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Chrysler Hybrids: Past and Future

by David Zatz on

It’s been around six years since Chrysler produced its last hybrid-electric car, and that was based on a collaboration with General Motors and BMW. It died when fuel prices and car sales both fell.

The Dodge Durango and “essentially the same, but restyled” Chrysler Aspen hybrids hit the roads using a clever design, created to minimize the cost of spreading hybrid powertrains throughout the entire product line. Instead of creating a system for each car separately, which would be more efficient, they shoved the working parts into the transmission case — two motors, gas-engine gears, and CVT for the motors — which could in theory be shared with other compatible vehicles (Rams, Dakotas, and Grand Cherokees, in this case). While it produced fuel-economy gains, it never went anywhere at Chrysler or GM.

2008 hybrid SUV

Today, Chrysler is facing greater fuel-economy challenges than most automakers, with a large-vehicle heavy image and sales mix. The CEO, Sergio Marchionne, has already said that the next minivans will be the first new Chrysler hybrids, and has hinted that the planned AWD models will either give up Stow ’n’ Go or use electric motors for the rear wheels and gasoline power for the fronts.

two mode hybrid transmission

One wonders if Chrysler could use lessons from the past. Hybridizing the entire nine-speed lineup would produce immediate gains that would propel the company into the green, so to speak, for CAFE requirements, instead of forcing it to buy credits from other automakers — if customers bought the vehicles, and if they were cost effective, two rather large “ifs.” Chrysler is not known for its fuel efficiency (even when it beats all comers), and image is everything — if those who care about gas mileage automatically turn away, it will be hard to sell hybrids. That said, turning back to 2008, if it can be done, could slash development expenses, at the cost of some efficiency.

The company is moving forward, slowly, with first-generation stop-start technology to give way to second-generation belt-starter-alternator stop-start systems soon. Hybrids are coming in a year. We have yet to find out how quickly, and how far, they will spread through the lineup — and whether customers will be willing to buy them in an era of low gasoline prices. See our story on the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen hybrids.

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