The Tale of Three Detroit Electric Car Programs

Chrysler is killing its dedicated electric car program. General Motors is moving forward with its sleek electric-drive Caddy. What do these news flashes tell us about Detroit’s prospects in the bold new era of EVs and plug-in hybrids?

Short Circuit

On Friday, Chrysler Spokesman Nick Cappa said that its in-house team of electric car development engineers had been disbanded and will be folded into the company’s org chart. This announcement comes three months after Chrysler took $70 million in grants from the US Department of Energy to develop a test fleet of 220 hybrid pickup trucks and minivans. It comes less than year after Chrysler built its case for federal aid—it received $12.5 billion—by showing flashy designs of electric sports cars, trucks and vans, and promising 500,000 battery-powered vehicles on the road by 2013.

With a swipe of his wrist, FIAT CEO Sergio Marchionne cast aside Chrysler’s EV plans—commenting that batteries aren’t ready, the market is minuscule, and “electric vehicles are going to struggle.” In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of other US and European carmakers that have dismissed the inexorable movement of the auto industry toward greener more fuel-efficient electric and hybrid cars. Chrysler is now left with an obligation to put those 220 test hybrids on the road—which it will honor—and an anemic effort to market a Dodge Ram Hybrid, which will dribble out next year after five years’ worth of promises that the vehicle is coming. In an era when green is the new black, the breakup of the company’s hybrid and electric car team is a public relations blunder.

Harmonic Convergence

General Motors, on the other hand, knows about such blunders—but has learned the lesson too well.

After the infamous killing of the EV1, and years of dismissing hybrids as “making no economic sense,” the company is now using its forthcoming star car, the Chevy Volt, as a poster child for all things green and good. GM’s Volt program is tremendous and deserves due recognition as a major achievement. Kudos. Yet, the company continues to turn up the brightness of the klieg lights—now reaching a blinding level. For example, GM’s recent national Volt advertising campaign—promising 230 miles to the gallon—does more to obfuscate than to elucidated.

The publicity is working. The latest example is this week’s story in the Detroit News that the company has given a green light to produce the Cadillac Converj, a slick electric coupe unveiled in concept form at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. As cool as the car looks, the news flash—picked up by major media outlets and the blogosphere alike—is all about marketing. “Cadillac needs as much excitement in its portfolio as possible, so I think it’s a good strategy for them,” Rebecca Lindland, director of auto industry research at IHS Global Insight, told Detroit News. Bingo.

It’s a great strategy for drawing attention to the sagging Cadillac brand. But if the goal of the hybrid and electric car movement is to offer low- or zero-emission transportation, and to make a transition to sustainable personal vehicles, the Cadillac Converj is as wrong as the spelling of its name. The current luxury hybrids on the market are low sellers. The $70,000 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid has sold an average of about 160 units per month this year. Why would a more expensive, less practical two-door Cadillac Converj, even with great lines and 40 miles of all-electric range—sell at much greater numbers? Low production numbers also undermine arguments from Bob Lutz, now serving as marketing chief for GM, that the Converj will help the Volt program reach economies of scale or defray battery costs.

That doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that Cadillac has not confirmed the Converj story. Mission accomplished for GM PR. Nothing accomplished for sustainable mobility.

Is There Another Way?

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a Detroit auto company that saw the value of electric-drive vehicles (unlike Chrysler), and (unlike GM) was modestly going about producing common sense, affordable electric cars and plug-in hybrids on existing global scalable platforms? Maybe something like an electric version of a practical mild-mannered Ford Focus, or a plug-in hybrid variant of a small crossover Escape? No super fanfare. No rumors of slick expensive future EVs that may or may not come. No Hail Mary passes. No bloated promises for handouts from American taxpayers.

Once again, Ford is proving that it’s moving in the right direction—not only for consumer value and profitability, but for the future of Detroit, the US economy, and Planet Earth.

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  • AP

    “GM’s recent national Volt advertising campaign—promising 230 miles to the gallon—does more to obfuscate than to elucidated (sic).”

    Are you serious? This is the website where people have extolled the virtues of PHEV conversions that get 100, 500, or 1,000 MPG (of course the EV1 got 1,000,000,000+)! I would think you’d want to encourage this sort of exaggeration-for the cause.

