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A 200C? Is Chrysler messing with our heads? With Chrysler CEO Jim Press putting on his best game face despite the openly dour moods of some Chrysler executive staff, out rolled a bevy of well known Chrysler vehicles augmented with pure-electric drivetrains.

This is the work of the Auburn Hills automaker’s ENVI division, the play on letters taken from the first four of the word “environment”, a Chrysler project that the brand hoped would be the envy of rivals.
Chrysler had previously shown three of its ENVI EVs on September 23 of last year, when CEO Bob Nardelli showed up to an CNBC interview with a trio of electric vehicles, and then later that day at Chrysler’s world headquarters to a gathering of automotive journalists, wowing viewers and onlookers and simultaneously giving new hope to Mopar fans and alternatively to critics of the production Chevy Volt who didn’t find it as sporty as the concept version shown last year.

The appropriately named Dodge Circuit, simply dubbed EV at that time and painted yellow instead of today’s orange, is about as sporty as cars come, having been built off of the backbone of a Lotus, while the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV and Chrysler Town & Country EV also received new paint schemes for Detroit, and no doubt some unmentioned upgrades. The Auburn Hills-based automaker showed another electrified Jeep that it hasn’t shown before, however, and the zero-emissions Patriot might be its most doable EV yet. None are for sale, for the time being at least, but the company has big plans. But a 200C?
It didn’t take long for the Detroit auto show floor to get swept up in speculation, some of it negative regarding the announcements lack of any real mainstream product to boost upcoming sales and other talk about just what the 200C represented. Was it the new look of the long anticipated 300C replacement, expected to bow at this year’s North American International Auto Show, or possibly a rear-drive replacement for the much criticized Sebring? Chrysler staffers on hand denied any connection to the 300C, stating that the 300C is so gorgeous it’ll knock our socks off, while another insider made it pretty clear that this indeed was the Sebring in prototype trim.

No doubt we’ll have to wait for the Chicago or New York shows to find out for certain, although Chrysler did say that ” the concept provides a clear view of what we’ll see in a next-generation Chrysler performance sedan,” in a press release, so place your bets as to which current model it will replace.
So what is the 200C EV? As the latter half of the name divulges, it’s an electric car using the same powertrain already integrated into Chrysler’s other show cars. True, but while the aforementioned models may be more readily available than the 200C EV, the stylish four-door sedan gives greater hope for Chrysler having a stronger presence in the critically important midsize car market.

In concept form it’s a rear-drive sedan created by shortening the chassis of a current production 300 sedan, and due to its ENVI drivetrain can sprint to 60 mph (62 km/h) in a mere 7 seconds. Although performance was front and centre during its introduction, its powertrain being highlighted, the 200C EV boasts an upscale cabin that would go far to help people forget the current Sebring. It is “free of switches and levers,” says Chrysler, “with all vehicle functions and features managed via a panoramic multimedia touch screen, a passenger-dedicated portion of the screen dubbed ‘techno-leaf,’ and a stowable tablet PC,” said Chrysler in a press release.

“The Chrysler 200C EV embodies our passion for problem solving by combining the best of engineering and automotive design,” added Ralph Gilles, Chrysler vice president of design. “With the 200C EV, we were able to maximize the effectiveness of the ENVI powertrain with the stunning, wind-cheating vehicle shape, while pushing toward the future with the avant-garde interior and advanced in-vehicle connectivity.”

A series hybrid rather than merely a full-electric vehicle, the 200C EV can commute up to 40 miles on battery power alone between recharges, and if your daily drive takes you further it can extend to a 400 mile range via a small gasoline engine and on-board electric generator. Volt anyone? As if GM had hopes of hanging onto its “reverse hybrid” idea for long, it looks as if Chrysler at the low end and Fisker at the high end have plans afoot.

The all-electric Dodge Circuit can manage a longer range under electric power at 150 to 200 miles, depending on your driving style. It’s unknown which ENVI vehicle will go into production, but the automaker has plans to put one in showrooms in 2010, followed by three more by 2013, although it’s unlikely the three that are added will be current body style Chryslers. It does show, however, that the brand is thinking into the future.

“Chrysler’s broad portfolio of electric vehicle prototypes clearly demonstrates that we are well on our way to bringing electric vehicles to our consumers’ garages,” stated Frank Klegon, Chrysler executive vice president for product development.

Chrysler actually has plans to put 500,000 EVs on the road by 2013, a combination of ENVI developed vehicles and those produced by its GEM division, which makes neighbourhood transports not much larger than golf carts.

