Chrysler Group LLC’s biggest U.S.
investment in the year following its June 2009 bankruptcy exit
is about to show up under more of its hoods: transmissions with
additional gears to improve performance and boost fuel economy.
Eight-speed transmissions, more common in luxury vehicles
made by the likes of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) and Volkswagen
AG (VOW)’s Audi, will spread throughout Chrysler’s lineup beginning
late this year, said Mircea Gradu, vice president of
transmission powertrain and driveline engineering. The company
will introduce the industry’s first nine-speed transmissions by
the first half of 2013, he said.
“I’m convinced that, sooner or later, others will come up
with similar solutions,” Gradu said in an interview from his
office in Auburn Hills, Michigan, where Chrysler is based.
“Hopefully, the time will be as long as possible until they
catch up with the technology.”
While rivals tout hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids and pure
electrics, Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne is betting
he can meet regulatory requirements primarily by improving
traditional gasoline engines with the better transmissions. The
strategy takes less investment than developing a hybrid and has
already helped boost sales of cars such as the Chrysler 300.
The eight- and nine-speed transmissions will help Chrysler
meet stricter standards aimed at curbing emissions and raising
efficiency. President Barack Obama has proposed U.S. rules
requiring automakers to double their corporate average fuel
economy, known as CAFE, to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
Most automakers’ game plans are to use some gasoline-
electric hybrids, a modest number of electric vehicles and a
substantial amount of improvement in traditional internal-
combustion engines, Alan Baum, principal of auto-industry
forecaster Baum Associates in West Bloomfield, Michigan, said
in a telephone interview.
Chrysler hasn’t invested heavily in hybrids, and the only
electric vehicle it has announced is an electric Fiat 500
subcompact, primarily to comply with California “zero-emission
“Looking at how the various automakers are going to
satisfy CAFE, for most of the automakers you can come up with a
pretty reasonable path to get there,” Baum said. “And then you
look at Chrysler.”
For Chrysler to have a chance of staying in compliance
through 2025 without dramatically changing their engines, “the
answer is the transmissions” for now, Baum said.
“They’re getting tremendous differentiation from their old
product,” said Baum.
Chrysler’s investments related to its transmissions, which
the company has said totals $1.3 billion since 2007, show that
Marchionne’s approach is to squeeze efficiency out of
conventional gas-burning engines rather than make costly bets on
hybrid and electric vehicles that account for a small slice of
sales in the U.S. and Europe, said Michael Omotoso a powertrain
analyst at LMC Automotive.
“They’re doing basically the bare minimum to satisfy
government regulations,” he said. “Their strategy is to meet
the standards with minimum investment.”
Marchionne may have little choice: Fiat SpA (F), Chrysler’s
majority owner, has seen sales slump amid the European credit
crisis, which has sapped demand in Italy, its home market.
Gradu keeps a photograph in his office of Marchionne posing
with his team of about 20 engineers after an hour-long meeting
about the transmission and its debut in the Charger, which he
said is an “illustration of the high-level support that we get
in this area.”
Transmissions link the output of an engine to the wheels,
and they have multiple gears to switch among as speed increases
or decreases. Like the difference between a 10-speed bicycle and
a three-speed, more gears means more points where the powerplant
can propel the vehicle most efficiently.
The nine-speed transmissions, which Chrysler is developing
with Germany’s ZF Friedrichshafen AG, could boost fuel economy
of models such as Dodge Grand Caravan minivans by as much as 16
percent, according to the supplier. The predicted gain is in
line with the 15 percent boost in highway fuel economy that was
achieved when Chrysler offered eight-speed transmissions in
Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans with the 2011 model year.
Adding the eight-speeds to the big, rear-wheel-drive 300
and Charger allowed Chrysler to advertise 31 mpg (50 kpg) per
gallon in highway driving, according to the Energy Department’s
website. Combined deliveries for the two models are up 68
percent through the first six months of this year.
Chrysler will try to replicate that success by starting
production of the eight-speeds at its plants in Kokomo, Indiana,
late this year, Gradu said.
Chrysler said in June 2010 that it would invest $300
million in the Kokomo plants to accommodate production of the
transmissions licensed from ZF.
The transmissions will spread to new models, including the
Dodge Dart compact car and Ram 1500 pickups, and may be offered
in future versions of the Dodge Challenger muscle car and Jeep
Grand Cherokee and Wrangler sport-utility vehicles, Gradu said.
“Anything that will be rear-wheel-drive based, we will
consider this,” he said of the eight-speeds. The nine-speeds
are intended for front-wheel-drive models, he said, including
minivans. The nine-speed transmission will be exclusive to
Chrysler when it goes into production by the first half of 2013.
Honda Motor Co. (7267) is interested in being the next automaker
to get the technology, said Omotoso, who is based in Troy,
Michigan. Bryan Johnson, a spokesman for ZF in Northville,
Michigan, declined to comment.
Honda has said it plans to offer continuously variable
transmissions across its lineup, starting with the redesigned
Accord midsize sedan this year. Ed Miller, a Detroit-based Honda
spokesman, declined to confirm other future transmissions.
LMC Automotive sees Chrysler adding the eight-speed
transmission to Grand Cherokee either in the 2013 or 2014 model
year, Omotoso said. The researcher also predicts that the eight-
speed will be in the Dodge Durango and Maserati Kubang SUVs. The
Kubang shares the Grand Cherokee’s underpinnings and is going to
be built by Chrysler at a plant in Detroit.
Jeep also may introduce a large SUV called the Grand
Wagoneer to replace the Jeep Commander in 2014, Omotoso said. If
Chrysler moves forward with that plan, LMC sees the model
getting the eight-speed automatic.
“This is going to help them pull ahead of GM and Ford” in
terms of which companies have the best transmission offerings,
LMC expects that Ford and GM will develop their own eight-
speeds and have them ready by 2014 for the next generation of
Cadillac CTS sedan, Cadillac Escalade SUV, Lincoln MKS sedan and
Lincoln MKX crossover.
The nine-speed transmission can go in “essentially any”
front-wheel drive platform in Chrysler’s lineup, including the
minivans, Gradu said. LMC also expects to see the nine-speed in
crossovers for the Chrysler and Alfa Romeo brands in 2013 or
2014, according to Omotoso.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Craig Trudell in Southfield, Michigan, at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jamie Butters at
Marchionne Squeezing Mileage for Chrysler With Nine-Speeds
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
The Chrysler Group logo is attached to a podium at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit.
The Chrysler Group logo is attached to a podium at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit. Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images