It’s not unusual for a Jeep Wrangler to leave the competition behind at the beginning of a difficult 4×4 trail. Now, almost ironically, Jeep might be leaving the competition behind in its technological wake. Not a typical Jeep trait. Wranglers in particular have always been something of a throwback, with live axles, mechanical locking differentials, and part-time four-wheel-drive systems. But all 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.The company’s recently announced electric vehicle effort is one of the lynchpins of its future propulsion strategy, and during a brief tech backgrounder in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, we got a chance to hear more about and drive two of the three new Chrysler electric vehicle prototypes, both of which are full of promise.
We’ve already told you about the Dodge EV, Chrysler’s sports-car electric vehicle. With an equivalent rating of 268 hp (and 480 lb-ft of torque!) in such a light vehicle with exceptional balance, the ride was 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 enthusiastic pedal play. Still, the nice 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 build an electric vehicle Jeep guys won’t dismiss. What they’ve come up with so far is 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 according to Chrysler. 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’re told the added weight of the system is only about 100 lb because of the smallish size of the new engine (no official word yet on who will produce it), probably in the 1.3-1.8L I-4 range. The tech guys told us the Jeep would likely do a 0-60 mph in about 9.0 sec, with a quarter-mile time in the 16.5-sec, 90-mph range. After our drive, we can say 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 stickshift 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’re told there is no compromise in ground clearance.)From what we could tell during our drive, the added weight underneath the vehicle helps to take away some of the Wrangler’s usual “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 it’s still a few years out at best, but opens up all sorts of ecofriendly 4×4 possibilities Jeep is hoping will catch on. The key will be to make them work like a typical 4×4. 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 and 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’re not so sure, but no doubt there will be early adopters 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 it has been demoing (the EV sports car, a version of the Town & Country minivan, and the Wrangler) would be on sale as a 2010 model by late next year (that assumes, of course, Chrysler will still be around next year in its present form). Which one will it be? It would make the most sense and be an easier fit in the 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 coming in the near future. And we’ll see if we can get a few more tidbits from the Chrysler EV development team at the L.A. auto show.