  • Skeptic

    Except that it’s a lie. When the battery is exhausted, and you’re back to the ICE, your mileage sure isn’t 230 mpg.

    As for Daimler-Fiat-Plymouth … wow, talk about bait and switch. The Feds should demand their free money back.

    What a country: banks “too big to fail” and car companies too crappy to fail.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I have to side with GM here (a rare occasion for those who’ve followed my postings). Starting with a high end luxury car is a wise idea for GM. It will allow them to slowly bring up a quality PHEV manufacturing technology while realizing revenue at the same time. New technology naturally comes at the high end first, then migrated down to the commodity level mass market, witness the cellphone, big screen TV, PC, etc.
    While it would be nice to see a cheap, affordable PHEV right out of the gate, a high-end luxury edition is a lot more realistic.
    As for Skeptic:
    When the battery is drained you’re back to ICE but with the small, efficient ICE with battery to handle the peaks, you’re still extremely efficient, probably real-world 100 mph or better, depending on whether GM surprises us and does a good job at designing the ICE.

  • jonak

    Chrysler should give back their bail out. If their management can’t work out which way the wind is blowing, then let them sink sooner rather than later.
    Ford can pick up the business.

  • Robert Klim

    Let the companies of this size buy models that work and increase production of them. I.E. buy the Aptera and start producing it. The development of systems that can be applied to nearly all platforms is the way to go, because the parts will be then massed produced. This means selling and or buying the designs with other companies. Regen brakes is a system that should be world wide. A small ICE should be a world standard. Pick a battery and electrical system that can handle the upgraded batteries as they come along. Most of the subsystems should be the same between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid. Make the cars and they will come

  • Mr.Bear

    GM’s advert is intentionally misleading. You’ll only get 230mpg if 4 out of 5 miles driven are in EV mode. That means you would only be able to drive 11 miles beyond the 40 mile EV range to keep in line with the 230mpg. You go 12 miles on ICE, it drops to 217mpg. You go 20 miles on ICE, 150mpg.

    Misleading people helps no one.

    The Caddy is attributed to both GM and Chrysler. Please edit the first first paragraph and first picture caption to make it more clear who it belongs to.

    If Chrysler is killing it’s EV and hybrids and GM is only producing limited EVs and hybrids, then I guess there can’t be too much worry about using “hybrid and EV CAFE credits” to build more gas guzzlers.
    I wonder, by the way, how Chrysler plans to meet the new CAFE standards without a viable hybrid or EV.

    Sounds like it might be time for that dinosaur to die.

    I guess now we know why Japan is killing American car makers and Ford is the only one with a chance at competing with them.

  • BMW Fan

    Is it just me, or does the Cadillac Converj look a whole lot like the forthcoming Honda CRZ?

    No surprise because when it comes to aerodynamics there is really only one obvious shape for a four wheel vehicle with a slight variation for 2 door vs. 4 door. For example, consider how Prius copied the original Insight’s shape.

    If we switch to 3 wheels then we have some a couple of shape options…

    BMW Fan

  • Collin Burnell

    The Converj looks like the CRZ? The Prius is a copy of the original Insight???? Wow you Optometrist has his work cut out for him (or her)!!!

    The Converj is gorgeous! If they don’t screw up the production version, I could see it matching Volt sales and [Bob Lutz] ‘reach(ing) economies of scale or defray(ing) battery costs’. It’s too bad we won’t see a Pontiac or Saturn version of the Volt as well.

    Kudo’s to Ford. The Fusion Hybrid is Awesome!!! An electric Focus would be Great! The Nissan Leaf looks promising too!

  • Max Reid

    The Escalade a big suv hybrid sold more units than Hummer-H2.
    Now, Converj with a V6 Engine and some 50-60K price tag should sell much better.

    I saw it in Chicago auto show and its beautiful vehicle.

    Mr BMW Fan – Prius-I came 1st in 1997 and Insight-I came in 1999. Prius-II came in 2003 while Insight-II came in 2009, so you know who copied whom.

  • Robert3e34

    Anyone know if Chrysler/Dodge are dipping their foot into the ‘green’ car market with a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle?

  • Doug Korthof

    As usual, GM is L Y I N G. Lutz is good at snowing the bejesus out of gullible reporters and ignorant bloggers; the fact is, GM has spent its career killing EVs and is still doing so today.

