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

August 14, 2014 | 7:00 am
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

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.