Chrysler’s new line of electric cars is “closer to production than you think,” said Chrysler president Jim Press earlier today. He explained that Chrysler is currently demonstrating electric cars and plug-in hybrids to dealers to get their feedback.

When challenged as to whether a Chrysler plug-in hybrid could beat GM’s much-publicized Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid to market, Press deferred with a joke, saying, “GM’s been selling the Volt for about five years.” He added that Chrysler “didn’t have the money for PR stunts,” but was focused on getting its new products to market.

Chrysler is under pressure to deliver exciting and innovative new cars. On Wednesday, Chrysler said its sales in the United States fell by a third in August—nearly twice the industry average. Honda bypassed Chrysler to become the nation’s No. 4 seller of cars.

Chrysler’s hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles are coming out of the year-old ENVI program, which was organized to jump-start Chrysler’s move to develop its own ground-up hybrids. The company’s first hybrid products, the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen two-mode hybrids, use technology developed jointly by their former parent company Daimler, along with General Motors and BMW. Chrysler is the last of the six largest car companies to put a hybrid on the market.

According to Press, who spoke to the Western Automotive Journalists group in South San Francisco, Chrysler is moving to electric vehicles for two reasons:


    
  

  • Market forces. The company recognizes rising concerns over the environment, carbon reduction, and dependence on petroleum.
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  • Company expertise. “Our engineers know how to do it,” said Press.
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Chrysler is putting $3 billion a year into new products, according to Press, and as a private company has the ability to invest in new technologies like electric vehicles.

Chrysler Hybrid Timeline

Some of the fruits of those investments are starting to show up:

    
  

  • Chrysler recently introduced hybrid versions of the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen, offering about 30 percent better fuel economy than its non-hybrid version without sacrificing towing capability or interior space.
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  • Next year, the new Dodge Ram pickup will offer a diesel engine in its light-duty models for the first time, followed in 2010 by a hybrid model.
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  • A hybrid minivan that is due to come out of the ENVI program will follow “after that,” Press said.