A new initiative exploring the light-duty potential for hydraulic hybrid powertrain systems complements other alternative propulsion ideas at Chrysler and likely would cost much less than existing electrification options, CEO Sergio Marchionne says.

Marchionne and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announce a partnership in January to determine whether hydraulic hybrid systems used in medium- and heavy-duty trucks can be adapted for a Chrysler Town & Country minivan.

The project, fueled by $2 million in EPA research funds, is expected to produce about 20 demonstration Town & Country minivans employing the technology.

A hydraulic hybrid uses pressurized fluid instead of electricity to provide additional power to the vehicle.

A number of OEMs, including Ford, have dabbled in the technology. But due to noise and packaging issues, real-world applications have been reserved to delivery vans, disposal trucks and the like.

But Marchionne tells Ward's his company's minivans make a logical first step for downsizing hydraulic hybrids. It's cheaper, too, he says. “Structurally, less than electric,” he says of the cost. “By far.”

But Marchionne admits costs rise anytime technology is added to supplement an internal-combustion engine. The trick for Chrysler and the EPA is to devise an affordable system that meets their expectations for noise and driving dynamics.

However, even if successful, the technology isn't expected to proliferate too deeply into Chrysler's product portfolio.

“Application to SUVs is obvious, application to the Fiat 500 unlikely,” Marchionne says of the tiny A-car due in the U.S.

The EPA's Jackson says a hydraulic hybrid system in a minivan portends a fuel-economy benefit of up to 35% over a conventional model and a reduction in tailpipe emissions of 20%. In city driving, the fuel-economy improvements could go as high as 60%.

“We're making a bit of history here today,” she says, calling hydraulic hybrids a “cost-effective way to improve fuel efficiency” and reduce human health issues.

Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator-air and radiation at EPA, says the government will sink $2 million into the partnership, and Chrysler will contribute “equally.”

Use of the technology would not be exclusive to Chrysler.

McCarthy balks at the suggestion the EPA sought Chrysler as a partner because the auto maker, which endured a taxpayer-funded bankruptcy in 2009, does not have a hybrid on the road today.

“We're working with a dozen other companies on this,” she says, noting the EPA's Ann Arbor, MI, operation has studied hydraulic hybrids for 10 years.

But as a minivan pioneer, she does think Chrysler saw a unique opportunity. “They understood it is an application that might work for them, the best application,” she says.

Chrysler will conduct its research on the system in the U.S. using existing resources instead of hiring additional workers. The technology will be paired with a 2.4L 4-cyl. gasoline engine built in Windsor, ON, Canada.

Additional components include an engine pump, electric motor and a 2-speed automatic transmission. Fluid will be stored in a 14.4 gallon (54.5 L) high-pressure accumulator.

Engine torque drives a hydraulic pump, which charges the accumulators to deliver pressure energy to an axle hydraulic motor giving power to the wheels. If the accumulator charge is sufficient to power the vehicle, the engine shuts off.

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