In December, I was test driving one of the rarest new cars in America, something nearly as difficult to buy as a Tesla Roadster and produced in such limited numbers like the Mercedes SLR McLaren Roadster parked in Brookline yesterday.
I was in a grey Dodge Durango Hybrid.
After years of co-engineering a heavy-duty hybrid powertrain with General Motors, Daimler, and BMW, months after debuting its 2009 Durango and Aspen Hybrids, and a few weeks before my drive, Chrysler said it would shut down its one and only hybrid assembly plant in Newark, Delaware by December's end.
All told, Chrysler only made 800 of the full-size SUV hybrids. What's really strange, however, is that the Chrysler and Dodge websites continue to advertise the hybrids as if they were still in production. Dodge has the hybrid Durango listed next to its three other trim levels, and while Chrysler makes you dig to find the "HEV Limited 4x4" trim, you're still allowed to build and "order" one from a local dealer. Good luck doing that.
A call to Chrysler was met with similar confusion. According to spokeswoman Lisa Barrow, the company still has a few unsold hybrid SUVs throughout the country, and by few, we're talking only six in the entire Northeast. Besides some of the Chrysler corporate sales staff and the unnamed dealers struggling to sell a nearly three-ton SUV (let alone survive), no one's sure where these cars are.
It would seem Chrysler drew the short straw among its hybrid partners. General Motors has sold 5,865 Escalade, Yukon, Tahoe, and Vue two-mode hybrid SUVs this year through July, according to IHS Global Insight of Lexington. Those numbers are low compared to the Ford Escape Hybrid's 9,511 sales and Toyota's 74,924 Priuses in the same period, but it's more than seven times higher than Chrysler's grand total. Mercedes is also debuting its ML450 hybrid later this year (no word yet from BMW). And in June, GM demanded payback for Chrysler's share in development costs, to the tune of over a half-million dollars.
That said, Dodge is planning to reuse the technology for its 2010 Ram pickup (Chevy and GMC have introduced their Silverado and Sierra Hybrids, but they've sold only 650 through July this year). Thankfully, the technology is up-to-speed.
We reviewed the Escalade Hybrid in last Sunday's Globe, and came away impressed by its smooth, quiet operation, except for some clunky hesitation when mashing the gas. The Durango Hybrid I drove in December performed similarly and could attain nearly 30 miles per hour under electric power. Fuel economy isn't great, but for vehicles of this size, the mileage is at least tolerable rather than gut-wrenching.
If anyone has spotted or purchased one of these Chrysler hybrids recently, we'd love to know. So would Chrysler.
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