Just as Toyota Motor Corp. prepares to launch its Prius hybrid-electric car in Europe to expected strong demand, DaimlerChrysler AG says it will study the long-term success of hybrids before it moves forward with a high-volume project.

The auto maker has committed its Chrysler Group arm to produce a hybrid-electric version of its Dodge Ram pickup truck later this year. The truck will feature a 110/220 volt AC electric motor that will provide additional power in certain driving situations. The auto maker says the hybrid system could boost fuel efficiency by 15% when compared with a conventional Ram truck.

The electrical system also can be used as a stationary electric generator when the vehicle is parked.

The advent of the hybrid Ram doesn't mean DC is going to jump headfirst onto the hybrid bandwagon. In fact, the auto maker says it could take as long as another 18 months before a decision is made to roll out hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) systems through its other model ranges, including Mercedes-Benz.

“We are going to offer this (HEVs). The appeal does exist in some areas but there are also problems,” says Herbert Kohler, DC's chief environmental officer, during the auto maker's annual Innovation Symposium in Sindelfingen, Germany. “We will wait another year-and-a-half before we decide.”

Kohler's announcement took some Chrysler product-development executives by surprise, because the U.S. arm has been studying HEV systems and is looking at expanding their presence in the U.S. market in the near future.

“DaimlerChrysler is convinced that a drive system so complex as the one needed to power a hybrid vehicle only can be successful if it fulfills certain key criteria: In particular, it not only must satisfy customer demands in terms of driving pleasure and dynamic handling, but also consume less fuel than diesel engines,” says Thomas Weber, member of the board of management with responsibility for research and technology at the Mercedes Car Group. “Initially, our goal will be to further optimize traditional internal combustion engines (ICE).

“DaimlerChrysler views hybrid technology as an interim step on the path to introducing fuel-cell technology.”

Weber points to a recent study by J.D. Power and Associates that says consumers are concerned about the cost to repair HEVs, as well as their reliability and performance.

Most European-based auto makers have been reluctant to embrace hybrid technology, saying they believe diesel to be the best — and most economical — near-term solution to increasing vehicle fuel economy.

For now, DC will continue to build its research on the areas of clean-burning diesel and fuel-cell vehicles. The auto maker says it will be the first to have more than 100 FCVs conducting real world, on-road testing this year in various cities around the world.

DC continues to place its bets on improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine — most notably, diesel variants. The auto maker says it is confident the ICE will remain a vital part of the industry for at least another 20 to 30 years.

“The long-term viability of the diesel engine will, therefore, primarily depend on how the forthcoming emission limits can be met. DaimlerChrysler will accept this challenge,” says Leopold Mikulic, vice president-powertrain development for the Mercedes Car Group.

Mikulic says the auto maker is examining methods to improve diesel-engine efficiency, including more precisely adjusting fuel-injection pressure to better address diverse operating conditions. He also promotes continued development of exhaust aftertreatment systems, including particulate traps, oxides of nitrogen catalysts and selective catalytic reduction systems to radically reduce diesel emissions.