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Chrysler Keen on Combustion

CEO Sergio Marchionne offers the first public acknowledgement of the auto maker’s Tiger Shark 4-cyl. engine program, which is shrouded in secrecy.

LOS ANGELES – Chrysler Group LLC plans to introduce environmentally friendly technologies that will make internal-combustion engines sexy again, says the auto maker’s CEO.

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Sergio Marchionne makes the promise as Chrysler introduces the North American-market Fiat 500 at the L.A. auto show here.

The minicar arrives against a backdrop of booster-ism for electric cars and the release of disappointing news for Chrysler. As General Motors Co. basks in the warm glow of approval here for its Chevrolet Volt, Chrysler gets a low grade for fleet fuel economy in a U.S. government report.

But Marchionne shoots down the notion EVs are an environmental silver bullet, citing the technology’s “phenomenal” cost.

Chrysler’s secretive Tiger Shark 4-cyl. engine program is among “a variety of programs” that will “make combustion a much easier process to present to the public, with much less implications for the environment,” he says.

It is the auto maker’s first public acknowledgement of Tiger Shark, which involves modifications to Chrysler’s World Engine program, sources tell Ward’s.

In addition, Marchionne cites MultiAir, a valve-actuation technology designed by Chrysler partner Fiat Automobiles SpA. The technology makes its North American debut on the 500. Destined for future Chrysler products, MultiAir affords increases in horsepower, torque and fuel economy while reducing harmful emissions.

Long the “heart” of the car business, internal-combustion engines are the future, Marchionne says. “Regardless of the intuitive appeal that electrification has, we need to learn how to master combustion.”

Chrysler says it already is making gains. During a news conference here to introduce an array of all-new or significantly refreshed vehicles, Dodge President and CEO Ralph Gilles says the ’11-model lineup offers an 11% improvement in city-cycle driving and a 10% bump on the highway, compared with the brand’s ’10 models.

The hike largely is attributed to the auto maker’s new Pentastar V-6, which will be available in numerous Chrysler vehicles, replacing seven less-efficient engines.

The performance of Dodge’s ’10 products contributed to Chrysler’s bottom-four finish in industry fuel-economy rankings, as cited in a report this week by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Chrysler is not ignoring EVs. An all-electric Fiat 500 is planned for the retail market in 2012. The auto maker also has discussed the prospect of building an electric version of Fiat’s Doblo small van.

Meanwhile, Marchionne is buoyed by the buzz surrounding GM’s initial public offering, which is expanding the anticipated size of its IPO, setting up what could be the largest stock sale in history.

“It does say the market wants car stocks,” Marchionne says. “We’re not unwanted children anymore, which is what we were a couple of years ago.”

This time last year, Chrysler and GM were just a few months removed from bankruptcy.

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