Chrysler (Finally) Plugs in With a Minivan
In 2012, Chrysler had just 25 plug-in hybrid Town & Country minivans on the road in test programs, and Abdullah Bazzi of the company’s advanced hybrid project was moved to say, “The focus now shifts from engineering design and development of this unique technology, to real-world testing and evaluation.”
That testing must have paid off, because Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is finally ready to go wide with its PHEV. As part of a recent product preview aimed at expanding the Chrysler brand (PDF), the company announced that it will debut a production T&C plug-in hybrid minivan with 75 MPGe in 2016, and a “full-size crossover” with a plug just a year later. (Jump to page 29 of the PDF.)
It’s part of a plan that includes both a new small car (the 100) and a pair of crossovers, and it aims at making Chrysler competitive in 65 percent of the market (versus 25 percent today). Global sales are 350,000 now, but the target is 800,000 by 2018.
The Chrysler 200 sedan, if reports on the web are to be believed, will have a plug-in hybrid option when it’s refreshed in 2017.
Reluctant on EVs
Fiat-Chrysler, led by Sergio Marchionne, has been notably skeptical about electric cars, and that’s not likely to change. But the Fiat 500e electric is darned nice, and if Chrysler is going wide it’s going to need a vehicle with a plug, too. As part of its push on Chrysler, FCA will retire Dodge Grand Caravan minivans (the brand is getting a muscle makeover) so the T&C will have a higher profile.
As I’ve written, the absence of any electric or even hybrid minivan seems like a gap in the marketplace. Carmakers have given me various explanations. Minivans are a tiny niche, they say, and built on such heavy platforms that you don’t gain much by electrifying them. And Honda sells a 51-mpg hybrid minivan, the Freed, in Japan but it’s smaller than the Odyssey the company sells here.
But those are mainly technical obstacles, and I think the companies can and should overcome them. Maybe the minivan segment is relatively small, but it’s got just the right demographics for plug-in cars—family oriented, middle class and environmentally concerned.
The Tesla Model X is an example of creatively repurposing an existing platform. Why not a Volt-based minivan built with lightweight materials? It’s admittedly a long shot—much more likely is a Volt SUV along the lines of the MPV5 shown in Beijing circa 2010.
It remains to be seen what approach FCA will take with the Town and Country. Its existing 25-unit PHEV run used 3.6-liter Pentastar engines (E85 compliant) coupled to 12.1-kilowatt-hour battery packs from Electrovaya. Highlights are 290 horsepower and a 700-mile range. The latter had overheating problems that temporarily derailed the test program in 2012. There are also 109 RAM 1500 pickups with PHEV drivetrains as part of the same federally supported fleet.
A Radical Redesign?
Chrysler isn’t saying much about its plug-in hybrid, but the current T&C (introduced in 2008, refreshed in 2011) is a bit long in the tooth. Like that upcoming full-sized crossover, it's built in Canada.
Last year the company sold a middling 122,000 T&Cs, but the model is scheduled to be all new in 2016 (and that's the version that will be plugged in). If it's anything like the exotic 700C concept the company has shown, it could be a radical styling departure. Chrysler styling chief Ralph Gilles said, "We're trying to push the envelope and not disturb what's good about the minivan." Since Fiat-Chrysler is a global company, the T&C may be offered in more than one wheelbase (with the shorter one aimed at Europe and badged as a Lancia).
Chrysler plugs in. Finally. Hopefully.
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