Chrysler pulls some electric cars out of its hat

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Chrysler on Tuesday showed three plug-in electric cars, one of which will be in showrooms in 2010 as part of a plan to eventually use electric power in some form across its entire product line.

The automaker has quietly watched General Motors tout its own plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt, unveiled in production form last week. The Volt, built on a new E-Flex platform that might be used for a variety of vehicles, also is to go on sale in 2010.

"We've kept a pretty good secret here, perhaps because we haven't tooted our own horns," said Tom LaSorda, vice chairman and president of manufacturing and business development for Chrysler. "We believe action speaks louder than words."

Chrysler's strategy is to integrate electric power into existing products rather than create a new vehicle. Executives say that lets Chrysler focus on developing the powertrain without the design and production issues of an all-new model and provides flexibility to use it in many models.

"We're not talking about a car, we're talking about a full line," said Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli. "We are staking out a leadership role in the future of the automobile."

Alternative powertrains such as the one Chrysler showed on Tuesday are investments the industry might have to scale back, Nardelli said, if Congress fails to approve money for $25 billion in loans promised in last year's energy bill to help automakers retool plants for more fuel-efficient cars.

Without the loans, Nardelli says, "We are going to have to make some very tough trade-offs."

An electric powertrain with a small backup gasoline engine to recharge the batteries after about 40 miles when the plug-in charge is used up was shown in a Chrysler Town & Country minivan and a Jeep Wrangler. Also on display was an all-electric Dodge sports car called the EV. It has only a lithium-ion battery with a range of about 150 miles before it must be recharged externally.

At least one of the three will go on sale in 2010; Chrysler said it has not decided which. The electric models will cost a yet-to-be-determined amount more than the gas equivalents but will be one-fifth to one-sixth cheaper to run, Chrysler says.

Buyers of pure electric cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt and the model Chrysler decides to produce, could qualify for a tax credit up to $7,500 under energy legislation passed Tuesday by the Senate. It's unclear if plug-in hybrids planned by several automakers would qualify. The measure still needs to be passed in the House and signed by the president.