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Chrysler LLC has begun production of dual-clutch-equipped Dodge Journey cross/utility vehicles, the auto maker’s first application of the smooth-shifting, fuel-efficient technology.

Journey production launched in January at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Toluca, Mexico. But installation of the advanced gearbox, supplied by Getrag GmbH & Cie KG and mated to a Volkswagen AG 2.0L I-4 turbodiesel engine, began this month for Chrysler’s international markets.

The production-model Journey, unveiled at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, makes its European debut next week at the Geneva auto show.

While the Journey is the only Chrysler product linked – so far – to the Getrag gearbox, dual-clutch transmissions are an integral part of the auto maker’s ongoing powertrain strategy overhaul. Chrysler has said its new Phoenix family of V-6 engines will generate double-digit fuel-economy gains because of DCT and variable displacement technologies.

But growing market appeal and mounting regulatory pressure portend expansion, Chrysler admits.

“The penetration of the dual-clutch transmissions will increase significantly, both in the U.S. market and European market,” says Mircea Gradu, Chrysler’s director of transmission and driveline engineering.

Getrag has forecast a 4% penetration rate in North America by 2010, climbing to 7% by 2015.

Increases “will happen to the detriment of manual transmissions,” Gradu tells Ward’s, adding DCTs afford the type of dynamic response that resonates with Americans.

“If you want a sporty feel with higher acceleration, it’s really important to have a good launch performance,” he says. “The (dual-clutch) transmission allows the vehicle to accelerate very quickly. That’s an important criteria – especially in the U.S.”

While tight-lipped about additional Chrysler DCT applications, Gradu says the auto maker’s system is not limited to any one segment. Chrysler will address future rollouts according to “customer needs,” he says.

Championed by Chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli, this value-added philosophy is behind Chrysler’s new image, Gradu says, adding technophiles should appreciate the DCT.

“There is a certain image associated with a certain type of transmission,” he says. “Somebody who wants to project a sporty image definitely wants more driver control in the vehicle.”

The decision to launch Chrysler’s first DCT on a diesel engine was a logical one, says Gradu, winner of this year’s SAE International’s Edward N. Cole Award for Automotive Engineering Innovation.

“The combination between the DCT and the diesel is a very fuel-efficient, emissions-reducing package,” he says. “On top of that, there is also an advantage. The diesel-engine torque characteristics are also favoring performance in the startup phase.”

Gradu expects a DCT-equipped Journey not only will get a 6% fuel-economy boost, but it will emit lower levels of carbon-dioxide emissions.

“The bottom line is the CO2 has to be reduced, and we are able to do that with pretty substantial numbers,” Gradu says, adding he expects greenhouse-gas emissions soon will take on the same importance for U.S. regulators as it does in Europe.

Despite the imminent showroom debut of the DCT-equipped Journey, Chrysler is mum on details surrounding its design.

While the Chrysler-Getrag setup is amenable to dry operation, expect it to be a wet clutch. Volkswagen AG, which pioneered the technology with its Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) system, claims the dry version has a torque threshold of 148 lb.-ft. (200 Nm).

The Journey’s 2.0L, which offers peak output of 140 hp (DIN), has a torque rating of 229 lb.-ft. (310 Nm).

The international-market Journey, which also is available with a gasoline-powered 2.4L I-4 or a 2.7L V-6, goes on sale in May.

emayne@wardsauto.com