Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has never been a fan of plug-in electric cars.
So when he revealed at the Paris Motor Show that a plug-in hybrid version of the next Chrysler Town & Country minivan would arrive late next year, he added a few derogatory comments about the range limits and what he views as unrealistic expectations for electric cars.
Marchionne confirmed the Town & Country plug-in hybrid minivan to trade journal Automotive News [subscription required] at the Paris show last week.
Missing hybrid models
The arrival date of late next year for the plug-in version is roughly a year earlier than Chrysler had indicated in its latest five-year plan, revealed last May to industry analysts and journalists.
No carmaker has offered a hybrid minivan, with or without a plug, since hybrids first hit the U.S. market for the 2000 model year.
While Marchionne said in 2011 that Chrysler would introduce two conventional hybrids--a Chrysler 300 Hybrid full-size sedan (in 2013) and a hybrid minivan to follow the same year--neither vehicle ever appeared.
In this year's May product-plan presentation, Chrysler president and CEO Al Gardner claimed the plug-in hybrid minivan would get "75 mpg"--presumably a reference to its MPGe rating goal when running in fully electric mode.
Slamming plugs as panacea
Marchionne, speaking on the sidelines of the Paris show, told Automotive News electric vehicles will "never provide the travel distance that you require," alluding to "what we know today about the storage capabilities" of the lithium-ion cells used in battery packs.
But he also suggested that the "cost equation of electrification" for plug-in cars--a discipline the recovering Chrysler hasn't had the funds, time, or staff to invest in--remained a "fundamental obstacle."
2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013
Marchionne has routinely slammed the Fiat 500e electric hatchback, a compliance car built to keep the company in compliance with California rules requiring sales of a certain number of zero-emission vehicles.
Chrysler actually sells more 500e models than Honda or Toyota do of their compliance cars, but Marchionne has said Chrysler loses $10,000 on every Fiat 500e (which is, by the way, an exceptionally fun car to drive).
The combination of Fiat and Chrysler has spent the last five years recovering from Chrysler's bankruptcy and Fiat's sales decline in the European market during the recession.
The two companies are working to combine their design and production operations. They have now produced three vehicles--the Dodge Dart, Jeep Cherokee, and Chrysler 200--from one shared Fiat architecture.
Fiat Chrysler recently launched two vehicles--on different underpinnings--that were its first designed from the ground up to be shared between the two companies and sold throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Ram 1500 Plug-In Hybrid pickup truck and Chrysler Town & Country plug-in hybrid minivan, April 2012
Those are the Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X subcompact utility vehicles.
All about CAFE
But in the U.S. market, Chrysler faces the substantial hurdle that its best products for a decade have been light trucks: pickups, minivans, and SUVs.
New Chrysler and Dodge passenger cars have to fight their way into the market against strong competition from virtually every other brand.
Meanwhile, corporate average fuel economy rules get tougher each year from now through 2025--and launching at least some number of plug-in hybrids appear to be the only way that larger vehicles can boost their CAFE numbers to the needed levels.
You can bet that if those rules weren't in force, Chrysler wouldn't be planning the early launch of a plug-in hybrid minivan.