SOUTHFIELD, MI – Advanced transmissions pay dividends for Chrysler Group LLC as an “efficiency enabler” and a hedge against costlier technologies such as direct injection, the auto maker’s top powertrain engineer says.

“A vehicle is no different, conceptually, than your house,” says Bob Lee, vice president-engine and electrified propulsion systems. “You say you want to save fuel. Do you run out and buy a new furnace? You might, but you might look for the cracks in the wall or the windows that aren’t sealed or the drafts coming from whatever room.

“You’ve seen us, now, with a pretty vocal position about where we’re going with transmissions,” he adds in a wide-ranging interview with Ward’s. “Why? Because they are a really big leak in the house.”

Lee’s remarks come as Chrysler, under the watchful eye of President Obama, announces plans for an $843 million investment in its transmission manufacturing complex in Kokomo, IN.

The outlay, contingent on the Kokomo city council’s approval of a tax abatement, will accommodate production of “a new advanced front-wheel-drive automatic transmission for future Chrysler Group vehicles,” the auto maker says in a statement.

The investment would cover retooling costs in the transmission site and Chrysler’s casting plant in Kokomo, the largest facility of its kind in the world. If finalized, the deal will preserve about 2,250 jobs.

The new transmission is the product of a partnership with Germany-based ZF Group, which also is the technology source for a new 8-speed transmission Chrysler will manufacture at Kokomo for 2013. That project is funded by a $343 million outlay announced in June.

And a dual dry-clutch transmission from Chrysler alliance partner Fiat Automobiles SpA is destined for a second-quarter debut in the heavily refreshed ’11 Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 midsize cars. It will be the first Fiat component to be featured in a Chrysler Group product.

Reinforcing a recent L.A. auto show declaration by Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who said internal-combustion mastery will be a key focus of the auto maker’s product development, Lee explains the business case for the 8-speed gearbox and the DDCT.

“The cost of the fuel economy that comes from the transmission is so, so, so much less than (direct injection),” he says, adding Marchionne – who also heads Fiat – has become a champion for advanced powertrains.

Lee also says direct injection creates “significant” noise problems. Time and money can resolve them, “but you caused the problem by having D.I.,” he adds. “We can use that money for other things.”

Nevertheless, direct injection is proliferating through the industry against a backdrop of tightening fuel-economy mandates. Among ’10-model imported U.S.-market cars, it was available in 21 engine displacements, from 1.6L to 5.2L – three times the number for ’09-model imports, according to Ward’s data.

However, Chrysler is hardly abandoning direct injection. Lee says the auto maker has a ready-to-go application of the technology.

In his presentation last year outlining Chrysler’s long-term strategy, Paolo Ferrero, senior vice president-powertrain, said the auto maker’s 4-cyl. World Engine would be outfitted with direct injection and Fiat’s MultiAir valve-actuation technology.

Chrysler also has said its new Pentastar family of V-6 engines would get the same.

Meanwhile, Obama uses the occasion of the Kokomo investment to visit the site and declare last year’s move to aid Chrysler and General Motors Co. was “the right decision.”

GM now is profitable and Chrysler is flirting with profitability.

“So here's the lesson – don’t bet against America,” the president says. “Don’t bet against the American auto industry. Don’t bet against American ingenuity. Don’t bet against the American worker.”

– with Tom Murphy and James M. Amend