A glimpse of the cars of tomorrow

Nostalgia: DaimlerChrysler's concept cars have borrowed considerably from cars well known to the older generation.

Auto industry

May 25, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

SUMMIT POINT, W.Va. -- DaimlerChrysler AG is turning to its history for inspiration in designing its vehicles for the future.

That was evident as the company demonstrated its Charger R/T, a racy-looking, four-door concept sedan with the body curves of a Coke bottle. Its origin can be traced to a muscle car of the same name from the Vietnam War era.

Another vehicle, a high-tech pickup the company calls a power wagon, draws its design from the first trucks that rolled off the assembly line when the company resumed civilian production at the close of World War II. "It's a nostalgic thing," said Lance Wagner, a DaimlerChrysler design manager. "Our task is to make the fans of these old models happy while appealing to the personalities of people in their 20s who don't even remember the original vehicles."

Those were one-of-a-kind, hand-made concept vehicles -- costing $2 million each -- that the company demonstrated last week at the Summit Point Raceway.

Though they may never make it to the showroom, the Charger and Power Wagon offer a hint of the direction that DaimlerChrysler is taking in the auto industry race to bring new styling and technologies to market.

Most of the other manufacturers, including Ford, General Motors and Toyota, are fighting for the lead with their own approaches to make cars of the early 21st century more appealing, more efficient and less polluting.

If their plans prove successful, one of your future cars might be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It could have two motors -- one using gasoline, the other electricity -- or you might fill up with compressed natural gas, or a synthetic diesel fuel, before taking to the road.

Ford has displayed a hydrogen fuel cell research car designed to triple current fuel economy while sharply reducing emissions. With this approach, hydrogen fuel, which can be made from either natural gas or methanol, is electrochemically combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity for the car's electric motor.

"A direct hydrogen fuel cell offers real promise as a zero-emission vehicle with competitive performance and driving range," said Bill Powers, Ford's vice president of research.

Another DaimlerChrysler concept vehicle, the Jeep Commander, an upscale sport-utility vehicle, has a fuel cell power plant under the hood. "It's promising technology," said Scott Fosgard, a company spokesman. "But it's too expensive at this time." He put the price at $30,000, or 10 times the cost of a gas engine. "We have got to do a lot of work to cut the cost before we introduce the fuel cell in 2004," he said.

In addition to its own work on fuel cells, General Motors is expanding its development of the internal combustion engine fueled by compressed natural gas.

The gas costs only two-thirds of what gasoline does on an equivalent energy basis. GM says it has the potential of reducing emission to one-tenth of the California standards. One of the big drawbacks to a natural gas system is that the fuel storage tank usually takes up most of the vehicle's trunk space, as demonstrated by the Charger R/T.

But engineers at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel have come to the industry's rescue.

Working under a Department of Energy grant, the APL has converted a "plain Jane" Dodge Stratus to run on natural gas while retaining most of the trunk space, driving range and performance of gasoline models.

John Wozniak, program manager for the Advanced Natural Gas Vehicle Project, said engineers were able to retain 90 percent of the Stratus' trunk space by redesigning the fuel tanks to fit mostly under the car.

Toyota is well along with plans to introduce a hybrid car into the U.S. market next year, according to Martha Voss, a company spokeswoman.

The four-door Prius sedan, with the interior space of a Corolla, will be powered by both a 1.5-liter gasoline engine and an electric motor. The car gets its zip from its electric motor at low speeds and switches automatically to gasoline at higher speeds.

The Prius is capable of recharging its battery by routing energy from the gasoline engine to an on-board electric generator. "You never have to plug it in," said Voss.

DaimlerChrysler's concept power wagon has a diesel engine that runs on synthetic diesel fuel made by Syntroleum Corp. of Tulsa, Okla.

Peter V. Snyder Jr., vice president of Syntroleum, said the diesel fuel is made from natural gas that would otherwise be wasted or burned off in oil production.

He said the synthetic fuel offers 30 percent better mileage than gasoline.

By eliminating the sulfur from the fuel in the production process, Snyder said, automakers will be able to use a catalyst to reduce oxides of nitrogen and particulates from the tailpipe.

He said the fuel costs 50 cents to $1 more a gallon than gasoline, but the company hopes to get the price down to $1.50 a gallon.

By crossing its Chrysler 300M luxury sedan with a sport-utility vehicle, DaimlerChrysler has come up with a futuristic-looking, high-performance, station wagon concept it calls the Citadel.

It's equipped with two engines. A 3.5-liter V-6 supplies power to the rear wheels. For extra get-up-and-go, the front wheels are driven by a 70-horsepower electric motor.

"It's a performance hybrid," said Rick Luzenski, senior manager of concept packaging. "It's for people who want the power of a V-8 and the fuel efficiency of a V-6."

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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