Rugged Ram Truck Has a Secret Inside: A Small Electric Motor
(Bloomberg) -- “Mild” is not a word that’s usually associated with brawny pickups. But Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is betting it can sell more Ram 1500s by turning its famous V-8 HEMI engine into a mild hybrid, and clean up its industry-worst emissions record in the process.
Some 2019 Ram pickups equipped with the company’s eTorque system, which features a small electric motor, are trickling into dealerships now. The extra battery power gives the truck a little more oomph after the engine shuts off rather than idling at a stoplight. The technology is key to the automaker’s electrification strategy: Rather than creating all-new electric or full-hybrid models, it’s slipping motors into popular, profitable vehicles like Jeep Wranglers and Chrysler minivans to boost overall fleet mileage.
“It’s fuel efficiency and power coming on at the same time,” said Jim Morrison, who leads Ram in North America, where most of its trucks are sold. “You start with very proven powertrains and supplement that with eTorque technology that you add in, and customers get to have their cake and eat it too.”
Fiat Chrysler is rolling out the greener version of its top seller just as Detroit’s truck wars are heating up. General Motors Co. has just started sending its new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups to dealers, and both companies are trying to take a bite out of Ford Motor Co.’s dominant F-Series. They’re duking it out in a segment that represents more than $90 billion in annual revenue among all three companies, and profits of at least $10,000 per truck -- and even more for high-end models -- compared with just a few thousand dollars for passenger cars, according to Morningstar Inc.
The Italian-American carmaker, which sold more than half a million Ram pickups in the U.S. last year, wants to increase Ram brand sales in North America by as much as 30 percent by 2022 and overtake Chevrolet as the number two truckmaker in North America, according to a five-year plan announced in June.
It got off to a rough start early this year, when production delays at its Sterling Heights, Michigan, plant, which switched from making the Chrysler 200 sedan to the 2019 Rams, ate into first-quarter profit. Supplier shortages, construction, and a swell of new hires caused the delays, according to people familiar with the matter. The plant is now cranking out about 1,000 trucks a day, and should get to its goal of 1,200 in a couple of months, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the details aren’t public.
Mike Manley, who took over as Chief Executive Officer last month shortly before the death of ex-CEO Sergio Marchionne, told investors July 25 that the company has made “significant progress” resolving the issues and expects to reach full production in the fourth quarter. Morrison and a spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the delays.
“The task to produce a new pickup truck with a new frame, a new cab in a new assembly plant with new workers is pretty much a recipe for disaster,” said Dave Sullivan, an auto industry analyst at AutoPacific Inc. “No one ever tried to roll the dice like that, especially with a product that rakes in profits like pickup trucks.”
Fiat Chrysler has kept churning out 2018 Ram models this year at its nearby Warren plant to capture entry-level buyers and fleet sales while rolling out the full line of 2019 trucks. Still, production hiccups probably cost the company about 20 percent of potential sales in the first half of the year, said Ivan Drury, a senior analyst with car-shopping website Edmunds.
Ram’s share of the U.S. truck market shrank 2.1 percentage points to 19.7 percent in the first half of 2018 from a year ago, while Ford gained 0.7 point and GM added 1.7 points of share, according to Edmunds.
“It definitely hindered sales, but they can catch up,” Drury said of the delays. The eTorque “allows them to compete or at least keep up with Ford on their EcoBoost route and Chevy launching with a four-cylinder turbo being their mpg go-getter vehicle.”
Morrison points out retail sales of Ram pickups were up 17 percent in July, and he’s optimistic he can deliver an even bigger gain in August.
On the spectrum of fuel-saving technologies, mild hybrids are a baby step into electrification that is cheaper than full or plug-in hybrids. The Ram hybrid contains a 48-volt lithium-ion battery that stores energy generated by braking, and adds torque when you hit the gas pedal. That, combined with dropping 225 pounds and making the new Ram more aerodynamic, gives the V-8 pickup mileage of 19 miles per gallon, compared with 17 miles in the 2018 Rams, according to preliminary estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency provided by Fiat Chrysler.
The hybrid engine is an important step for Fiat Chrysler, which has bought EV credits in past years to comply with U.S. emissions standards and ranked last among 13 car companies for both fuel economy and carbon emissions in the EPA’s evaluation of 2016 sales, the most complete data available. A lot of that is due to its heavy truck mix, and the company actually has better fuel economy than Ford or GM in the light truck category, according to the EPA.
“FCA is really a truck and SUV company these days and they need everything they can to help hit their CAFE number,” said AutoPacific’s Sullivan, using the acronym for corporate average fuel economy. “Mild hybrids are coming from many more manufacturers.”
The other big question mark is whether truck buyers will go for the hybrid tech, which comes as the base engine on V-6 models and is a $1,450 option on HEMI-powered models. The V-6 models won’t reach dealers for another couple months, and the V-8s with eTorque are just arriving at dealerships, but the truck “seems off to a good start,” Morrison said.
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