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  • Soybeans in the outfield

    Posted on June 26th, 2007 ninarussin

    Alternative fuels are the key ingredient in Chrysler’s comeback strategy.
    By Nina Russin

    Chrysler Aspen Hybrid

    Chrysler Aspen Hybrid

    Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds has gone brown, thanks to soybean crops planted in its greenbelts. Soybeans are the basis for biodiesel: a renewable fuel the manufacturer is using to power its heavy-duty pickups. The bean fields reflect Chrysler’s commitment to making biodiesel-powered production cars a reality.

    At a recent press conference Frank Klegon, Chrysler executive vice president of product development, explained that alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient gas engines are key to the company’s comeback. In addition to biodiesel, the manufacturer is also focusing on flex-fuel powertrains, and a new hybrid engine that Chrysler is developing in conjunction with BMW and General Motors.

    Bean machines

    Engineers are working on two biodiesel engines: one available on the Dodge Ram 2500/3500 series, and the second to power the 3500/4500/5500 pickup trucks. The trucks run on B5: a five percent biodiesel blend. A dealer-installed option allows the trucks to run on up to twenty percent biodiesel. Biodiesel has a tendency to absorb water. The option includes filters that strip the water out of the fuel.

    Luke Marsh, body-on-frame engineer in charge of the biodiesel project, explained that one of the problems he faces right now is that the fuel is not federally regulated. There is a lot of variation in fuel quality. He is hoping to see the new federal standards for biodiesel within a year.

    The other problem with biodiesel is that it has a short shelf life: about a month. The fuel is most stable at moderate temperatures. It degrades faster in extreme heat.

    But biodiesel also has advantages over traditional diesel. It’s cleaner burning, and it tends to extend engine life because it does a better job of lubricating moving parts. Marsh hopes to see widespread use of biodiesel within the next few years.

    As with traditional diesel, biodiesel engines have exceptional low-end power. That’s important for trucks whose main purpose is to haul cargo and tow trailers. The 2500/3500 engine produces 650 foot-pounds of torque at 1500 rpm: it develops peak power at extremely low speeds. Not only does the torque help the engine tow, it also makes it accelerate harder off the line, and in the twenty-to-fifty mile-per-hour range.

    Fuel economy is about thirty percent better than comparable gasoline engines. Luke estimates that the heavy-duty Ram with the biodiesel engine will average about 17 miles-per-gallon: not bad for a truck weighing eight thousand pounds. A gas-powered version would average just over fourteen miles per gallon.

    New hemi hybrid

    The Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango both go green next year, with a two-mode hybrid developed in conjunction with General Motors and BMW. The engine uses Chrysler’s multiple displacement technology: it turns off half of the cylinders when the demand for power is low. Engineers expect a twenty-five percent improvement in overall fuel economy. The sport-utility vehicles will get forty percent better gas mileage on the highway.

    The hybrid system has two electric motors that power a low and high mode respectively. At speeds up to twenty-five miles-per-hour, the truck can runs exclusively on electric power. Above that, the gasoline engine kicks in. Low mode powers the truck when it is idling or cruising, while high mode works during hard acceleration and climbing. Electric motor assist at all speeds allows the engine to run on half its cylinders over a greater power range.

    I drove the Durango on a short loop around the proving grounds. At low speeds, the engine’s operation is flawless. Driving under twenty-five miles-per-hour, I experienced performance in the pure electric mode. The silent engine caught people crossing our path off-guard.

    The hybrid also works well during moderate acceleration. In the short test drive, I didn’t notice a difference in front-to-rear weight balance or steering response. Braking was strong and linear.

    Hard acceleration produced some noticeable chuggles: problems that the engineers will most likely solve with software modifications. At this point, it’s hard to compare the system to Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive system, which has been on the market for several years. Toyota has had plenty of time to get the bugs out. The Toyota system is essentially invisible to the driver, except for significant improvements in fuel economy.

    Toyota reminds the driver of those fuel economy improvements with real-time fuel meters on the instrument panel. The Durango and Aspen have no fuel meter: just an indicator light on the dash that tells the driver if he is keeping gas mileage in optimum range.

    Chrysler engineers plan to have the hybrid system ready for production next year.

    Corn power

    Like Ford and General Motors, Chrysler is producing flex-fuel production cars that are E85 compatible. E85 is a gasoline blend that is eighty-five percent ethanol. Because the ethanol is produced from corn, E85 is a renewable fuel. Cost and availability varies. Widest availability is in the Midwest: cost there is also lowest.

    Performance is essentially the same as for gas-powered cars except for a drop in fuel economy. E85 is slightly more expensive than conventional gasoline.

    Bread and butter

    Since most American drivers still prefer cars with traditional gas engines, Chrysler is introducing three new engine families, all promising better gas mileage. In February, the manufacturer announced the development of a new V6 engine called “Phoenix” for 2010, to be produced in three all-new assembly plants. The Phoenix engine uses cylinder deactivation to improve gas mileage. At idle, low speeds and cruise, the engine runs on half of its cylinders. The remaining cylinders kick in when the engine is under load.

    A new 4.7-liter flex-fuel engine replaces the previous 4.7-liter V8, with a five percent increase in gas mileage. The new engine is also more powerful: horsepower is up thirty percent, and there is a ten percent increase in torque.  For 2009, Chrysler will refresh its 5.7-liter hemi engine, with similar gains in fuel economy, horsepower and torque.

    Common-rail diesel

    While Daimler no longer holds a controlling interest in the company, it will maintain its partnership with Chrysler in developing common-rail diesel engines for production. The 2007 Dodge Ram heavy duty equipped with the Bluetec engine is emissions certified in fifty states. The 2009 Jeep Cherokee will also be available with a clean diesel engine.


    2 responses to “Soybeans in the outfield”

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