Back when the modern electric vehicle was new, automakers explored different strategies for getting in the game while meeting California’s zero emission vehicle mandate. Costs were high so these efforts were limited, with the earliest electric vehicle offerings focused much more on fleets than consumers. One of the more interesting approaches came from Chrysler with its electric minivans. Among its highest-profile explorations was the battery electric Chrysler EPIC that followed the automaker’s first electric minivan, the TEVan, the first limited production electric vehicle sold to the U.S. fleet market back in 1992. Here’s our take on the automaker’s improved version of the EPIC as it was making its way to fleets, straight from the Green Car Journal archives as it originally appeared in the August 1998 issue.
Excerpted from August 1998 Issue: Chrysler, the first automaker to bring an electric vehicle to the fleet market in 1992, is set to begin leasing an advanced battery iteration of its electric minivan to fleet markets in California and New York later this year. This improved version of the automaker’s EPIC (Electric Powered Intra-urban Commuter) minivan, based on the popular Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager platform, will begin rolling off Chrysler’s Canadian assembly line in Windsor, Ontario in October.
Electric Minivans for Fleets
The EPIC, which offers an 800 pound payload and seating for up to seven, will benefit from a SAFT nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery pack that will enable the minivan to achieve a claimed 0-60 mph acceleration time of 16 seconds and travel up to 90 miles between charges under moderate driving conditions. The van was previously powered by less expensive lead-acid batteries which provided reduced performance and limited single-charge driving range of 68 miles. Chrysler plans to manufacture up to 2,000 EPICs for the 1999 model year. They will be offered under a three-year lease program with payments of $450 monthly with no down payment, or a one-time payment of $15,000.
It’s no surprise that Chrysler’s EPIC is now joining the ranks of advanced NiMH battery EVs like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Honda EV Plus. Even Ford’s Ranger EV and both electric GM products, the EV1 and S-10 electric, are now being offered with NiMH battery options, or will be shortly. Advanced battery power, with the enhanced performance it brings, is simply a requirement in an era where fleet managers have multiple electric models from which to choose.
Simply put, the low-performance, lead-acid battery powered EPIC hasn’t been a particularly desirable option for fleets, as evidence by the less than 20 EPICs that Chrysler has leased to date. Under the terms of the Memoranda of Agreement it signed with the California Air Resources Board along with others like Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota, Chrysler is required to field more than 250 EVs for demonstration through the year 2000. Upgrading to advanced battery power significantly decreases this number. In Windsor, EPIC production will take place on the same production line that handles assembly of Chrysler’s conventional gasoline-powered minivans.
Extended Life NiMH Batteries
Craig Love, Chrysler’s executive engineer for electric vehicles, points out that the addition of NiMH batteries also offers another tangible benefit by tripling the expected operating life of the traction battery pack. “Although considerable cost challenges remain, we believe the performance of this battery makes it the best for near-term ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) application among the several battery alternatives we’re investigating,” Love says.
Those battery alternatives include next-generation lithium-based batteries being developed cooperatively through the US. Advanced Battery Consortium, of which Chrysler is a member. While lithium batteries are popular in cell phones and laptop computers, increasing their size for use in automobiles offers design and cost challenges, Love notes. This is an important detail not lost on Nissan, points out GCJ editors, which pays a huge premium for the Sony lithium-ion batteries it uses in its Altra EV minivan. Chrysler plans to test its first vehicle-sized lithium-based battery in 1999.
“With EPIC, we’re combining our latest ZEV technology with our state-of-the-art entry into the electric vehicle segment. While there’s still a gap in cost and operating range between electric- and gasoline-powered vehicles, we’re working hard to close that gap.”