Why Chrysler Has the “Dirtiest Tailpipe” and Why I Want to See Them Do Better

, , senior vehicles analyst | August 14, 2014, 7:00 am EST
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With all of the hype this week surrounding Dodge’s latest power-infused sedan — and just in time for that beloved celebration of automotive history, the Woodward Dream Cruise — I thought today I would spend a “throwback Thursday” discussing some of my own personal history with the automaker.

I have a very personal connection with Chrysler vehicles, so I felt a particular pang of disappointment when our Automaker Rankings 2014 analysis showed them to have the worst average emissions of any major automaker. However, despite the lack of progress thus far, I think Chrysler is showing off some new technologies in the near future that can help set them on the path towards a cleaner fleet and enable them to meet the strong fuel economy and global warming emission standards set out to 2025.

Everyone remembers their first car, and for me it was this 1989 Dodge Spirit ES turbo.

Everyone remembers their first car, and for me it was this 1989 Dodge Spirit ES turbo.

Why Chrysler holds a special place in my heart

For over two decades, my family owned and leased nothing but Chrysler vehicles, so when my parents handed me down the keys to my first car, it was a 1989 Dodge Spirit ES. With the sports package, it had a turbocharged 2.5L I4 engine that my teenage self absolutely loved to push hard right off the line.

But luckily for my teenage self’s wallet, it also came enabled with a trip computer that allowed me to monitor fuel economy and distance-‘til-empty, and being the analytical nerd I’ve always been, I loved to focus on exactly what engine speed I needed to maintain to maximize my fuel. (Luckily, such trip computers are becoming nearly ubiquitous and can help remind even the heaviest-footed driver like myself to watch that fuel usage.)

How Chrysler has fallen behind

From the Dodge Viper to its “Hemi” engines and now its Hellcats, Chrysler has tended to make its name prioritizing high-powered engines over fuel economy, which is one of the main reasons that in every single class of vehicle, our analysis showed them falling behind the industry average.

The Dodge Dart, which is the closest analog to my ol’ Dodge Spirit, has a fuel economy 40 percent better than my first car, meaning there has been significant improvement over that 25-year period; however, compared to other vehicles in its class, that 27 mpg combined fuel economy is nearly 15 percent worse than comparable vehicles like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and even the fellow-Detroit-model Ford Focus, which means that Chrysler has fallen way behind the rest of the industry. And, unfortunately for Chrysler, we see this trend across their entire fleet.

Chrysler can improve…

Despite currently falling well behind the industry average, Chrysler recently announced a 5-year product plan which is aimed at streamlining the number of engines and narrowing the offerings of its various sub-brands. This latest plan is the second following the purchase of Chrysler by Fiat, but it signals a new level of integration for the two brands.

Technologies they plan to employ in the coming years run the gamut from a plug-in hybrid minivan to widespread start-stop mild hybridization to diesel engines.

One hint at a path forward could be the redesigned Chrysler 200. The 2015 Chrysler 200 features some of the newer technologies that Chrysler plans to employ in its conventional combustion fleet — the 2.4L I4 features Fiat’s MultiAir2 technology, which features a unique combination of variable valve lift and variable valve timing to optimize the air/fuel mixture, and the 9-speed ZF automatic transmission, which allows for the engine to operate at its most efficient point more of the time. This combination of improvements made to the 200 have resulted in a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy compared to the previous year’s model, and while not at the top of its class, it at least places the vehicle much more competitively with its counterparts.

…but will they?

The 200 isn’t the only high-tech vehicle in Chrysler’s fleet. The Fiat 500e battery-electric vehicle debuted in 2013, and according to our analysis, this electric version of the popular subcompact was the most efficient vehicle on the road in 2013. Despite broad acclaim for its performance, Chrysler has restricted its availability to California and plans to sell no more than 100 to 200 per month.

Sergio Marchionne even went so far as to tell people not to buy the vehicle — when the CEO is telling people not to buy the most efficient vehicle on the road, it’s no surprise that the company as a whole is falling short!

The Fiat 500e was the most efficient vehicle sold in the 2013 model year, but Chrysler has limited its annual production to just a few hundred and is only selling it in California (Image courtesy of the Chrysler Group)

The Fiat 500e was the most efficient vehicle sold in the 2013 model year, but Chrysler has limited its annual production to just a few hundred and is only selling it in California (Image courtesy of the Chrysler Group)

Leadership is needed

While Nissan and General Motors face the same challenges with battery costs as Chrysler, those automakers are showing the leadership and long-term foresight necessary to create a new technology space in the automotive marketplace, aiming to replicate Toyota’s success with the Prius, which took a number of years to turn a profit.

Unfortunately, Chrysler is shortchanging its customers and its engineers by restricting its investment in a vehicle like the 500e — perhaps moving forward they will rethink this strategy to capitalize on the popularity of the vehicle as they continue to increase electrification through hybridization and new plug-in options.

Chrysler will need to continue to innovate to meet increasing fuel economy and global warming emissions standards — whether they choose to expand the use of novel powertrain options like the 500e or simply continue to find high-tech ways of getting more out of their conventional vehicles, Chrysler has a number of paths available to improve their environmental standing.

