Let’s hope it shares nothing with Chrysler’s GEM lineup
By Chris Haak
Chrysler LLC, under assault for questionable quality, questionable finances, and a questionable (truck- and gas guzzler-heavy) product mix, plans to announce an electric vehicle at a webcast for dealers on Tuesday. While news of the announcement leaked out over the past few days, word also came out that some dealers had been given preview drives in prototypes of electric cars. Aside from this evidence, Vice Chairman Jim Press said last month that Chrysler would launch seven new vehicles in 2010 – far more new models than most had expected, which means that Chrysler had some surprises up its sleeve over the next two years. Or, it could be a simple matter of counting line extensions such as a Ram Hybrid as a “new model,” which certainly would be a stretch to label it as a new model.
Chrysler showed three electric vehicle concepts at the 2008 NAIAS in Detroit this past January, so it’s possible that the vehicle to be shown to dealers on Tuesday (which will surely be leaked on the Internet within hours, if not minutes, even if it’s not officially sent to the media) could be a production version of the Chrysler ecoVoyager, Jeep Rampage, or Dodge ZEO – or a completely new vehicle we’ve never seen or heard of before.
Last week on the Charlie Rose Show, Chrysler LLC CEO Bob Nardelli said that he was confident that his company would be as competitive as GM in the electric vehicle space, mentioning that his company has been producing electric vehicles for 10 years with its GEM subsidiary, so they have all of the fundamental technology necessary for an electric vehicle.
Chrysler’s GEM subsidiary, like the group that developed the aforementioned three EV concepts for this past year’s Detroit show, falls under the purview of its ENVI organization, which is charged (no pun intended) with bringing electric and advanced-propulsion vehicles to market. GEM stands for Global Electric Motorcars, and while it’s true that Chrysler has actually been selling electric vehicles for the past ten years, I doubt that the GEM experience has been quite as insightful as Mr. Nardelli has represented. For one thing, GEM vehicles are limited to a 25 mile per hour top speed because they’re basically souped-up golf carts, and don’t have the horsepower or safety equipment for safe travel on public roads.
Since I don’t live in a place that a 25 mph top speed would be acceptable, don’t expect to read any future weeklong evaluations of a GEM vehicle on this site. However, earlier this month, I had an opportunity to drive nearly any GEM model that I wished on a closed course (basically, a parking lot) for as long as I’d like. I honestly don’t remember which model I chose (looking at photos on the GEM website (http://www.gemcar.com), it appears to have been the e2 Special Edition model, but the specific model is irrelevant. All models are styling abominations; charitably, one could say that form follows function in the GEM lineup; it’s probably also accurate to say that most GEM vehicles look like a cross between a praying mantis and a VW Beetle.
What I encountered during my brief drive was a vehicle with no styling, sound insulation, horsepower, power steering, power brakes, suspension travel, comfort, safety equipment, or ergonomics. The power switch is near the floor, and there are forward speeds and one reverse speed; I set it to “high” and set off, and reached a top speed of 28 miles per hour (how’s that for powertrain sophistication when I exceeded its governed speed by 12% on a flat parking lot?). The interior was extremely spartan and every piece of it rattled several times after each bump impact. Steering actually felt OK once underway (but was difficult to move at low speeds because it wasn’t power-assisted), but the non-power brakes were a bit scary. I detected no suspension travel (perhaps it has no suspension?), there weren’t many comfort features to speak of. The vehicle I drove had a K-Mart-looking aftermarket-style stereo installed at the top of the windshield, though I didn’t bother to turn it on; after all, why listen to two speakers when I can get into my regular car later and listen to ten speakers? There are no airbags, but there are seat belts. The good parts about the e2 (or whatever model it was) were that it required no gasoline, E85, or diesel fuel, and that it had an awful lot of head room. They’re also cheap, with the most basic models starting below $7,000 – but again, you can’t use them on most public roads, nor would you want to. Did I mention that the performance upgrade package gets you a 7 constant horsepower (count ‘em) motor (15 peak) instead the base engine’s produces a constant 5 horsepower, 12 peak output?
The lack of refinement and comfort in the GEM vehicles (how about that air conditioning system pictured at left?) isn’t my main reason for concern when Bob Nardelli touts GEM as a development ground for Chrysler’s other electric ventures. It’s because of the lack of technology in the vehicle.s. GM is probably going overboard with the amount of technology in the Chevy Volt, which is why the car’s price may crest $40,000 – or more than double the price of a conventional vehicle built on the same platform. But do people really want to buy a lousy electric car just because it’s the cheapest alternative? The Volt will have state-of-the-art Lithium Ion batteries with an equally state-of-the-art cooling system for them, plus equally sophisticated software systems to integrate the electric and gasoline motors as a single system. Perhaps the vehicle Chrysler reveals on Tuesday will have a good deal of sophistication, but if it does, I can guarantee it will not share any technology whatsoever with the GEM, which is riding on little more than 40 year old (or worse) technology. Most of the GEM lineup is powered by a set of six 12-volt flooded electrolyte batteries wired in series to produce a 72-volt system (none of that fancy Lithium Ion stuff here!) The batteries are connected to a “custom controller,” which in turn transfers power to an electric drive motor. That sounds an awful lot like the setup in the radio control cars that I raced during my teenage years.
I really do hope that Chrysler has something great up its sleeve; the company has a history of trotting out the perfect hit product when its back is against the wall (such as the K-cars, minivans, LH cars, Neon, and 300C, just in recent years), so maybe this future EV will be that product. As long as it uses absolutely nothing from GEM, aside from the concept of batteries driving an electric motor, it might have a chance.
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