AUBURN HILLS, Michigan (AP) -- Chrysler LLC said Tuesday it will put an electric car on sale in North America in 2010, revealing that despite missing out on the buzz surrounding the Chevrolet Volt, it is neck and neck with General Motors Corp. in the race to put a mass-produced electric vehicle on America's roads.
Top Chrysler execs Tom LaSorda, left, and Bob Nardelli stand next to a Dodge electric sports car prototype.
The company showed reporters three electric prototypes: a Dodge sports car, a Jeep Wrangler and a Chrysler minivan. Chrysler's product development chief, Frank Klegon, said the automaker hasn't decided which one it will roll out first.
The Dodge sports car is completely electric and based on Lotus Europa underpinnings, but the Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler minivan models will be extended-range vehicles similar to the Volt, which GM has said will go on sale in November 2010.
Like the Volt, the Wrangler and minivan plug into a standard wall outlet and can go 40 miles (65 kilometers) on battery power alone, but then a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the batteries. Chrysler said its vehicles will be able to travel up to 400 miles (640 kilometers) on 8 gallons (30 liters) of gas .
Chrysler wouldn't reveal pricing, but GM's Volt is expected to cost $30,000 to $40,000 initially, far more expensive than most conventional cars. Chrysler officials said they hope to drive down the cost as more vehicles are sold.
With gasoline near $4 per gallon ($1.05 a liter), all automakers have scrambling to roll out more efficient small cars and eventually electric vehicles. But even their new fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles are about two years away, leaving struggling automakers to scrap for buyers in a shrinking U.S. market that has shifted dramatically from trucks to cars.
Chrysler's sales have taken the hardest hit, and the automaker appeared to be behind other manufacturers that have touted plans to launch electric vehicles in the next few years. But Vice Chairman Tom LaSorda said Tuesday that Chrysler is further ahead on developing electric vehicles than many had thought, though it kept the cars secret until recently.
"We believe in the saying, 'Actions speak louder than words,"' LaSorda said.
Chrysler Chief Executive Bob Nardelli denied that Chrysler showed off its electric prototypes now because Congress is considering a $25 billion loan program to help automakers and their suppliers modernize plants to make more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Vice Chairman Jim Press said the timing of the announcement also had nothing to do with the publicity GM gained last week by revealing the production version of the Volt.
"This shows that our commitment is not to public relations, but to actually advancing technology and putting it in the hands of customers in an affordable manner," Press said. "These are vehicles that are being engineered to move from the laboratory into the street and the showroom. This isn't just for publicity. This is part of our development process."
Nardelli told reporters the government loans would help speed the technology to market. But if they aren't approved, Chrysler will have to spend limited resources on developing new technology and would have to make cuts elsewhere, possibly in employment and development of conventional products.
"Unfortunately we have had to furlough many families as a result of the economy turmoil and certainly the downward spiraling in the industry," he said. "I'd like to make sure that we don't have to go further to be able to support advanced technology work."
The three vehicles displayed Tuesday at Chrysler's Auburn Hills headquarters complex were second-generation prototypes, built largely on existing models in order to speed them to market, Klegon said.
Chrysler also unveiled the Peapod, a new small "neighborhood electric vehicle" that can go up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) on a charge, and said it would sell an electric vehicle in Europe sometime after 2010.
Klegon said Chrysler is still working with several partners on the battery technology for its vehicles. The company has agreements with General Electric Corp. and the U.S. Department of Energy, and also is working with battery maker A123 Systems Inc.
The Chrysler executives said the day is coming when the whole Chrysler fleet has electric powertrains.
"The goal is to achieve fundamental technology, get economies of scale, improve our ability to make the future generations more robust, less cost, smaller, more powerful, better performance," Press said. "Ultimately it will lead to a transformation of our entire fleet that will be in some manner electric drive."
Toyota Motor Corp. also is pushing to get a plug-in electric vehicle to market in 2010, while Ford Motor Co., which is testing 20 on roads in California, says it is five years away from producing them in significant numbers.