Chrysler's Doomed EV Project Had Just About The Worst Timing In The World

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Photo: Chrysler

At the 2009 Detroit Auto Show Dodge was there with the fourth-generation Ram, Chrysler had a ceremony to recognize its best suppliers, and Chrysler also said it was working on something called “advanced wireless technology.” Oh, and also Chrysler had deeply serious plans to make a huge bet on electric cars.

In house, it was called ENVI, and it was intended to be, well, the future of everything. That’s because in January 2008 gas prices were sky high and only getting higher, and just a year earlier Chevy had introduced the Volt concept. Electric, for a hot minute, back then, made all the sense in the world, or at least the idea that you could sell people on never having to pay $4 per gallon at the pump again.

It was all sort of like how things are now. Everyone was rushing to make EVs, though back then, unlike now, people were actually somewhat clamoring for them. Small, fuel-efficient cars were very popular, too. Gas was expensive and only seemed likely to get more so.

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Below is a quote from a Chrysler news release from 2008 that wouldn’t sound out of place if it was from a Chrysler news release in 2021.

“ENVI has an entrepreneurial small company spirit that can apply the vast resources available at Chrysler to create environmentally responsible vehicles customers aspire to own,” said Lou Rhodes, President – ENVI, Chrysler LLC. “With ENVI, Chrysler will be able to quickly address the unique dynamic that is taking place between changing consumer attitudes, the worldwide regulatory landscape, and the acceleration of propulsion technologies.”

Enter the Jeep Renegade Concept (pictured up top), the Dodge ZEO Concept; and the Chrysler ecoVoyager Concept.

The Dodge ZEO Concept looked like this:

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And the Chrysler ecoVoyager Concept looked like this:

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The cars were all-electric, or electric with a hydrogen fuel cell, or electric with a small diesel engine. Here, for example, is how the ecoVoyager, which was powered by lithium-ion batteries in addition to hydrogen fuel cell tech.

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Here is how the battery-electric Dodge VEO Concept was set up; does this seem familiar at all?

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And here’s the Jeep Renegade Concept’s underpinnings. The Renegade, according to Chrysler back then, “combines a 40-mile lithium-ion battery pack and a small-displacement BLUETEC diesel engine. The result: fuel economy of more than 110 miles per gallon.”

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Was Chrysler ever serious about putting any of these into production? You better believe they were!

Here’s Automotive News from September 2008, when gas prices were still high and it really did seem that Chrysler was full steam ahead.

In September, Chrysler rolled out three vehicles, an electric sports car based on a Lotus, and two range-extended vehicles — a Chrysler minivan and a Jeep Wrangler — and promised to launch one to consumers by 2010. A range-extended vehicle is driven by an electric motor only, but has a gasoline engine mated to a generator that produces electricity.

Rhodes today didn’t say which vehicle Chrysler would produce, but he did say that the first electric or range extended vehicle would likely be sold through a small number of dealers first before a nationwide rollout.

He said Chrysler believes small, dedicated electric vehicles with a range of about 75 miles designed for city use have big potential.

“They will be the first affordable EVs for consumers,” he said.

The optimism is just the most endearing thing, the idea that Chrysler would spend the 2010s making small, popular electric cars with tiny ranges and ones that were affordable, too.

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By January 2009, Chrysler had even expanded its ambitions. By then, they had shown the Jeep Patriot EV and the Dodge Circuit EV too, both projects of ENVI.

Think of the balls they had to actually write this in a press release:

Chrysler will produce at least one of these vehicles for North American markets in 2010 (and European markets after 2010), with at least three more models to follow by 2013.

“Chrysler’s broad portfolio of electric vehicle prototypes clearly demonstrates that we are well on our way to bringing electric vehicles to our consumers’ garages,” said Frank Klegon, Executive Vice President – Product Development, Chrysler LLC. “With our ENVI-powered vehicles, Chrysler’s strategy is to deliver customers a wide array of electric vehicles that provide an environmentally friendly, clean, quiet and responsible driving experience.”

Between its ENVI electric-drive vehicles and GEM neighborhood electric vehicles, Chrysler expects to have 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2013.

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Chrysler expects to have 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2013.

My god.

You probably know what happened next.

What happened next for Chrysler, that April, was bankruptcy. Then came a merger with Fiat. ENVI somehow was trudging along for a bit more in 2009, still a going concern as of that July, as Automotive News said at the time. After that ENVI seems to have entirely disappeared. Automotive News doesn’t mention ENVI in 2010 at all, nor in 2011, nor in 2012, nor in any other year after that.

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ENVI, after all the press releases and all the Detroit Auto Show stagecraft, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have disappeared from the earth. Presumably killed by then newly-minted Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, the project was all hat and no cattle in the end, a reminder of how quickly things turn in the auto business. The Great Recession took hold, gas prices nosedived and the 2010s brought us big SUV after big muscle car after big truck.

Gas prices are still low these days, as you might have noticed. Indeed, I visited a friend this weekend who bought a 2019 Dodge Challenger brand new, with the Scat Pack he was quick to add. It gets 14 miles to the gallon, though sometimes 15 when he uses the paddle shifter to keep the revs low.

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I emailed Chrysler with a simple query: Does ENVI still exist and if it doesn’t what, uh, happened? Mostly not expecting a response, because Fiat Chrysler — sorry Stellantis — is a very different company than plain old Chrysler was. It’s not 2008 or 2009 anymore, when there was a bailout on the line and Congress asking questions. (I will update this post if I get a response.)

And while things turned so swiftly against Chrysler’s electric project, they could have turned the other direction just as quickly, given more regulatory pressure and higher gas prices. I’m not saying I expect these cars to ever see the light of day, but an electric Jeep Wrangler wouldn’t be shocking. I could say the same of more electrification of Chrysler’s minivans, or even Ram’s trucks, given that Chevy and Ford are electrifying theirs.

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The canary in the coal mine instead, for me, seems to be Dodge, which has remade itself exclusively as a muscle-car-and-Durango brand. When all those V8 Challengers and Chargers start to go, that’s when you’ll know that Stellantis has seen the light, or at least seen the way the wind is blowing.

I leave you with a photo dump of Chrysler’s concepts from 2008. What could have been.

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News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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DISCUSSION

rctothefuture
rctothefuture

Take Chrysler show cars with a grain of salt. They’ve been putting out fantastic prototypes and then never bringing them to market for years. It’s nothing new, and will continue as long as Stellantis exists.

That being said, it’s incredible how much the 08-09 Recession killed so many projects and ideas in this country. It’s understandable, of course, but you see these great advancements of technology come so close but killed off by one event.

To be apart of history at that time, and now see the repercussions, it’s pretty crazy.