Chrysler's biggest investment in the year following its June 2009 bankruptcy exit is about to show up under more of its bonnets - transmissions with additional gears to improve performance and fuel economy.
Eight-speed transmissions, more common in luxury vehicles made by the likes of BMW and Audi, will spread throughout Chrysler's lineup beginning late this year, said Mircea Gradu, the company's vice-president of transmission powertrain and driveline engineering.
Chrysler would introduce the industry's first nine-speed transmissions by the first half of next year, he said.
"I'm convinced that, sooner or later, others will come up with similar solutions," Gradu said. "Hopefully, the time will be as long as possible until they catch up with the technology."
While rivals tout hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids and pure electrics, CEO Sergio Marchionne is betting he can meet regulatory requirements primarily by improving traditional petrol engines with the better transmissions.
The strategy takes less investment than developing a hybrid and has already helped boost sales of cars such as the new Chrysler 300.
The eight- and nine-speed transmissions will help Chrysler meet stricter standards aimed at curbing emissions and raising efficiency.
America President Barack Obama has proposed rules requiring automakers to double their corporate average fuel economy, known as CAFE, to 54.5 miles a gallon (4.3l/100km) by 2025.
Most automakers' plans are to use some petrol-electric hybrids, a modest number of electric vehicles and a substantial amount of improvement in traditional internal- combustion engines, said Alan Baum, principal of auto-industry forecaster Baum & Associates in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Chrysler hasn't invested heavily in hybrids, and its only electric vehicle is a Fiat 500 subcompact, intended primarily to comply with California's "zero-emission vehicle" mandates.
"Looking at how the various automakers are going to satisfy CAFE, for most of the automakers you can come up with a pretty reasonable path to get there," Baum said. "And then you look at Chrysler."
For Chrysler to have a chance of staying in compliance through 2025 without dramatically changing its engines, "the answer is the transmissions" for now, Baum said.
"They're getting tremendous differentiation from their old product."
Michael Omotoso a powertrain analyst at LMC Automotive, said Chrysler's investment in transmissions, which the company has said totals $1.6 billion since 2007, showed Marchionne's approach was to squeeze efficiency out of conventional gas-burning engines, rather than make costly bets on hybrid and electric vehicles that account for a small slice of sales in the US and Europe.
"They're doing basically the bare minimum to satisfy government regulations," he said. "Their strategy is to meet the standards with minimum investment."
Marchionne may have little choice. Chrysler's majority owner, Fiat SpA, has had a sales slump amid the European credit crisis, which has sapped demand in Italy, its home market.
Gradu keeps a photograph in his office of Marchionne posing with his team of about 20 engineers after an hour-long meeting about the transmission and its debut in the Charger, which he said is an "illustration of the high-level support that we get in this area".
Transmissions link the output of an engine to the wheels, and they have multiple gears to switch among as speed increases or decreases.
Like the difference between a three-speed bicycle and a 10-speed, more gears means more points where the powerplant can propel the vehicle most efficiently.
The nine-speed transmissions, which Chrysler is developing with Germany's ZF Friedrichshafen , could boost fuel economy of models such as its minivans by as much as 16 per cent, according to the supplier.
The predicted gain is in line with the 15 per cent boost in highway fuel economy that was achieved when Chrysler offered eight-speed transmissions in Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans last year.
Adding the eight-speeds to the big, rear-wheel-drive 300 and Charger allowed Chrysler to advertise 31mpg (7.5l/100km) consumption in the US..
Chrysler is investing $300 million in its Kokomo, Indiana, operations to produce advanced transmissions licensed from ZF.
This year, it will start producing the eight-speed currently fitted to the Pentastar V6 model Chrysler 300 in New Zealand, proving its statement in 2010 that it would expand the plant to handle ZF-licensed transmissions.
The transmissions will spread to new models, including the Dodge Dart compact car and Ram 1500 pickups, and may be offered in future versions of the Dodge Challenger muscle car.
Aside from private imports these cars aren't officially marketed in New Zealand - but we do sell the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Wrangler sport-utility vehicles, which will get the economical eight-speed.
"Anything that will be rear-wheel-drive based, we will consider this," Gradu said of the eight-speeds.
The nine-speeds were intended for front-wheel-drive models, including minivans.
The nine-speed transmission will be exclusive to Chrysler when it goes into production by the first half of next year, but is likely to be used in Fiat vehicles which New Zealand buyers will see more of under a fresh import and distribution deal that will put more of the Italian brand's product in showrooms here.
Honda is interested in being the next manufacturer to get the technology, said Omotoso, who is based in Troy, Michigan.
Honda has said it plans to offer continuously variable transmissions (CVT) across its lineup, starting with the redesigned Accord midsize sedan this year.
LMC Automotive sees Chrysler adding the eight-speed transmission to Grand Cherokee in the 2013 or 2014 model year, Omotoso said. The researcher also predicts that the eight- speed will be in the Dodge Durango and Maserati Kubang SUVs. The Kubang shares the Grand Cherokee's underpinnings and will be built by Chrysler at a plant in Detroit.
Jeep also might introduce a large SUV called the Grand Wagoneer to replace the Jeep Commander in 2014, Omotoso said.
If Chrysler goes ahead with that plan, LMC sees the model getting the eight-speed automatic.
This would help Chrysler pull ahead of GM and Ford in terms of which had the best transmission offerings, Omotoso said.
LMC expects Ford and GM to develop their own eight-speeds and have them ready by 2014, in time for a range refresh.
The nine-speed transmission can go in "essentially any" front-wheel drive platform in Chrysler's lineup, Gradu said.
LMC also expects to see the nine-speed in crossovers for the Chrysler and Alfa Romeo brands in 2013 or 2014, according to Omotoso.