It's not unusual for a Jeep Wrangler to leave the competition behind at the beginning of a difficult 4x4 trail. Now, however (almost ironically), it might be leaving the competition behind because of its technological leadership. Not a typical Jeep trait. Wranglers, in particular, have always been something of a throwback with live axles, mechanical locking differentials, and part-time 4WD systems. But that's changing, thanks in large part to an edict that came down from on high (the board room) that Chrysler needs to take a leadership role in advanced technologies.
This may not sound like a huge strategy shift, but comes at a time when the world is singing the praises of hybrid technology as the wave of the future. The truth is hybrids are still hot, but the direction Chrysler is about to announce at the Los Angeles auto show looks quite promising.
In fact, after a brief tech backgrounder in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, we got a chance to drive two new offerings from Chrysler, both of which are full of promise. The first was a small sports-car type of electric vehicle based on an all-aluminum Lotus platform (of a vehicle not sold in the U.S.). With an equivalent rating of 268 hp (and 480 lb-ft of torque) in such a light vehicle with exceptional balance, the ride was eye-blindingly fast on the 1/3-mile parking-lot loop we were guided on. The range for the Dodge EV is said to be about 150 miles in perfect comfort-speed conditions, so cut that in half if you plan on some enthusiastic pedal play. Still, the good thing about an all-electric sports car is that all the hard accelerating you do can almost be offset with an equal amount of hard decelerations or regenerative braking. Of course, the sports car is nice, but the real challenge for Chrysler tech engineers is to make an electric vehicle that Jeep guys won't dismiss. Our tester was a Wrangler Unlimited that uses an electric motor to drive the rear wheels, lithium-ion batteries to store the energy, a super-computer controller to manage the energy flow, and a small engine/generator needed to produce power when storage ratings in the batteries fall below 30%.
Simply put, the Jeep EV will run on full electric power up to 40 miles, then act something like a hybrid after that, where the generator produces power directly to the electric motor as needed. Any extra energy during braking or off-throttle situations will be routed into the batteries. The gasoline tank (which can also hold E85 fuel) will allow the vehicle to travel, depending on the types of loads and environmental conditions, an extra 400 miles or so. In addition, because of the capabilities of the on-board dual-voltage generator, the Jeep EV can have a 15-amp 110/120 volt outlet as well as a household 30-amp 220/240-volt power outlet. Very cool if you want to bring your big and little appliances on the trail. We were told the added weight of the system is only about 100 lb because of the smallish size of the new engine (whose source they wouldn't name), probably in the 1.3L to 1.8L I-4 range. The tech guys said the Jeep would likely do a 0-to-60 mph in about 9.0 sec, with a quarter-mile time in the 16.5-sec, 90-mph range. After our drive, it appears those numbers might be a little pessimistic.
Acceleration in the Jeep EV is strong and smooth, ramping up power progressively where the vehicle just keeps pulling up the speedometer at an almost unnerving pace. Because it's all electronic, the console-mounted stick shift is gone and the gear selection is done by pushbutton just below the nav screen. The nav screen itself allows for several different screens to help the driver monitor all sorts of vehicle parameters like battery temperature, power levels, strength, range, charge/discharge direction and more.
Our biggest beef is that the steering setup isn't quite dialed in and the battery pack, from underneath the vehicle, looks like the thickest skidplate you've ever seen (but we were told there is no compromise in ground clearance.) To its credit, the added weight underneath helps take away some of the Wrangler's typical "tippy" feel when cornering at higher speeds. Of course, all our driving was on pavement, but the Jeep guys told us they know this vehicle has to be able to do everything people expect a Jeep to do if it's going to be a success.
In fact, we've been hearing that a pair of wheel-mounted electric motors could work on a future model to make the SUV more trail capable, but the computer power needed to make the front and rear motors sync is prohibitive. Our guess is that's still a few years out at best, but this opens up all sorts of eco-friendly 4x4 possibilities Jeep is hoping will catch on. The key will be to make them work like a typical 4x4. In the 2WD vehicle we drove, there was nothing that made the vehicle look or act compromised, with the exception of noise and absence of a transmission. Additionally, under the hood was tons of room to store various gear, tools, or mount a winch.
As to acceptance, there will be plenty of debate about making a Jeep as rugged and trail-fixable as a conventional Jeep. Will the core Jeep buyers be interested? We'd guess not, but no doubt there will be early adaptors that will get tons of exposure, and maybe, over time, as the powertrains prove themselves safe, watertight, and mud-proof, there may be a place for this kind of technology for the casual bad-weather Jeep guy.
Chrysler told us one of the three vehicles (a sports car, minivan, and Wrangler) they showed us would be on sale as a 2010 model by late next year. Which one will it be? Our hope is on the Jeep, but it would make more sense and be an easier fit in the Chrysler Town & Country--they're priced better to deal with the added technology; the platform has built-in underfloor storage capacity for the batteries; and it's just about the only segment making money right now. You can expect more on this in the near future. We hope to get a few more tidbits from the Chrysler EV development team at the L.A. auto show.