Monday, April 14, 2008

Chrysler tech, Cerberus-style

Bad news aside, we haven't heard much from privately held Chrysler since it was acquired by Cerberus Capital Management in 2007.

CEO Robert Nardelli seems ready to change that, starting by marshaling the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker's latest technological breakthroughs and putting them into production as soon as possible.

Company engineers and designers are working together more than ever through the magic of computer morphing, which is helping to cut as much as 10 months out of the typical 31-month development time for a new vehicle.

What's the latest and greatest coming from Chrysler? Here's a peek.

-- We're already driving two-mode hybrid-powertrain technology on General Motors sport/utilities, such as the GMC Yukon and the Chevy Tahoe, but Chrysler isn't far behind with its 2009 Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUVs, using the same system developed in a partnership with GM, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

On sale this fall, the Chrysler SUVs use the same four fixed gears and two electric-vehicle modes as everyone else in the joint hybrid-tranny project, but Chrysler powertrain gurus say its version is more refined. In the Durango and the Aspen, the two-mode system is tied to a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with variable valve timing, multidisplacement cylinder deactivation and fuel cutoff. Chrysler says the combination is good for a 25 percent bump in overall fuel economy (and a 40 percent jump in city mileage) versus a nonhybrid Durango or Aspen with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with cylinder deactivation.

-- Chrysler's LX large rear-drive models (Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger) will see a series of chassis and powertrain upgrades for the 2009 model year.

On the fuel-saving front, Chrysler will fit all-wheel-drive models with an active transfer case and front-axle disconnect system that promises an immediate 1-mpg improvement in fuel economy. Most of the time, the vehicles will run in rear-wheel drive, but when road or driving conditions dictate, an onboard computer will automatically speed up the front transfer case via an electric motor, reconnect the front drive and send up to 38 percent of power to the front wheels.

Chrysler also is rolling out a $595 infra-red-based adaptive-cruise-control option (now on '08 300s, on all LX models in '09).

Meanwhile, the 300 and the Charger will get suspension upgrades for 2009, and down the road, the performance 300C SRT8 may get active suspension, with dampers that can be switched between standard and sport modes.

-- Big rigs also are getting attention, with the new 2009 Dodge Ram eschewing the traditional leaf-spring rear suspension for a five-link coil-spring setup--the first ever on a conventional pickup. Chrysler says the suspension is 40 pounds lighter and improves ride and handling without compromising towing or hauling capabilities.

-- In the "gee whiz" department, Chrysler wants the world to know that the techno cupboard is full of surprises, from back-seat satellite television and in-car connectivity that promises to transform a rolling vehicle into a WiFi hot spot to safety improvements such as blind-spot detectors and a rear cross-path detection system intended to prevent parking-lot mishaps.

Although the WiFi isn't a factory option (it is available through Mopar parts for '09, however), '09 Chrysler models will offer enhanced voice-activated entertainment and communications systems and Sirius satellite TV on back-seat screens, including a third-row screen that swivels to allow viewing from reverse-seated minivan passengers.

The simple blind-spot-detection system, which provides a telltale warning light in the mirror and an audible alert, arrives on '09 Chrysler minivans. The same sensors in the rear fascia of the vehicle do double duty as detectors of unseen oncoming vehicles up to 66 feet distant as drivers try to back out of blind parking spaces.

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