It’s been a tumultuous few years since “Big Three” automaker Chrysler’s highly publicized 2009 bankruptcy and subsequent $14 billion bailout. Now, the company seems to be pulling itself from the wreckage thanks to a new alliance with European automaker Fiat, an ambitious and long overdue redesign of some of its stalwart models and effective new marketing. The Michigan-based automaker has seen a dramatic rise in sales while garnering positive reviews for new models like the Fiat 500 mini-car.
The glory days of Chrysler’s muscle car dominated lineups are long gone. Now, the company is primarily known as the world’s leading manufacturer of mini-vans. Chrysler is also known for its few remaining iconic brands such as Jeep, Ram and Dodge. But what’s been a bit harder to find in Chrysler’s comeback story (the company repaid $7.6 billion in loans to the Canadian and American governments in May 2011) are its plans for the electric and alternative fuel market.
The company’s on-again, off-again flirtation with electrics and hybrids stretches back to 1992 when the company unveiled the Dodge EPIC–for Electric Power Inter-urban Commuter–minivan concept. Neither the EPIC, which saw the light of the showroom floor in both 1993 and 1997, or the Chrysler TEVan ever caught on.
In 2007, Chrysler created its ENVI division formed to bring electric vehicles to market. ENVI, however, did not survive the company’s bankruptcy crisis and was disbanded in 2009 before a single EV could roll off the assembly line.
In May 2011, Chrysler’s electric vehicle efforts took another hit when the company agreed to sell Global Electric Motors, a company it owned that made small, low-speed golf cart style electric vehicles, to Polaris, known for snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and, increasingly, a popular lines of Victory and Indian brand motorcycles.
Now comes word that there may be a spark of life in Chrysler’s electric and hybrid plans. The company recently announced it had delivered a fleet of plug-in hybrid Town & Country minivans. Eight of the hybrid vans will go to Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy as part of a two-year test program.
Duke employees will drive the vans during a two-year study to gather data on how the vans work in real-world driving conditions. The minivans are part of a project that will deploy a total of 25 test units. Closer to Chrysler headquarters, the city of Auburn Hills, Mich., is also testing four of the vehicles during the next two years. While a fleet of plug-in hybrid Ram pickups also is being evaluated as part of a wider project.
According to Chrysler, the plug-in hybrid minivans are equipped with an E85-compatible 3.6L Pentastar engine mated to a front-wheel-drive, two-mode hybrid transmission. The minivans also employ a liquid-cooled 12.1 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery that puts out a total output of 290 horsepower and a range of 700-miles. Charge times are two-to-four hours at 220 volts with a “Level 2″ charge, and eight-to-15 hours at 110 volts with a “Level 1″ charge.