Chrysler to build electric mini-van


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- In a stark departure from the purple praise that usually accompanies the announcement of a new vehicle, the Chrysler Corp. said yesterday that it would build a mini-van that customers would surely spurn.

The vehicle is an electric version of Chrysler's next-generation mini-vans. The No. 3 automaker said it would build the vehicle to comply with a California law requiring that in 1998, 2 percent of the vehicles offered there by major automakers emit no pollution.

While Chrysler executives called their mini-van "state of the art" for electric vehicles, they declared that the art was miserable. They said the van's performance and range will not approach what buyers expect from internal-combustion engines.

"Building them is not the issue," said Francois J. Castaing, Chrysler's vice president of vehicle engineering. "Selling them is the issue."

Mr. Castaing said driving an electric mini-van would be like driving a gasoline-powered van with "a two-gallon fuel tank, an orifice that big to refill it" -- he made a tiny circle with his fingers -- "and no place in California to fill it up."

Chrysler has not decided whether it will sell the electric mini-van in other states that have asked the federal government to impose California's standards on them.

The Ford Motor Co. and the General Motors Corp. are also developing electric vehicles, as are Japanese and European automakers.

Chrysler's announcement came a week before biennual hearings to review the California standard, scheduled to be held in Los Angeles. Since the California Air Resources Board adopted the standard in 1990, the Big Three automakers have contended that batteries could not be developed in time that would provide, at reasonable cost, the performance and range drivers expect. Officials of the Air Resources Board say, however, that many consumers are eager to drive nonpolluting cars.

The board's staff has concluded that batteries already supply ranges of 80 to 100 miles, enough to satisfy the daily needs of 85 percent of commuters in most large cities. But Chrysler said its surveys showed drivers want at least 125 miles of range, in case of emergencies. Because of the high price of batteries, each electric mini-van would cost Chrysler at least $21,000 more to build than a standard mini-van, Mr. Castaing said. As a result, he said, Chrysler would have to find customers willing to pay a premium for electric vehicles or else raise prices on other vehicles in California to subsidize artificially low prices on the electric models.

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