As someone with a soft spot for the brand, I’m hopeful they will show the leadership to do so.

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  • ron

    You do realize that the Charger heelcat is only a trim level correct? The current Se/SXT model earns a class leading 31MPG among other premium size sedans equipped w/ 6 cylinder engines. The dart’s highest MPG is 41 Highway MPG and thats on par with the class. the highest compact highway MPG is currently 42-43. Ram has the diesel option that is best in class among trucks, Durango offers comparable MPG in its class, as well does the 200. Chrysler is currently behind in terms of overall MPG however it is getting better slowly. They have gotten ridden of the old outdated 5 speed in favor of the 8spd/9spd to assist in improving mpg and making vehicle lighter. They currently need to get lighter platforms and use more aluminum to control weight. Add 2 high MPG hybrid models and they will on par with everyone else prob except Toyota due to them having 4-6 hybrid models all getting more than 40MPG

    • Thanks for your response. I agree that Chrysler has a path forward, but I’m concerned because they are starting farther behind than any manufacturer that isn’t Mercedes or Land Rover. Luckily for them, they do have many banked credits, but they are likely to run out of those in the next couple years if there are not bigger changes in their high-volume models like the Charger.

      The Charger is a bit of an anachronism, so it’s tough to find a direct comparison, which is why I didn’t focus on it. But restricting it to V6s is more than a bit disingenuous, since Ford’s EcoBoost Taurus (which makes up 1/3 of sales) exceeds it in both fuel economy and torque, as does the turbo I-4 Hyundai Sonata.

      In terms of the numbers in my post, I focused on the high-volume numbers. It makes no sense to bring up the Dodge Dart Aero when it makes up such a small fraction of total sales of the vehicle–it may be an available trim, but it’s no more what the typical buyer is buying than the Hellcat. (Although this is a good opportunity to point out that about 1/3 of Charger buyers upgrade to the V8, which is yet another reason why its large volume hurts Chrysler’s average.)

      I also don’t like to cherry-pick highway numbers because most people drive pretty close to a balance of city and highway type of cycles, so the combined is the best comparison. In fact, I recently pushed the FTC to restrict manufacturers from touting only the highway value to prevent just that type of distortion.

      But the redesigned 200 does get comparable fuel economy to the rest of its class, as I mentioned, and they basically threw the kitchen sink at it to get it up there, which shows they have the engineering know-how and supply chain to meet the standards. It IS possible for them to compete, which is why I’m still optimistic.

      But it’s going to have to take more than dropping a few diesel engines into some of their highest volume vehicles (Ram and Grand Cherokee) to make the difference. While the Ram may hold the tentative title on class fuel economy, 1) that is highway and 2) it is doing it with a fuel that emits 15% more CO2 per gallon, so it will still be behind the aluminum F-150 in terms of emissions as far as EPA is concerned. Similarly, the diesel on the Cherokee is more filling the gap between the V6 and V8 than really doing much for the overall emissions profile from that vehicle.

      But there are some high-tech features in the Ram like an active suspension that can lower during highway driving, and if they continue to push to innovate, Chrysler’ll probably be okay. But they can’t approach this issue reluctantly if they want to succeed.

      • ron

        They have to take one step at a time. They cant do everything all at once. They went from having the worst interiors to having the best in just 3 years. They went from using outdated transmissions to using state of the art transmissions and became the first full vehicle automker to introduce a 9 speed. It is going to take more to have more significant MPG gains however they are on their way. Like I posted in the 1st comment once they start using lighter platforms, lighter building materials it will help with the weight issue which would benefit fuel economy. currently the 300/Charger have or had best in class F/e among large size. 200 is now comparable when just last year it was just about last among midsizers. The minivans are comparable. Durango is comparable. The Ram is best in class whether its just highway or not. The 3.6 engine also comparable. Cherokee, Patriot and Compass all get over 30MPG and for having offroad chops that is great. Only vehicle lacking in MPG would be the Wrangler but that is due to lose significant weight in ’17 by using more aluminum in the body. Dart even though that is the aero model, does the same as other automakers they offer (1) high efficiency model to stake claims to whom offers the best fuel economy. Another thing to think about is EPA(those are estimates, not actuals). Chrysler has been known in reviews to actually meet/beat its EPA while others tend to do the opposite(Eco-boost and Nissan). Also Chrysler chooses not to use CVT any longer because of the driving experience, so Chrysler chooses to opt for better driving experience over a 2MPG gain, which makes sense. Lastly to consider they were the worst of all automakers and now they are getting there. FordGM both offer quite a few high HP vehicles so they are not alone.

      • ron

        Just researched your claims of the Taurus, the STANDARD engine is comparable with the 3.6 Charger. The 3.5 Ecoboost is comparable to the RT Charger. And the 2.0 Ecoboost only offers 2 mPG better f/e than the 3.6 Charger. But the Charger in all trims offers better HP and I wouldnt put a 2.0 ecoboost in my Taurus. Car is to heavy for that engine which would halter driving experience. Also Ecoboost f/e claims genrally are lower than estimated to be many of them over 3-6MPg difference. Also you mentioned the Sonata? That vehicle competes with the 200. The 300 competes with the hyundai Genesis however.