Image From ..freep.com
Across the board, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota have aggressively developed and launched a growing number of hybrid and electric cars, but Fiat/Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is absent from the mix. It doesn't have a single hybrid in its lineup.
That could be changing very soon.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Sergio Marchionne confirmed in January that a "massive" program to develop a plug-in hybrid minivan is underway, but he did not shared many details. Nor was there talk of the plug-in during a media tour last month of the Windsor Assembly Plant, the company's only minivan plant.
"As we retool the plant for production of the next-generation minivan, we are also preparing the line with the necessary tooling for production of the PHEV (plug-in electric hybrid) version," Jodi Tinson, spokeswoman for FCA US, told the Free Press.
The company's five-year plan includes a plug-in electric version of an unnamed full-size crossover in 2017 which could be a crossover based on the minivan and also made in Windsor.
"The minivan that is coming out of Windsor is the first classic example of a massive introduction of hybrid technology," Marchionne said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
"It's the beginning of a long process where you will see electrification work its way through in a variety of ways, through the larger vehicles, through the minivans, the pickup trucks eventually, to try and deal with the issue of CO2 and mileage," Marchionne said.
For now, Fiat Chrysler has a chance to be alone in offering a plug-in hybrid minivan. To date, 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.
According to hybridcars.com, families have been clamoring for a hybrid minivan for years. "Tens of thousands of consumers have petitioned Toyota, the hybrid leader, to bring the hybrid minivan to the US," according to the site.
Said Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell, "If they can be the first on the market, then they could become the go-to brand."
Electric and hybrid vehicles excel in shorter drives with a lot of stops and starts which is the kind of driving many parents do as they shuttle kids back and forth to school and other activities.
"The improvement in fuel economy is likely to benefit city fuel economy even more so than highway," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Automotive.
Also, the large, flat floor space of a minivan gives engineers a lot of space to store the battery. "For minivan, it's probably a perfect target for (a plug-in hybrid system), not only because of the duty cycle that minivans typically use but also you've got a vehicle that can probably easily package a battery," Mike Manley, CEO of Jeep and head of international operations for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Will they succeed at matching the vehicle to the price point minivan customers want? That's the challenge. Caldwell said the average transaction price of the Dodge Grand Caravan is about $25,000, or $6,000 lower than the average minivan sale. "They tend to have people who do not pay above and beyond transaction prices."
Let's hope their gamble pays off.