When Chrysler president Jim Press teased the automotive press early this month, saying that the company’s first wave of electric cars were “closer to production than you think,” it’s doubtful that anyone envisioned this.

Top executives of the Chrysler Corporation took the wraps off a line of electric and hybrid vehicles today, neatly upstaging the relentless drumbeat of Chevrolet Volt publicity. In a CNBC exclusive interview, the company both upended and validated the future arrival of electrically driven vehicles.

Chrysler did GM one better by showing an electric-drive vehicle for each of its brands. They are an all-electric Dodge EV sports car, and both a Jeep Wrangler 4×4 and Chrysler Town & Country minivan with series hybrid powertrains, which give 40 miles of electric range and use a small motor for another 400 miles. The company also showed the Peapod, a new neighborhood electric vehicle that it said will later spawn a city car.

Dodge EV

At least one of the three will go on sale by the end of 2010, said Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli, and all are intended for production. Each one runs on lithium ion batteries from a different supplier, and Nardelli told Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman that the entire project had been greatly assisted by Chrysler’s partnership with General Electric, announced earlier this year. He noted that the company’s independent ENVI group—from the first four letters of “environmental”—had done all the work in-house, acting as a systems integrator for components from a variety of suppliers.

The Dodge EV is an electric adaptation of the Lotus Europa, announced at this summer’s London Motor Show. Using a lithium ion battery pack, it is said to do 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and offer a range of 150 to 200 miles. The car shown was bright yellow with twin black stripes running the length of its roof, hood, and deck, clearly evoking the performance mantle of the Dodge Viper V-10 sports car. But viewed in another light, it slavishly follows the blueprint for the Tesla Roadster: Start with a lightweight Lotus sports car platform, remove the engine, add a large battery pack and electric motor. Result: an all-electric sports car.

Towns & Country EV

The Chrysler electric minivan retains the original’s ability to seat seven passengers, and even its “Swivel’n’Go” seating option with a removable table for the rear two seats. The lithium ion batteries are mounted under the floor—meaning no “Stow’n’Go” seats that collapse into the floor—and a small 1-liter engine recharges the pack for an additional 400 miles or so of range.

The Jeep EV, shown in a Wrangler Unlimited four-door body, also uses a small engine to extend its range after 40 miles of electric running. The interesting feature here—currently being explored but far from ready for prime time—is the use of four wheel motors, rather than a single motor driving one set of wheels. Thus far, no production vehicle has used this technology. Its advantage is that it gives infinite variation over each individual motor via electrically controlled all-wheel-drive. The challenge, as engineers know, is “unsprung weight,” or the need to beef up the suspension to handle much, much heavier wheel-and-hub components.

Jeep EV

The final vehicle was the Peapod, a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV)—presumably to be sold under the GEM brand—that Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli said would serve as the base for an urban car. GEM has sold almost 40,000 NEVs in 10 years, representing 90 percent of the country’s NEV sales; they have now accumulated 250 million miles in retirement communities and commercial fleets. It can be assumed that Chrysler knows more than most carmakers about how EV drivers actually use their cars, and what they want in them.

Chrysler Peapod EV

But Chrysler may not be planning to build EV versions of its existing products—despite the adapted minivan and Wrangler it showed off. At last January’s Detroit Auto Show, it unveiled three concept cars driven by electric motors. Each used a different mix from a common set of electric, hybrid, or fuel-cell building blocks that Chrysler said it was considering for future drivetrains. And each had unique and differentiated styling appropriate to the brand.

At the time, ENVI president Frank Rhodes was asked about integrating new powertrains—battery packs, electric drive, range-extending engines—into architectures also built to accommodate standard engines. He reacted sharply. “Sharing platforms? We don’t think that makes sense. You won’t really create an efficient application. We believe that end result is sort of the worst of all.” In other words, Chrysler may not adopt GM’s tactic of using a global platform for both the conventional Chevrolet Cruze and the extended-range EV Chevrolet Volt.

In one fell swoop, Chrysler has moved the industry’s painful transformation to electric drive further along and, not incidentally, drawn a line in the sand that competitors—Toyota, GM, Nissan, and others—will have to cross. The year 2010 promises to be positively riveting for consumers and green car watchers alike.