Your Next Car? 4) SPACE-AGE CABIN: In the high-mileage Dodge ESX2, a palm-top computer optimizes power usage.

If you've got $2 million squirreled away for your next auto purchase and want a one-of-a-kind, Chrysler's got the concept for you.

Every year, the company builds a batch of concept cars - vehicles designed to push the envelope of carmaking.

They cost as much as $2 million a piece to build, but for no cost at all, we can put you behind the wheel of some of the most advanced, and fun, auto design and technology on the planet. We were allowed to drive some of Chrysler's latest batch concept cars.

Why spend $2 million on a car that may never grace a showroom?

"Sometimes just for fun," says John Herlitz, Chrysler's vice president of design; sometimes to make a statement; sometimes to gauge public reaction or market potential for a particular idea.

A couple of Chrysler's wildest "concepts" have actually made it to the street - the venomous Dodge Viper and catty Plymouth Prowler.

Most car companies will show mock-ups in steel, clay, or fiberglass, without interiors or engines, and roll them out on the platform. But you can't get a feel for the view over a long, classic hood, the tug of the wind in your hair, or the rush of sports-car power looking at a model in a car show.

So let's drive.

Intended as show cars, these Chrysler models have not been refined (in other words, no cup holders), so we'll focus on the design and intended features.

Jeep Jeepster

Jeepster - which takes its moniker from a classic Jeep name of the 1950s and '60s - crosses Mustang speed with mountain-goat agility.

Throw in rugged good looks, a view over traffic, and smooth highway ride, and this may be the ultimate sports utility vehicle. As such, it may have the most market potential of any of these show cars.

Hoist yourself over the tall door sill, plop down, and nestle into the thick, durable leather nap. Your feet thunk against the finished steel floor.

In front of you, huge gauges mimic antique military radios found in the first Jeeps. (None of the gauges in these show cars actually work.)

Twist the key, and a smooth V-8 from the coming Grand Cherokee burbles to life. The Jeepster uses the rest of the Grand Cherokee's all-wheel-drive train as well.

The stubby manual-looking shifter really operates a four-speed automatic transmission. Push the button and slide it to "Drive."

Under way, the Jeepster's open top and power side windows let in plenty of fresh air and sunshine with none of the blasting, whipping, and flapping that define old-fashioned Jeeping.

If the Jeepster makes it to mass production, canvas would stretch across the roof.

The Goodyear sports-car tires look fabulous, but howl like a coyote from 20 miles an hour on up.

A tall dashboard provides a thick aluminum grip to anchor front-seat passengers on rough trails. The back seats are small, and they fold flat to expand a small trunk.

Press a button on the dashboard, and the Jeepster jacks itself up for better ground clearance off-road or hunkers down into the wind on the highway. Even in the high setting, the Jeepster corners more like a sports car than a sport utility vehicle.

The attraction of the Jeepster is its versatility. Many of today's SUVs compromise between off-road ability and on-road comfort. So if you're trying to reach a remote attraction in a national forest, for example, a traditional Jeep Wrangler will work, but it's less effective as a highway vehicle.

Take a smoother highway rider such as a Ford Explorer, and you'll cruise the pavement in more comfort, but you won't get very far off-road. The Jeepster should take on asphalt and rocky roads with equal aplomb.

Dodge Intrepid ESX2

The ESX2 is Chrysler's latest development in the government-industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program.

PNGV aims to build a prototype car, by 2004, that delivers 80 miles per gallon with all the room and range of today's mid-size sedans at a comparable price. (See story, top right.)

The ESX2 comes the closest to those goals of any car made public so far. It gets 70 m.p.g., carries five people in palatial comfort, holds more luggage than Chrysler's largest sedan, and would retail for $35,000 - $15,000 over PNGV's goal.

The wide driver's door opens up to a cavernous interior and nylon mesh hammock seats. Hop in, and you can feel the narrow aluminum seat frame pressing your shoulders.

Turn the key, and holographic gauges appear behind the black plexiglas dashboard, Another notch, and the three-cylinder turbo-diesel power plant clatters to life.

The ESX2 uses a hybrid power plant - both a diesel engine and an electric motor. Unlike many hybrids, this diesel runs all the time. Chrysler calls it a "mybrid" or mild hybrid, which primarily runs on diesel, relying on electricity only for accessories and a power boost for acceleration and hills.

That means it's not as clean or efficient as other hybrids that run only on electricity below 10 or 20 miles an hour. But it's much less expensive.

Two drivetrains in any hybrid add cost and weight, and this "mybrid" approach minimizes the need for expensive, heavy batteries, says Ken Mack, Chrysler's executive engineer for program management.

The car is designed to use a futuristic, plastic-body shell that reduces weight and cuts costs in half. This car, however, is built from expensive, lightweight carbon fiber.

The transmission is a manual from the company's Neon economy car, but that's hard to tell from driving it.

The flat shifter on the console is shaped like a computer mouse. Step on the gas and the car automatically eases in the clutch. Accelerate to 10 miles an hour or so and the car slows and goes numb for a few seconds as it shifts to second.

Cruising at 47 miles per hour around a race track in Pennsylvania, the car is surprisingly quiet and smooth for a one-of-a-kind concept, and the steering is tight.

Over even slight dips, however, you're ordered to slow down, lest the expensive body work scrape the pavement.

Gently touch the brakes, and the car lurches toward a stop. With "regenerative" brakes, the braking force is turned into electricity to recharge the car's batteries - all of which makes the car stop faster than you expect.

A palm-top computer perches on a platform in the center of the dash and operates the radio and climate controls. It can also download e-mail, surf the Web, or track your finances. Please pull over and park, first.

