By Larry P. Vellequette, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Oct. 13, 2014) — The auto maker that launched a Dodge this year that can burn up to 1.5 gallons of gasoline a minute finished last in the government's annual report on fuel economy gains.
Yet Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) vows that it will meet tough corporate average fuel economy goals in the coming years — despite products such as the 707-hp Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and a 3-to-1 sales mix of trucks and cars.
FCA finished last among the 11 auto makers included in the EPA's annual Fuel Economy Trends report, released last week.
The EPA said the average fuel economy of FCA cars and light trucks was 20.9 mpg in the 2013 model year, up 0.8 mpg from 2012.
The average fuel economy of the entire U.S. industry rose 0.5 mpg to a record 24.1 mpg.
Preliminary data for the 2014 model year showed only slight improvement for both the industry and FCA, though the EPA did cite FCA for having the most fuel-efficient pickup, the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel.
To reach its CAFE goals, FCA has said that it plans to sell more:
• Small vehicles
• Eight- and nine-speed transmissions
• Downsized gasoline engines — and more diesels.
But unlike many competitors, the car company will offer only limited numbers of hybrids and electrics.
Chrysler is developing a new line of sub-2.0 liter I-4 engines, dubbed Hurricane, that will achieve better fuel economy than its existing 2.0-liter I-4. Company sources say the engine is due in showrooms by 2016.
It also is planning to field versions of its Pentastar line of V-6 engines with smaller displacements that will meet or exceed the power output of its current 3.6-liter V-6.
The auto maker's introduction this year of a light-duty 3.0-liter diesel engine in its half-ton Ram 1500 pickup was a hit, boosting highway fuel economy rating to a segment-best 28 mpg.
In late September, Ram raised its production mix of EcoDiesels to 20 percent of Ram 1500 production.
The company said it also will equip more of its lineup with fuel-saving eight-speed rear-wheel-drive and nine-speed front-wheel-drive transmissions.
Jeff Lux, Chrysler's head of transmission powertrain, said in a statement that the auto maker's successes with improving truck fuel economy “are a vindication of our efforts to introduce advanced technology.”
But in May, Bob Lee, the company's global head of powertrain, said Chrysler will continue to purchase emission credits from other auto makers to allow the company more time to develop fuel-saving vehicles.
Some significant progress has already been made. The fuel economy of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, for example, was 45 percent higher than the vehicle it replaced, the 2012 Jeep Liberty.
Similarly, the redesigned 2015 Chrysler 200 was rated at up to 36 mpg highway, compared with a top highway rating of 31 mpg for the 2014 model.
And the car that drinks up to 1.5 gallons of fuel a minute at full throttle, the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat? It also earned a rating of 22 mpg highway, thanks to fuel-saving technologies that tame its 707-hp engine when full supercharged power isn't needed.
Still, Chrysler's truck-heavy mix raises questions.
“I don't think anyone really has the answer yet” whether Chrysler will hit its mpg goals, said Eric Ibara, a consultant at KBB.com. “They sell a lot of trucks and big vehicles. I think their ability to hit the target is going to depend on how well the Chrysler 200 does.”
Chrysler “needs to be more successful with the vehicles that deliver a higher fuel economy number,” Mr. Ibara said. “What they really need is a 40 mpg Jeep.”
The Jeep with the best fuel economy now is the Cherokee, which achieves up to 31 mpg on the highway.
A diesel engine helped boost the Ram 1500's highway fuel economy rating to 28 mpg. Late last month, Ram raised its production mix of the diesels to 20 percent of Ram 1500 output.
While most other auto makers have added various hybrids and plug-in electrics, Chrysler sells no hybrids and just one electric, the Fiat 500e, in California and Portland, Ore. The 500e's sticker is $31,141, including shipping. In California, the vehicle is eligible for green-vehicle purchase credits of $10,000.
The company will release a plug-in hybrid version of the Chrysler Town & Country late next year, a year earlier than originally planned, CEO Sergio Marchionne said this month in Paris. But he said he remains skeptical of the technology and consumers' willingness to pay for it.
“There will be a series of cars that will dabble in electrification by providing a combination and battery-stored energy to allow you to do particular things,” Mr. Marchionne said of his company's future plans.
However, the CEO said: “I keep on running into this fundamental economic obstacle of overcoming the cost equation of electrification. You can't. You can't unless there is a wholesale change and a fundamental shift in the pricing structure of cars.”
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.