Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene What a Concept

DaimlerChrysler showcases tomorrow's tech today

By Marc K. Stengel

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  There's a reason why the concept cars at auto shows are mounted on pedestals and guarded from the inquisitive view of enthusiasts passing by: Most of these vehicles are but figments of concepts, and their gaudy appearance is meant to dissemble the fact that their operation is virtual rather than actual. How refreshing, then, when a manufacturer like DaimlerChrysler (D/C) invites auto writers to evaluate a trio of "working concepts"--which is exactly what's happening at this week's South Florida International Auto Show, taking place in Miami through Oct. 17.

Chrysler Citadel

Like each of the D/C concepts introduced at the Miami show, the Chrysler Citadel is meant to showcase not just the idea of exciting new technology but also its eminent practicality. Under its exceptionally beautiful sport-wagon bodywork, the Citadel hides a revolutionary combination of gas and electric powerplants that conspires to deliver muscle-car performance and tree-hugger fuel economy.

These previously incompatible accomplishments result from the unique combination of a Chrysler 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine sending 253 horsepower to the rear wheels and an electric motor delivering up to 70 horsepower to the front wheels. Connected only via computer interface, the two powerplants yield an uncanny drive feel characterized most of all by thrilling acceleration and nearly instant throttle response. Designed in tandem with the German electrical products giant Siemens Automotive, D/C's interpretation of the hybrid (i.e., gas and electric) powertrain sets the Citadel apart from such ultra-economy commuter sub-compacts as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. "Those cars highlight a minimalist approach to hybrid technology," says Siemens' Joe Herbon. "We've positioned the Citadel at the opposite end of the spectrum, to showcase the maximum performance potential" of a gas-electric powertrain.

The result is a four-seater luxury sport-tourer with V8-equivalent performance exceeding 320 horsepower that nevertheless achieves as much as 33 miles per gallon on the highway. And because the Siemens motor is powered by means of regenerative charging, the electrical power supply is effectively self-sustaining. Best of all, the technology is currently feasible--and affordable, at a cost of about $3,000 per car.

Dodge Charger R/T

One look at the sinister, shark-like profile of D/C's Dodge Charger R/T concept, and you know the muscle-car's future is secure. As a conscious homage to the hemi-powered Dodge Chargers of yore, this new R/T is lean, mean...and impressively clean. Its 325-horsepower, 4.7-liter, supercharged V8 burns compressed natural gas (CNG) and meets California's restrictive Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) standards.

Sporting a deep, orangy-red paint appropriately suggestive of the infernal regions, Charger R/T camouflages a four-door layout within its coupe-like styling. This roomy accomplishment is significant, since it helps emphasize the extent of the engineering challenge met with this CNG powertrain. Storing natural gas aboard a vehicle is the chief obstacle to its widespread use. Heretofore CNG has required bulky, heavy metal canisters that impinge on interior space and limit fuel capacity (and therefore range).

With its futurist Charger, D/C has collaborated with John Hopkins University to devise novel thermoplastic "pressure cells" wrapped with carbon/fiberglass filaments and encased in foam. The result is low-profile fuel storage that virtually replaces a traditional gas tank under--instead of inside--the car. Like a typical sedan, the Charger achieves a 300-plus mile range on a single fill-up, and it also retains as much as 90 percent of a sedan's typical trunk space. Mundane as these accomplishments seem, they may yet usher in a future of CNG-powered vehicle development that finally unites high performance and low emissions in happy matrimony.

Dodge Power Wagon

It's an interesting contrast: The Dodge Power Wagon is outrageous looking on the outside, yet it is powered by a homely, much maligned diesel powerplant. How counterintuitive, then, that the Power Wagon's turbo-diesel technology may yet provide literally the clearest immediate solution to the conflicting challenge of designing clean-burning, high-output power plants.

At issue is nothing short of "reinventing" diesel fuel, by means of technology developed by Tulsa-based Syntroleum Corporation. Already available in limited supplies around the country, Syntroleum synthetic diesel is made from natural gas; it's as crystal-clear as the ultra-hyped methanol alcohol, markedly more efficient as a practical fuel, and astoundingly clean-burning despite the prevailing stereotypes.

Snugged under the sloped hood of the Power Wagon is a 7.2-liter turbo-charged diesel capable of 250 horsepower and--this is no typo--780 ft.-lbs. of torque. As Walt Fournier, a D/C specialist in diesel powertrains, points out, diesel engines are 40 percent more fuel efficient than their gasoline equivalents; and they emit one-half the carbon dioxide and one-third the carbon monoxide--even without add-on "scrubbing" technology. With ultra-pure fuel made using Syntroleum technology, even the sooty "particulates" so characteristic of today's diesels nearly disappear.

"It should be a no-brainer," Fournier says. "Here's a technology we already have. The infrastructure, from pipelines to distribution grids to retail pumps, is already in place. Diesel offers every interest group what it wants--the mileage, the low emissions, and the hardworking performance."

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