The combination of ENVI-modified production models and the new 200C EV caused Chrysler co-President Jim Press to say, “.there’s evidence here of ongoing investment in the future.”

Chrysler is pinning a huge part of its future on a plan to produce a full line of electric vehicles, at a reasonable cost to both the carmaker and the consumer.

While General Motors is moving ahead with its Volt electric midsized car, Chrysler says it already has plans in place, not just for electric cars, but also for minivans and even off-road vehicles.

Chrysler’s strategy hinges on keeping it cheap. The carmaker will dispense with flashy designs in exchange for low cost and flexibility. And it plans to pile on more electric-powered models quickly once the program launches in 2010.

“We aren’t a one-electric-vehicle company,” Lou Rhodes, Chrysler’s vice president for advanced vehicle engineering, told CNNMoney in an exclusive interview.

Rhodes is also president of Chrysler’s ENVI, a separate business division tasked with bringing new electric vehicles to market.

Instead of making one, or just a few, electric-only models, Chrysler will sell the same models in both gasoline-powered and electric-powered versions. This low-cost, high-variety electric-vehicle strategy will play a big part in any comeback plan Chrysler may present in hopes of getting government rescue funding.

Chrysler’s strategy substantially cuts costs, Rhodes said, and it reduces the risk of entering uncharted market territory. That will translate into lower costs and more choices for customers.

If gas prices stay low, Chrysler factories will produce more gasoline powered models. If gas prices rise, factories can start rapidly turning out more electric cars since the models are essentially the same.

Chrysler’s first electric vehicles will be based on current vehicles. The carmaker hasn’t yet announced what the first model will be but, based on prototypes Chrysler revealed in September, it will likely be a minivan, a Jeep Wrangler 4X4 or a 2-seat sports car built in a Lotus body.

At least some of Chrysler’s products will be extended-range electric vehicles, like GM (GM, Fortune 500)’s Volt. Because the car’s body will not have been designed around optimal weight and aerodynamics, the Chrysler vehicle will need a more powerful electric drive system to provide performance similar to the Volt’s. For instance, Chrysler promises the same 40-mile all-electric plug-in range as the Volt. (After that, a small gasoline engine will start up to produce more electricity as the car drives.) But the heavier Jeep prototype has a 27-kilowatt-hour (KwH) battery back compared to the Volt’s 16 KwH pack.

Round two

Chrysler’s second-generation electric vehicles, which the carmaker plans to start rolling out between 2012 and 2015, will be engineered from the wheels up to use either gasoline or electric power.

No matter which drivetrain the customer chooses, the vehicles will not be compromised, Rhodes insists.

“If you know what you want to achieve up front, you can certainly design that flexibility in up front,” he said.

Electric cars will not have useless transmission tunnels running along the center of the floor, he said. If a rear-wheel-drive gasoline car needs that, a different floor will be used when that version is built.

The electric power systems are also being engineered for maximum flexibility, Rhodes said. Bigger, heavier vehicles take more power to move, whether that power is from gasoline or batteries. For gasoline-powered cars, engineers have to design larger and smaller engines for different uses. A small Jeep Compass, for instance, gets a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine while a Jeep Commander SUV can come equipped with a 5.7-liter V8 engine.

But what if going to a larger engine was as simple as just plugging in more cylinders? Chrysler’s electric drivetrains will work something like that. To hold more battery power, larger vehicles will simply get more battery cells. The cells themselves will be exactly the same whether in large or small vehicles. That’s important because batteries are the biggest expense of creating an electric car.

“The real economy is in the cells,” said Rhodes.

Likewise, the electric motor will be the same. It will just be up-sized for bigger jobs.

“All we change is the length of the rotor and the number of windings to span between different power outputs,” Rhodes said.

Even the housing that goes around the motor will be same regardless of the size of the motor . The magnesium housing will be so lightweight that it simply won’t be worth the added cost of creating smaller housings for the downsized motors, Rhodes said.

Electric cars aren’t just a side-show or a public relations move for Chrysler, Rhodes insists, but a major strategic move. Through its GEM (Global Electric Motorcars) subsidiary, Chrysler already claims to be the largest seller of electric vehicles in the U.S. But those are so-called “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles,” ultra-light cars with a top speed limited to 25 miles per hour. Chrysler claims sales of 40,000 GEM cars over the last 10 years. With its new plan, Chrysler plans to produce over 500,000 electric vehicles by 2013.

“This is going to be a big deal for Chrysler,” he said.

 

 

 

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Chrysler’s first extended-range electric car could be a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited like this. Chrysler promises that it will be fully off-road capable.