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Car FYI Throwback 2009: Chrysler’s Quashed Electric Vehicle Plans

Photo Credit: FCA North America

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is seen as a slower adopter to electrified motoring compared to many other major automakers. Through much of the 2010s, the vehicle builder was mainly focused on bolstering the Jeep as well as the young Ram brand emphasizing more traditional propulsion. From 2020 until 2017, the only vehicle publicly sold by FCA to employ an electric drivetrain in North America was the Fiat 500e (a fully electric version of the stylish subcompact limited to sales in only select American states and was not available in Canada). Contrasting FCA’s barren electric or hybrid vehicle offerings through much of the past decade were production plans announced in the late 2000s. 
At the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the corporate entity that would become FCA existed as Chrysler LLC. Recently splitting from its turbulent marriage with Daimler-Benz, the auto company operated under a private equity group eager to impress as a reborn independent business. The product line of Chrysler LLC had a lot going for it heading into 2009. In addition to the all-new Dodge Journey crossover, the automaker also had a slew of recently introduced models including the Dodge Challenger as well as an updated versions of the Ram pickup truck and Chrysler’s minivan line. Chrysler LLC also had ambitious plans for future product development. 

By late 2008, Chrysler LLC prepared the automotive public and media for a collection of partial or fully electric vehicles from their ENVI group. A name spawned from the first four letters of the word Environmental, ENVI was assembled in September of 2007 as Chrysler’s in-house organization devoted to exploring ways to apply alternative energies into the company’s vehicles. Operating in cooperation with GE (General Electric) and the United States Department of Energy in the creation of energy storage technology, ENVI would demonstrate some lofty ambition for the auto company.   

Photo Credit: FCA North America

At the Detroit auto show occurring weeks into the new year, Chrysler made a bold declaration to produce 500,000 electrified vehicles by 2013 consisting of ENVI electric drive technology as well as vehicles sold through GEM. GEM or Global Electric Motorcars built low-speed neighbourhood electric vehicles since 1998 and was acquired through DaimlerChrysler at the end of 2000. Unrelated to the ENVI organization, the 2009 model year included a hybrid version of the Chrysler Aspen sport utility vehicle. The first hybrid production vehicle sold by Chrysler, the short-lived Aspen Hybrid used a special transmission in concert with a HEMI V-8 engine to achieve a fuel economy improvement greater than 25 percent. Chrysler’s electrified intentions for the main roadway was highlighted at the North American International Auto Show by a portfolio of five vehicle concepts across the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. 

The majority of Chrysler ENVI’s initiative was focused on plug-in hybrid or range-extending electric vehicles. One of the first vehicles unveiled was one based on the company’s popular minivan. The Chrysler Town & Country EV touted improved efficiency while also maintaining the family van’s seven-passenger capacity. This was not the first time Chrysler envisioned an electrified powerplant being used with their minivan. The all-electric EPIC concept was shown off at auto shows in 1992 leading to a limited production version being offered for fleet use in the late 1990s.

Chrysler Town & Country EV Concept on display at 2009 Canadian International AutoShow (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada)

By 2009, a Chrysler 200C EV sedan was also announced. Two plug-in hybrid vehicle concepts were also shown for the Jeep lineup. Finished in a Green Pearl body color, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV presented itself as an electrified means to roam the planet with off-roading capability. ENVI would add the Patriot EV, based on Jeep’s compact sport utility vehicle by the time of the January auto show in Detroit.   

The ENVI Range-extended Electric Vehicle drive system was developed as a versatile collection of technology that could be applied to front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles. A battery pack would store enough energy to propel a Chrysler product to a projected 40-mile range using all-electric propulsion. Total range of the drive system was rated at 400 miles with the range-extending internal combustion powerplant.

The only Chrysler ENVI vehicle not based on an existing model, the Dodge Circuit EV was also the program’s only fully-electric propelled prototype. The small, two-passenger Circuit EV sports car incorporated aggressive Dodge performance styling with an electric motor producing 268 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque. Fed to a rear-wheel drive system, the electric power system would be capable of propelling the car from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under five seconds and a top speed of 120 miles per hour. The Dodge Circuit EV’s advertised range was slated at between 150 and 200 miles.

Photo Credit: FCA North America

A lithium-ion battery pack was highlighted in the various ENVI electric drive concept vehicles. Through partnership with GE, Chrysler ENVI was also investigating the idea of a dual-battery setup. Instead of accepting the advantages and flaws of a single type of battery, the dual-battery would combine two different chemistries in one energy storage pack to create more well-rounded performance. 

When Chrysler LLC presented the projects of the ENVI organization in 2009 they made it clear that production based on their electrified technology was forthcoming. A North American release of the first ENVI vehicle was based in 2010 with Europe receiving the model shortly after. Three additional electrified offerings would arrive by 2013 as part of Chrysler LLC’s master plan. Unfortunately as the year 2009 progressed, the automotive entity’s electric vehicle ambitions were halted by a severe cash flow problem. Filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States on April 30th of 2009, Chrysler LLC was forced to reorganize and restructure into a company. The new company would eventually emerge as FCA with Italian automaker Fiat Group absorbing Chrysler. ENVI and the products conceptualized through the organization were casualties of the bankruptcy. 

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada

While ENVI was unable to introduce a passenger car to the general driving consumer, the advanced propulsion technology did find some applications on the road. In middle of 2009, four all-electric Chrysler Town & Country minivan prototypes were delivered to the United States Postal Service with the intention to have 165 vehicles operating in four regions. 

Photo Credit: FCA North America

Other plans by Chrysler following the disbandment of ENVI involved plug-in hybrid versions of the Town & Country and the Ram 1500 pickup truck. Originally announcing the production of 100 of each model for fleet evaluation, 109 Ram 1500 PHEV and 23 Town & Country PHEV were known to exist during September 2012. At that time, an overheating problem with the plug-in hybrid powertrains’ 12.9-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery was discovered on the half-ton pickup trucks during their evaluation period. Though FCA has investigated electrified platforms, the auto company’s steered clear of mainstream sales to the general marketplace for several years following the 2009 bankruptcy.

Entering a new decade in the 21st century, the attitude towards electrified powertrains in FCA appears to be shifting to embrace some of the lessons of ENVI. In 2017, a plug-in hybrid vehicle was finally added to the Chrysler brand when the Pacifica Hybrid minivan was introduced. Capable of running up to 30 miles solely on electric power, the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid remains on sale heading into 2021. FCA’s latest adaptation to integrating electric power into their vehicles consist of eTorque. A system that supplies extra torque through an electric assist, the eTorque mild hybrid technology is currently included with the Ram 1500 and the Jeep Wrangler.

During the 2018 FCA Capital Markets Day announcement, another ambitious plan proposed 10 battery electric vehicles on the market by 2022. However, in breaking down the total, four would be produced for the Chinese marketplace, four would be Maserati-branded and two available through Fiat. A new all-electric 2021 Fiat 500 line was unveiled in March but North American release is a longshot due in part to the projected sale price as well as dipping sales of the previous generation version of the subcompact car that led to its discontinuation in the United States and Canada.

However, even up to today in 2020, FCA’s commitment to electrified technology is not at the same level of many other leading automakers.

Information Source: FCA North America


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