    The VOLT-hoax is sabotaged by using the WRONG BATTERY. GM and Chevron worked together to kill the right battery, NiMH, and it’s not in production today because of GM’s bogus purchase of the patent rights in 1994 (tried to hide it then, but Toyota went into production).

    And when GM needed to get tough with Toyota, they sold the patent rights to their corporate “parent”, Chevron, on Oct. 10, 2000; it was Chevron that funded the lawsuit that stopped production, to this day, of the only successful EV to go more than 100,000 miles on the same battery pack.

  • Samie

    Collin Burnell I’m not sure I follow the multi brand same car idea. I think that is part of the reason why GM has gotten in trouble. It takes away from the Volt if you try to sell two EV cars at the same time you need to market each which costs more money. The Converj only is green washing because again while you can say it would scale up production for GM it takes away branding of a flagship EV for the company and possibly sells of a Volt (assuming competitive options are available by other companies). Why is the Volt a Chevy Volt? Because Chevy is the most recognizable brand GM has but does the Volt actually help market the brand Chevy or create distinctions from other GM brands, NO. Using GM’s theroy of car branding this car should be a Buick Volt or Cadillac Volt not a Chevy. This why the same car twenty different brands idea doesn’t work anymore and the fact there is a lot more competition. I’m not saying the Volt and the Converj are completely the same car but similarities do exist and will more then likely confuse consumers and cost allot more to market, with less likely hood that two cars at once/ or more will create consumer loyalty for short-term and long-term purposes.

  • Max Reid

    In alternative fuel vehicles, there are flex fuel vehicles which can run on Ethanol and then the CNG powered vehicles.

    In Europe, Italy is the leader in CNG powered vehicles and they have more than 500,000. Italy can bring that technology.

    Boone Pickens is investing big in Natgas as vehicle fuel. Hope Fiat will take Chrysler in that direction.

  • Dom

    I wonder if the Opel version of the Volt with have a diesel engine… that’d be cool.

    As for Chrysler’s “bait-n-switch”, while that might not be a good thing in itself, it may be that it’s more financially feasible to focus on less expensive options like importing Fiat cars as opposed to pouring tons of money that they don’t have into EVs which may or may not have a market…

  • AP

    Samie, you need to compare a Toyota Camry with a Lexus ES 10 before you worry about the Converj being too similar to a Volt. Every multi-brand manufacturer has similarly-sized vehicles that share many components (the same “platform”). It would be foolish to have completely different parts and systems that do the same thing, but require more engineers to design them, more tooling to make them, and more part numbers to track.

    What got GM in trouble with “platform sharing” was that in the 1980’s, the entire body shape of their full-sized cars was almost identical, with the front and rear of the car about the only visual distinction. That era is over. That’s why Pontiac and Saturn are gone.

    The question is whether the “guts” of the car that are important, but invisible to the customer, need to be radically different, to differentiate a Converj from a Volt. As long as the platform can be outfitted and tuned completely differently, the answer is no.

    Said another way, if someone who had no clue the Volt and Converj shared parts looks at and drives them both, would they think they were the “same car?” Again, the answer will be no, because there is no mistaking one for the other, and the Converj (being a luxury car) will have many features and treatments that the Volt will not.

  • cindy hinendent

    I think gm had moved back to a high tech company they once were.

    They have learned and now seem to be the leader on the best technology.

    Just a matter of time that GM will be the leader once again.

  • Rich Eubanks

    We started to purchase a Prius in 2008 but I was concerned about the expensive battery and how long it’d last.

    So, we bought a loaded 2008 Focus, and with the rebates, only paid $14,000 for it. That was over $10,000 less than the Prius.

    I’ve gotten as much as 45 MPG’s on a highway trip and we, consistantly, get well over 30 around town. Nice car and we’ve been very pleased with it.

    I’d like to see Ford make this into a hybrid. The EV Focus would be fine around town but we want one vehicle to serve in-town and highway needs too.

    When they do make something like our Focus that has an electric-only range over 50 miles, then hybrid where the electric charges on flat, level, roads and the electric kicks in passing, up hills, and accelerating from stops, we’ll trade!

  • tapra2

    This announcement comes three months after Chrysler took $70 million in grants from the US Department of Energy to develop.Consulting Blog