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Chrysler Revs Up to Join Green Car Race

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Chrysler revealed prototypes for three electric cars Tuesday--an SUV, minivan, and coupe--and announced plans to roll one of the models out to showrooms by 2010. The move, which caught many industry observers by surprise, enters the financially strapped company in the high stakes race for a mass market alternative-fuel vehicle. It may also position the smallest of the Big Three for a larger chunk of a $25 billion federal loan package meant to help U.S. automakers start churning out hybrids and electric cars instead of unwanted trucks and SUVs. Originally authorized in last year's energy bill, the loan program passed in the House of Representatives Wednesday and now awaits Senate approval.

One of Chrysler's new prototypes features sporty specs--zero to 60 in less than five seconds, the company claims--and lightweight underpinnings made by England's Lotus Cars. If that sounds familiar, look to the Roadster, an all-electric luxury sport car built by Silicon Valley-based startup Tesla Motors with a Lotus chassis. For now, Chrysler's model is called the Dodge EV, and auto industry analyst Aaron Bragman of Global Insight expects it to launch before the minivan and SUV models. He said, "It's pretty much a finished, developed vehicle."

Maybe so, but Chrysler has some catching up to do. General Motors unveiled a much-hyped prototype for it's Chevy Volt last week. And then there's Tesla, which has so far delivered 27 Roadsters and has about as many in production.

"Tesla has cars rolling off the assembly line, so they're definitely further along," Bragman said. "But the Dodge EV is probably going to be giving Tesla nightmares." Given the choice between a $109,000 electric sport car from a startup that may still be tweaking its distribution and maintenance services, and a comparable machine available for half the price from 2,000 Dodge dealers around the country, Bragman said many
consumers would opt for the latter.

Tesla spokesperson Darryl Siry considers that scenario unlikely in the time frame Chrysler has laid out. "In terms of competition," he said, referring to Chrysler's Tuesday announcement, "it was a non-event to me." The Dodge EV has so much in place,
he said, primarily because the company has taken an existing car and dropped in a battery pack, instead of developing an electric vehicle from scratch. "A lot of people have converted cars to electric cars," Siry said. "That's not the trick." For electric automakers, a major
hurdle between concept and low-cost, high-volume vehicles involves the powertrain--a complex group of components that generate energy and transmit it to the wheels and road surface.

Conversions offer a quick way to get electric cars on the road--something Chrysler needs to strengthen its bid for loans. "They need to demonstrate to the government and
public that they're in the game," said Siry. "When they [the automakers and suppliers] start horse trading as to who gets how much, Chrysler needs a game plan. They have to put something together to say 'Hey, we get $5 billion,' or however much they want to pitch." A prototype for a sexy, two-seat sports car might serve that purpose and help get people excited about an automaker not known for innovation in recent years, but according to Siry, the conversion route is expensive and impractical for the mass market.

This wouldn't necessarily be a problem (Ferrari has done just fine
with niche luxury cars), except the big automakers need ultra efficient vehicles entering their fleets in high volume to increase their average fuel economy. That's one reason Siry remains skeptical that Chrysler will hit its 2010 target for any of the three prototypes introduced this
week. The larger vehicles need more development, and the smaller sport car might not do enough to help Chrysler meet required efficiency standards. "I would be surprised if they
put their limited resources behind a low-volume sport car that's not going to move the needle in any way," he said.

According to Bragman, however, even announcing a varied line of electric
vehicles could spur shifts in the electric vehicle market. In addition to the coupe, Chrysler showed battery-powered versions of its Town & Country minivan and
Jeep SUV. "It's going to force GM's hand to reveal what's coming next after the Volt," said Bragman. He expects to see the Volt's so-called "E-Flex" powertrain appearing in heftier GM offerings--and soon. "You'll see it in larger vehicles at this season's or next season's auto shows."

Tesla, meanwhile, has a luxury sedan called the Model S in the works for a projected 2010 roll out, and chief technology officer JB Straubel said Wednesday at the EmTech 2008 conference that a family car the company now has on the drawing board may be produced in
partnership with an outside manufacturer, which could help lower costs. "Currently, the battery technology is not there, but two or three years from now, it just might be," Bragman said. "They're dumping massive amounts of money on battery technology, so I think we'll see it accelerate sooner rather than later."

Read more about electric cars:
Electric Cars Take Over: 17 Electric Cars You Must Know About
China Planning Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
Chevy Volt Will Be Made in Flint, Michigan
Dave Burdick: Tough to Swallow the New Pill-Shaped Chevy Volt

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