Chrysler Looks To Commercialize Plug-in Cars, Again

By · September 25, 2013

Chrysler Town & Country plug-in

Once upon a time, in 2009, Chrysler was going to build a range of plug-in vehicles, from sports cars to minivans.

When Italian automaker Fiat stepped in with a strategic alliance designed to save Chrysler from bankruptcy in 2009, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne wasted no time pulling the plug on Chrysler’s plug-in car program. In March 2011, he explained, “The economics of EVs simply don’t work.” Referring to the electric version of the Fiat 500, he added, “We will lose over $10,000 per unit.”

Now, with Chrysler's fortunes turned around, its Italian partnership in jeopardy, and a possible IPO in the pipeline, Chrysler’s EV program is back. At least, that’s what we can infer from Chrysler’s corporate recruitment site, which is currently looking for engineers in the fields of electrified power development and battery management systems at its headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Prior to Fiat’s involvement in Chrysler, the automaker had trumpeted plans to electrify an entire swath of its models—ranging from an all-electric two-seat Dodge Circuit EV to a range-extended Jeep Patriot, a plug-in minivan and even a concept city car.

These plug-in cars—mostly considered showy concept vehicles without much development to support them—were aborted by Fiat long well before reaching the showroom. (A handful of plug-in hybrid Dodge RAM trucks and Chrysler Town & Country minivans materialized, albeit as part of a two-year corporate-only test fleet funded by a $123 million Department of Energy program.) Even with the support of the U.S. government, Chrysler was for years not willing to consider a plug-in future for the company.

All Along?

Despite its almost complete abstinence from plug-in programs—save for the plug-in test fleet and Fiat’s tepid efforts to sell the all-electric Fiat 500e in California (in order to satisfy the state’s zero emissions mandates)—Chrysler wants us to believe that electrified cars were on the table all along.

“We’ve said all along that we’ll need electrification to comply with the regulations going forward, and any hiring that we do on that front is consistent with that plan,” Chrysler powertrain spokesman Eric Mayne told Automotive News earlier this week. “The range of electrification technologies we’ve said that we’ll adopt starts with start-stop and goes through EVs.”

At the moment however, Chrysler isn’t keen on talking specifics, making it unlikely that we’ll see a plug-in car from Chrysler anytime soon. That, unfortunately, represents a missed opportunity: While Chrysler’s fleet of plug-in offerings—including the sole electrified pick-up truck on the market—may have enticed many a buyer a few years ago, those same vehicles will now mostly look like late also-ran compliance products.

For Chrysler, the tough job now is not building a plug-in car, but catching up with the last five years of plug-in in evolution and market leadership from rival companies like General Motors, Ford, Nissan and Tesla.

Comments

· · 29 weeks ago

Hey Chrysler . . . build more examples of the Fiat 500e: a car that seems to have gotten universal praise from just about everyone who has spent time with it. Then, sell them in the other 49 states beyond California.

· · 29 weeks ago

The Fiat 500e is a great example of what an EV can do. But it's still a Fiat - that is, it is 1) tiny and 2) ugly (there are some who like the look, but no one that I personally know).

Chrysler's bread and butter is large people-movers - minivans and SUVs. Electrifying these attracts a huge market segment while cleaning up the worst polluters. I say the Fiat 500e is fine, but bring on the PHEV Town & Country!

· · 29 weeks ago

The Fiat 500e is a useless compliance special into which Fiat's invested approximately nothing to improve manufacturing efficiency and lower costs. I don't care if it rides like a magic carpet and accelerates like a drag racer, it's doing nothing to advance the state of the industry, and serious EV enthusiasts should give it the cold shoulder it deserves unless and until F/C takes the project seriously enough to sell the vehicle nationwide (at which point you can bet they'll be figuring out how NOT to lose $10k/car).

But hey, if you want to zip around SoCal in near silence piloting a cute little Italian number and don't give a fig about the larger story, go right ahead. The 500e looks like fun.

· · 29 weeks ago

@vike1108: "...serious EV enthusiasts should give it the cold shoulder it deserves..."

I disagree. Praise the car for what it is. Shun the company for not standing behind it.

· · 28 weeks ago

@Brian: Praise the car all you like - as I admitted, it looks like fun. But how would buying the car serve to "Shun the company"?

· · 27 weeks ago

@vike1108,

I guess it wasn't clear to me that you were referring to buying versus discussing the car. If your advice is to not buy the car, then so be it. But I am not saying that buying the car serves to shun the company.

Even if one does buy the car, they can still shun the company. For example, show it off to others, talk about how great the car is - really get excited if you like it, create demand for the car. And then complain that Fiat isn't making them available to fill that demand. I would rather see Fiat compelled into making these available nationwide than to see the 500e disappear from the EV scene. I assume that Fiat would rather see the latter.

· · 27 weeks ago

@Brian: I meant that the car doesn't deserve much attention, as it is not a serious effort to produce a commercially viable EV. That's what matters, not just putting an EV drivetrain in an attractive package and checking off CARB's "now you can sell the rest of your cars in CA" box. You can talk up the 500e all you like, get excited, create demand, but F/C couldn't care less about the demand. They are not going to sell one more than they have to - I'm pretty sure that's literally true.

I'd be thrilled to be proved wrong, since the 500e looks like all kinds of fun, and would be a wonderful option for EV buyers all over the country. But I don't think I'm wrong.

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