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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dodge's Tesla knock-off

Chrysler has a long record of engineering successes, including muscle cars like the Charger and the Viper. As the smallest US automaker, it’s had to zig when others have zagged. It worked (at least for a while) with the Caravan, Cherokee, PT Cruiser and some other models of the past few decades.

Thus, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when it unveiled its (long-secret) electric car strategy last week, that one of the three vehicles was the Dodge EV sportscar, which claims to go 0-60 in less than 5 seconds and a 13 second quarter mile.

What seemed odd was that the EV (due “after 2010”) uses a Lotus chassis, from the British automaker known for small, fast and lights sports cars.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because there’s already a Lotus-based electric sports car, shipping today. It’s from Tesla Motors, and is currently being built for Tesla by Lotus — at least until Tesla’s (planned San Jose factory is done. CNET says Tesla is a Lotus Elise and the Dodge is the larger Lotus Europa. Perhaps that’s why the Dodge EV will initially be sold in Europe, rather than head-to-head with Tesla in the US.

In a major shift, Chrysler is using an open innovation strategy, depending on outside suppliers, including the batteries, electric motors and (in the case of the Dodge EV) even the chassis. What’s left? Perhaps just systems integration and control software, plus marketing and distribution.

Perhaps this is a time-to-market strategy that’s intended as a temporary expedient. (That didn’t work out so well when IBM did this with its 1981 PC). Perhaps it’s a recognition that cut free of Mercedes, Chrysler doesn’t have word-class technologies and so should buy the best it can on the open market. Or perhaps it’s permanent recognition that Chrysler is now a second tier car maker (akin to Mitsubishi) that lacks R&D and manufacturing efficiencies to do things on its own.

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