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Phony Electric Cars and the Fawning Auto Press: WTF

Old 09-30-2008, 08:49 PM
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Default Phony Electric Cars and the Fawning Auto Press: WTF

Despite what some vocal commenters seem to believe, I would dearly like for all three domestic automakers to survive and thrive. Forget the implications to the U.S. economy if they don't. Forget preserving what remains of U.S. automotive industry jobs. I want them to survive because I've grown weary of recommending Hondas to everyone who asks my opinion on what car he should buy.

But good Lord Almighty, can I please get some skepticism in this world? Case in point: Last week Chrysler trotted out four "electric" vehicles for the press (after the company issued some kind words on television by giving CNBC an early peek) and in one swoop the company had redeemed itself for any and all missteps and failures at least if you read the fawning press given the company.

As I say, I'll champion an underdog every time. Hell, Underdog was my favorite cartoon superhero when I was but a mini-Mechanic. But did it not occur to any journalist sent to cover this dog-and-pony show (or those who simply picked up the precious few details from other journalists) that this surprise announcement comes but a week after General Motors basked in the green glow of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt "production car" unveiling? Did it not occur to anyone that Chrysler's carefully painted rosy picture of the future came at a time when the domestic auto industry was fighting with Wall Street for some of those government bailout bucks?

And exactly why is anyone impressed that Chrysler LLC still a large and capable automaker in the grand scheme of things has paraded around a Lotus Europa filled with electric batteries? Chrysler now is patterning itself after startup Tesla (which itself was the recipient of fawning press before delay after delay in actually producing, you know, salable cars)? Do you know how long it takes a carmaker to cobble together a vehicle that will travel long enough on an electric charge to impress a general-interest journalist? Not much longer than it takes for that journalist test-drive.

And don't get me started on that stupidly smiling glass orb the company has nicknamed the Peapod. That's the same neighborhood-electric vehicle, glorified golf cart nonsense that a few companies have been working on for about a decade. The body that comes straight out of Woody Allen's Sleeper doesn't change anything except that it would make its passengers the butt of funnier jokes than before.

The other two vehicles the Wrangler and minivan extended-range electrics are more interesting, even if they're less compelling camera-candy. But how exactly do these big, heavy, decidedly un-aerodynamic trucks achieve 40 miles of electric range? And how is it that that figure just happens to be the same as the Volt? More batteries can hold more energy, sure. But more batteries cost more money a lot more money. And they weigh more. More powerful electric motors use more energy.

So successful has Chrysler's PR ploy been that I've actually talked to folks who believe that Chrysler just introduced four electric cars for production. Call me a cynic, but it would seem to me that Chrysler's stunt is vastly more cynical. And the worst part? It was an unmitigated success for the company.

You, as consumers of the media, should expect more. Much more. Hell, you should demand more. I made a few calls, and an insider at Chrysler tells me that the electric Lotus Europa is a real car. A car Chrysler is committed to selling to the American public in 2010. "It's the real deal," he told me during a secret late-night meeting in a dark, dank parking garage. The so-called Dodge EV might be the least technologically daring and the least practical of the lot, but at least it's something.

The other two fall somewhere just south of pie in the sky. They're not complete bullshit like the electrically powered Chrysler EcoVoyager, Jeep Renegade and Dodge Zeo the company showed at the Detroit auto show back in January, but they're also about as close to being real as the pretty pill.

He also told me that the new co-president of Chrysler, Jim Press, who saw great success while at Toyota with the Prius (both PR success and sales success), is committed to the electric car as the future of Chrysler. Press, I'm told, sees the move to electric vehicles as a when, not an if, and he has pointed his company in that direction.

"We're committed to this," my source says of electric vehicles. "No bulls___."

Good for them. I wish Chrysler luck with that strategy, but until it's more than a dog-and-pony show for the TV cameras and Washington's check writers I'd like the automotive and business press corps to put down their pom-poms and practice a little journalism. The Mechanic, Inside Line Contributor*

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