OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) - Chrysler Corp. on Tuesday joined the rush to bring alternative-fuel vehicles to market, saying it will build 180,000 minivans designed to run on ethanol and gasoline in the coming model year.
The move followed last week's announcement by Ford Motor Co. that it would make 250,000 of the so-called flexible fuel vehicles, or FFVs, over the next four years. General Motors Corp., the world's largest automaker, has not said if it will build FFVs.
The automakers' plans have been questioned by some environmentalists, who contend Chrysler and Ford are simply trying to avoid federal fines for exceeding fuel-economy standards.
Building FFVs helps automakers improve their average fuel efficiency numbers. Critics say that allows the them to sell more gasoline-guzzling trucks that are popular and highly profitable.
A major issue is the lack of ethanol filling stations - only about 40 exist nationwide. Chrysler and Ford say they hope production of the new vehicles will spur the opening of more ethanol stations.
Chrysler will install ethanol-burning, 3.3-liter, V6 engines on some 1998 Chrysler Town & Country, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans. The minivans also will run on pure gasoline or any gasoline-ethanol mix. The flexible-fuel models will account for about a third of Chrysler's minivan production.
Engineer Bill Rotramel said the company would absorb the extra cost of modifying the engines to burn ethanol. The changes include using higher-grade material in the fuel pump and fuel lines to protect from corrosion. Ethanol tends to be more acidic than gasoline.
Rotramel said drivers would notice no change in the vehicle's performance when using ethanol.
Chrysler made the announcement to coincide with the meeting of the 21-member Governors' Ethanol Coalition, which advocates greater production and use of ethanol-based fuels.
Ford said Tuesday that it would ask for meetings with the coalition and ethanol producers to devise a plan for developing more ethanol filling stations.
David Rodgers of the U.S. Energy Department said the criticism of the automakers is unfair. He said Ford and Chrysler are following a public policy that encourages companies to build alternative-fuel vehicles.
Ethanol is derived primarily from corn and other grains. It is a high-octane compound used in smaller percentages - up to 10 percent - by most major oil companies to increase the octane rating of gasolines. Ethanol generally is considered cleaner-burning than gasoline.
One drawback to ethanol is it's more expensive to use than gasoline. The fuel is the same price but does not get as many miles to the gallon, so tanks need refills more often.
Ryland Utlaut, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, said the Chrysler vehicles would boost corn sales and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan praised Chrysler's efforts and predicted people across the country will recognize the benefits of ethanol fuel.
"It helps farmers, it helps the environment, and it helps our economy," he said.