Bigger buttons below make the most common radio and heater controls more convenient. Take it easy on that A/C button though. Push it, and the mileage drops from 70 m.p.g. to 50 m.p.g.

"We've gotten down to such low loads to drive, the air conditioning makes a bigger difference," says Steve Buckley, who did most of the computer programming for the ESX2.

Obstacles to production include pollution from the diesel engine, heating and cooling the interior, running other accessories such as lights, the quality of the planned plastic body, and, most of all, bringing down the cost.

Even so, the ESX2 gives Chrysler a big leg up on the goal: a working prototype of an affordable, 80 m.p.g. sedan by 2004.

Plymouth Pronto Spyder

The Pronto is the raucous sports car of this group - quick as a Porsche Boxster for half the price. And experts consider it the most likely of these four concepts to find its way to the showroom soon.

Crawl in behind the wheel, and you'll soon become fast friends with your passenger. Accommodations for two are tight.

The antique-looking, tortoise-shell steering-wheel and shifter, and aluminum pedals, crowd a six-footer as well. Short people crouch to see under the top of the windshield, taller ones stretch to look over the top. So far the Pronto has no roof.

If it makes production, the Spyder would be scaled up, says John Rundels, the man responsible for seeing the concepts through from clay models to the road.

Twist the key, and the Spyder fires up with a loud blaaaaaaaaaaaaaat from the twin tail pipes and a mechanical whir behind your right ear from the Plymouth Neon-derived, 225-horsepower supercharged mid-engine.

Press the stiff clutch, shove the gear lever into first, punch the gas, and let 'er rip.

Second gear comes up fast. Elbow the passenger to reach for the gearshift, and tilt your knee out of the way to pull it into second. This thing flies. Handling is quick and refined.

Like the ESX2, the Spyder is designed to be made from cheap, lightweight pop-bottle plastic. So far, the car sports a steel body.

Chrysler Chronos

The elegant Chronos may be the slickest of these concept cars, but after Chrysler's merger with Mercedes-maker Daimler-Benz, it's the least likely to make production.

Chronos was meant be "the ultimate luxury statement for Chrysler," says Mr. Herlitz, design vice president.

Under Daimler's auspices, Chrysler is likely to leave the luxury statements to Mercedes-Benz, though officials avoided comment on the effects of the merger.

Under the Chronos's extensive hood, a specially built V-10 engine emits a vibrant rumble - and a heavy stench of exhaust. Since the engine isn't based on a production car's, it hasn't been refined to meet modern emissions laws.

The doors have no handles. An assistant (chauffeur, perhaps?) presses a remote-control to let you in, then climbs in beside.

The overstuffed leather chairs coddle you in living-room comfort. They also rob the rear seat of any useful legroom.

The flat wooden dashboard exudes class, with just two large antique dials.

Tight roads make for tricky maneuvering with the long hood and the slightly wavy glass of a custom-made windshield.

The "spinners," little wings in the center of the wheels, don't spin at all. Rare-earth magnets keep them level, while the wheels spin around them.

The Chronos feels as massive on the road as it looks. But the steering is responsive, and the power plentiful.

Privately, Chrysler officials concede the only likely place for the Chronos to appear now would be as a new body style for Mercedes's flagship S-class limousine.

Pop-Bottle Bodies

Two of Chrysler's concept cars this year, the Plymouth Pronto Spyder and Dodge Intrepid ESX2 are designed to use futuristic plastic bodies.

It's the same plastic used in soda-pop bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The point isn't just recyclability. The plastic bodies can reduce the cost of car bodies by 20 percent and cut the cost of building them by up to 70 percent compared with steel.

They use six molded panels instead of 80 stamped and welded parts. And color can be molded into the plastic, saving $350 million in paint facilities at each factory.

In addition, the body is 50 percent lighter than steel, improving economy and performance, and making efforts to meet future economy and emissions standards correspondingly easier and cheaper.

But so far, Chrysler has built only 12 PET cars for testing, because only three molding machines in the world can make such large plastic pieces.

The plastic body is glued to an aluminum frame that supports the mechanical stuff and adds crash strength, enough to meet the same safety standards as steel cars, says Ken Mack, Chrysler's executive engineer for program management.

Other concerns include durability and whether consumers would accept the plastic cars.

The color-molded plastic has a matte finish. While this may be acceptable in other parts of the world, American consumers are likely to want a high-quality, glossy finish. Chrysler is developing a process to spray glossy paint on the plastic during the moulding, Mr. Mack says.

Better Fuels

The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, an auto-industry/federal government consortium, aims to build a mid-size sedan by 2004 that gets 80 miles per gallon and can go 380 miles before refueling.

Chrysler says that will require a diesel engine.

Today's direct-injection diesels are 24 percent more efficient than the best gasoline engines. They are also five times as clean as those built 20 years ago. But diesels will have to run five to eight times cleaner still to meet future emissions requirements.

That likely means different fuels will be needed to burn in the diesel engines, says Steve Barnhart, Chrysler's director of advanced technology.

The two most likely ones are dimethyl ether (DME) and dimethoxy methane (DMM), both refined natural-gas products that burn similarly to diesel fuel, but with less pollution-causing sulphur.

Converting every corner gas station to stock these fuels would require the cooperation of energy companies and the US government.

But in the longer term, fuel cells - which run on hydrogen and are used to power space rockets - hold even more promise for clean, efficient long-range transportation, Mr. Barnhart says. So Chrysler is developing unique fuel-cell technology that would convert DME or DMM to hydrogen.

That way, tomorrow's motorists could fill up their fuel-cell cars at the same corner gas stations they use today - only less often.

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