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Chrysler is not known for its green lineup. Its most fuel-efficient vehicle, the Dodge Caliber, gets 26 mpg combined city/highway. But the smallest Detroit automaker is working to change that, according to Jim Press, Chrysler's vice chairman and president.

The company is spending $3 billion developing a new 6-cylinder motor, called the Phoenix, that will feature cylinder deactivation, a process in which fuel injection to some of the cylinders is shut off at appropriate times to save fuel. That's due out in 2010. It's also working on a hybrid version of its Ram pickup, the company's top-selling vehicle, which also is due out in 2010.

And now the company appears closer to developing plug-in hybrid electric cars. Speaking at a media luncheon Tuesday, Press said he'd driven three "producible prototypes" of cars using plug-in hybrid technology. The cars, he said, have already been shown to the company's dealer council and would be shown to other dealers next month.

The vehicles, being developed by Chrysler's new Envi unit -- which also is developing pure electric vehicles -- are capable of reaching 60 mph in less than four seconds, Press said, and have a range of "at least 300 miles." He said the technology would be particularly appropriate for off-road vehicles, citing the Jeep brand as a possible option, and said it could be adapted for use in existing models or for use in new cars and trucks.

Although Press offered no release date for such vehicles, having production ready plug-ins is a huge step forward for Chrysler. At the Detroit auto show in January, the company unveiled three concept cars -- the Chrysler ecoVoyager, the Dodge ZEO and the Jeep Renegade -- that had all-electric, extended range electric or plug-in electric drivetrains.

But those cars were non-operational models, and no timeline for development was even hinted at. In July, Chrysler said it was developing electric vehicles with a 40-mile range that would go on sale in three to five years.

The news today that Chrysler has working plug-in hybrids signifies a significant step forward in the company's adoption of such technologies and increases the competition in the race to produce the first commercially available plug-in hybrid.

General Motors is developing an extended-range electric car, the Volt, due out in late 2010 or early 2011; Toyota has promised to put a plug-in version of its Prius into fleets by the end of 2009; and start-up Fisker Automotive says it will sell an $80,000 plug-in next year.

Chrysler appears less enthusiastic about other technologies, including hydrogen fuel cells, which Press suggested might be something for his children's lifetime rather than his own. For the time being, he said, the focus is on combinations of internal combustion motors and battery power.

"We're making substantial progress on electrification of our vehicles," Press said.

They already have an electrifying vehicle, the NITRO!

LINK: Chrysler's plug-in plans | Up to Speed | Los Angeles Times
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