Hemi Hybrid Hijinks

The introduction of Chrysler’s first hybrids could be misconstrued as a bad practical joke. That’s because Chrysler’s Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen Hybrids will pair up a hybrid gas-electric system—the symbol of automotive virtue—with a powerful Hemi engine, which is best known for winning car races. Blending such different technologies may turn out to be either a great idea, a source of confusion, or a cause for outrage—or all of these things at the same time.

Chrysler’s 5.7-liter V8 Hemi hybrids are very likely to offend the die-hard hybrid drivers, a group easily riled by any corruption of hybrid ideals. From the Prius point-of-view, DaimlerChrysler is flaunting its disregard for the environment by marrying sacred hybrid technology with an obscene amount of horsepower—not official yet, but probably somewhere around 350—with burly SUVs rated at 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. Even after hybridization, these vehicles will barely break the 20-mpg mark—a fraction of what the average Prius driver achieves.

It’s All Relative

But before hybrid fans go apoplectic, they should consider the real benefits of applying hybrid technology across the full range of vehicles. “A jump from 14 to 16 mpg saves as much oil as going from 35 to 51 mpg” said Jim Kliesch, research associate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kliesch explained that miles-per-gallon is a non-linear form of measurement and therefore counter-intuitive when comparing the relative fuel consumption of smaller cars to big trucks. Fuel consumed per mile is a much better yardstick. Kliesch doesn’t believe that the road to sustainable transportation is lined with a caravan of Durango and Aspen hybrids, but he conceded, “What seems like a paltry amount of oil can actually make a big dent.”

From the beginning, DaimlerChrylser and General Motors, who are collaborating on the development of gas-electric technology, have set their hybrid sights on big and powerful vehicles. The two companies have dubbed their hybrid system as “two-mode,” to signify the use of a second set of gears configured specifically for moving heavy-weight vehicles more efficiently at highway speeds. The Durango and Aspen will also use cylinder deactivation, which shuts down four of the engine’s eight cylinders under certain conditions such as highway cruising.

Techno Triage

The rationale from improving the fuel economy of big SUVs may make sense, and the technology to achieve this goal is impressive. But it won’t add up to much if the vehicles don’t sell.

Hybrid drivers, a highly motivated bunch, don’t appreciate the benefits of a jump from 16 to 20 mpg. SUV buyers will probably be less inclined to buy their first hybrid—at a premium—based on a 4 mpg jump. In fact, they may view the hybrid badge on their powerful hauling and towing machines as a wimpification of their trucks.

It’s clear that DaimlerChrysler and other purveyors of large SUVs need to do something to lift the fuel economy of these vehicles out of the mid-teens. Releasing two Hemi hybrids is a form of technological triage—another example of today’s ultra-light form of green consumerism which asks for no compromise from the buyer. Thanks to technology, more is still more—for now.

Back in March 2005, Deiter Zetsche, CEO of DaimlerChrysler, was fending off criticism about his company’s sluggish plans for producing a hybrid gas-electric vehicle. He quipped, “As my wife often says, if you know you’re going to arrive a bit late to the dinner party, be sure you bring the best wine.” With its Hemi hybrid SUVs, Chrysler arrives to the hybrid party with a quality blend. It remains to be seen if it’s a vintage that people want to drink.