Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) CEO Sergio Marchionne is adamant in his belief cars running solely on electric power are too expensive and limiting to become mainstream, but that hasn’t stopped him reportedly from prodding Chrysler to speed up introduction of a Town & Country plug-in hybrid electric minivan. The man who helped engineer Chrysler Group LLC’s rescue from insolvency in 2009 expressed his enthusiasm for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) at the Paris Motor Show this week, saying Chrysler will introduce the minivan in the U.S. in 2015, a year earlier than the company indicated during its May 6 presentation to investors, according to Automotive News.
Chrysler’s move is an indication the automaker sees budget-conscious families who haven’t shifted to crossovers as a ripe target market for the latest PHEV technology. The Town & Country PHEV would be the first mass-production minivan able to travel for short distances on electric-only power before the gasoline engine kicks in. Chrysler had planned a fully electric version of the van in 2008 but the project was scrapped after Fiat SpA took control of the troubled company.
Mitsubishi was the first automaker to introduce the PHEV powertrain in larger cars with the Outlander PHEV, a mid-size crossover, but it’s not due in the U.S. until late 2015 at the earliest. Chrysler may be trying to get a kid-and-grocery hauler into the U.S. market first.
Chrysler said earlier this year the Town & Country PHEV would get the equivalent of 75 miles to the gallon (MPGe). The 2014 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid gets about 95 MPGe and can travel 11 miles on electricity alone. PHEV technology is currently offered in the U.S. only in small sedans like the Prius, the Ford C-Max Energi and the Chevrolet Volt, but they represent a sliver of the auto market. Cadillac introduced the plug-in hybrid ELR luxury sedan in January, but only 885 of the vehicles had sold as of August, General Motors sales data indicate. Volvo has had better luck with its V60 PHEV Diesel sports wagon in Europe and plans to release the vehicle in the U.S. in the next couple of years.
The Town & Country makes up about half of all Chrysler brand sales in the U.S. and ranks among the top three best-selling minivans, along with Chrysler’s Dodge Grand Caravan and the Honda Odyssey.
Marchione has said electric vehicles have a long way to go before becoming mainstream because current lithium-ion battery technology is too costly to use in mass-produced automobiles. He even went as far as imploring customers not to buy the Fiat 500e, the only electric car produced by FCA. Marchionne said at an event at the Brookings Institution in July that the 500e exists only to meet zero-emission rules in California. “Each time I sell one it costs me $14,000,” he told the audience.