt like it had plenty of juice left. Then we checked the bare-bones spec sheet Chrysler provided, and it was no wonder: the EV is rated at 480 lb-ft of torque! Dodge claims that it is capable of reaching 60 mph in less than five seconds, doing the quarter-mile in 13 seconds, and reaching a top speed of 120 mph. These claims all seem reasonable.

When asked if Lotus Cars’s recent collaboration with Tesla helped inform its new technological relationship with Chrysler, Chrysler’s product development chief, Frank Klegon, demurred, but he did note that “the powertrain and the drivetrain are ours, but Lotus has great experience with lightweight platforms.” He went on to say that, compared with Tesla, Chrysler has the expertise to bring a car to market in a shorter time frame and at a lower cost. Time will tell whether that actually happens, but a cut-price Tesla sold through existing Dodge dealerships sounds pretty good to us. But just as Tesla has created new bodywork for the Lotus chassis, we certainly hope that Dodge would do the same for its electric sports car, if indeed it ever comes to market. After all, Dodge has already shown us the Demon roadster at the 2007 Detroit auto show, and surely it could inspire a whole new set of clothes for the electric vehicle born in Hethel, England, and electrified in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

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