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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dodge EV

It takes a contortionist to slip inside the little yellow Dodge EV. But what would you expect? It is, after all, little more than a modified version of the cramped Lotus Europa.

Yanking my legs in and stowing them under the steering wheel, I reach for the "D" button, which has replaced the British sports car's gearshift, on the center console. At first, it seems nothing has happened, but my escort just smiles, then suggests I tip in the throttle. Not quite as firmly as I try, it turns out, the sports car lurching forward with a shot.

"Got it," I say, gamely returning his smile. This time, I squeeze the pedal a little more smoothly, steering my way out of the parking lot and onto the ramp that leads to the sweeping test track at Chrysler headquarters, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

"Now you can give it power," my guide says, but even now, I'm not prepared for the rush of power that plunges me deep into my seat, the prototype Dodge EV leaping forward like a child at the end of the school day.

The needle spins on the speedometer, 40, 60, 80, before suddenly stabilizing just above 100. "We've put a limiter on, for now," he explains, adding that in production, the modified Lotus will be able to hit 120 -- fast.

The battery-car Chrysler unveiled today is nothing less than impressive, certainly if you consider the numbers. Despite weighing in about 300 lb more than a stock Europa, it is expected to turn 0 to 60 in less than 5 sec. How much less? Chrysler officials aren't saying, though my unnamed escort boasts that the goal is to beat the Tesla Roadster, which is, itself, promising 0-60 times closer to 4 sec. (And, if Chrysler delivers, the Dodge EV also will outperform the gasoline turbo version of the Europa.)

All that comes from a 200kW motor -- 268 hp in traditional gearhead terms -- that makes a wheelspinning 650 Nm, or 480 lb-ft of torque.

Dodge EV Powertrain

What's equally impressive is Chrysler's goal of delivering somewhere between 150 and 200 miles of range per charge. The midship-mounted lithium-ion battery pack should require an overnight charge plugged into a standard outlet, and less than half of it if you set up a 220-volt quick charger.

When will we see this little miracle? Well, we're not quite sure. For now, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is only promising to put one of three electric vehicles shown Tuesday into production by 2010. The other two may follow soon afterward, however.

While the Dodge offering is a pure battery car, Chrysler has taken a different approach with the ChryslerEV and JeepEV prototypes, both using the same technological approach as the much-ballyhooed Chevrolet Volt.

Call them plug-in hybrids, and you'll quickly be corrected. The more accurate term, it seems, is extended-range electric vehicle, or E-REV. And if you understand the concept, that makes sense. A traditional hybrid is primarily driven by its gasoline engine, though an electric motor can kick in, occasionally.

In the Chrysler and Jeep -- and Chevy -- offerings, the wheels can only be driven by electric motors. For up to 40 miles, enough for a typical daily commute, that power comes from a midsize battery pack. Run the batteries down and a small internal-combustion engine kicks in. It serves solely as a generator: It either recharges the batteries or sends current directly to the electric motor.

For most owners, says Frank Klegon, Chrysler's head of product development, that means, "they seldom will use any gasoline." And even if they did, a 9-gal tank on the Chrysler would be enough to boost combined range to 400 miles.

While the electrified version of the Chrysler Town & Country minivan wasn't available for driving, we did have a chance to flog the Jeep around the corporate track. As with the DodgeEV, it proves surprisingly peppy, launching to 60 in 9.0 sec, a good 1.5 sec faster than a comparable, gas-powered Wrangler.

It's a bit of a handful to drive aggressively, in part due to the higher mounting of the battery pack. You feel virtually every pebble on the road, but that, Chrysler engineers insist, has more to do with the lack of final suspension tuning than with the electric powertrain. There's no doubt that the alternative layout will require significant adaptation.

One of the most pleasant discoveries driving the two EVs is the lack of noise. Okay, some of us love the roar of a big V-8, but you're going to have to get used to silence in an EV -- or at least something close. What you experience might be described as the "stumps-in-the-woods" syndrome. Suddenly, without the roar of an IC engine, you start noticing everything else, like tires, wind, and accessory drive systems. But the overall sound level is enough to make it possible to be heard in a whisper.

Chrysler's goal is to get a measurable number of EVs or E-REVs into production by the early half of the decade. With the growing emphasis on sustainability, the automaker believes it has no choice. Klegon, for one, argues that virtually every vehicle on the road will soon be "electrified" to some degree, even if it's just with a stop-start motor. But he contends that, within a generation, at least half of all vehicles sold in this country will be extended-range or full EVs.

If the two prototypes we got to drive are any indication, it's definitely a transformation we could embrace.