There is a joke circulating around the automotive industry reflecting the current gallows humour surrounding hydrogen and fuel cells. It goes like this: “Hydrogen: It's the fuel of the future — and it always will be.”
However, a decade ago, fuel cells were considered the future of propulsion, and the composition of their powertrains, cells, batteries, motors, and so forth were the subject of genuine experimentation — not only in the technical aspects of propulsion, but in the design of the package of the car itself. The Pininfarina Sintesi we profiled last week was once such experiment. This week we look at another such experiment, the Chrysler ecoVoyager.
The ecoVoyager, like the Sintesi, was meant to be an executive-class sedan for four people, with lots of creature comforts in a clean, minimalist interior. Unlike the Sintesi, however, it did not adopt a sports car/touring sedan architecture. The ecoVoyager was a different car altogether, and a bit difficult to grasp at first glance: its architecture was an extreme cab-forward monospace. Its passenger compartment looked rather like an MPV's, although the roof sloped downward to a coupé-like rear. All this was possible because the batteries, and indeed almost all of the fuel cell powertrain, were placed under the floorpan, allowing the cabin to expand forward to capture space from what would have been the engine compartment.
The styling was the sort of retro-futuristic look typical of Chrysler concept offerings of the time. The press release for the ecoVoyager described its surfacing as “featuring crisscrossing forms defined by hard lines with fluid intersections.” Chrysler described the rear of the car as boat-tailed, although that seems a generous description for such a truncated form. There is very little of the flamboyance of an Auburn speedster here.
The interior was accessed through wide 'suicide' doors that opened a full 90 degrees, making for a generous entry sequence. Executive-class lounge chairs awaited the driver and passengers. Once seated, occupants really came to appreciate the cab-forward architecture, which allowed for greater interior room, particularly in the rear seats. The architecture was complemented by the glass panoramic roof that started at the windscreen and curved over the passenger cabin, splitting into two panels over the seating area.
Overall interior décor was elegant and minimalist; here, one could see Chrysler designers channelling the better instincts of Ellwood Engel (Chrysler design chief, 1961-74). Interior appointments were simple with a minimal amount of materials. The seats were sculptural, but appeared to have been designed for comfort, not just for looks. The IP was a broad, slightly V-shaped console with screens sheltered in a panel under the windscreen and covered by a glare shield to allow for easy viewing. Instrumentation was minimal; the emphasis was on entertainment and comfort. Venting and speakers were cunningly hidden in slight gaps between assemblies to minimise the visual clutter.
The ecoVoyager received mixed reviews from the automotive design community and the press. Most thought the packaging interesting, and the interior very well done, but the departure from traditional Chrysler long-hooded luxobarges seemed a bit too much. Its name was awkward, too, and reminded many of the frumpy Plymouth Voyager minivan of a few years prior. And the massing of the car looked like a minvan — albeit a sculpted one — from certain angles, while its snub nose seemed vaguely reminiscent of the Chrysler Airflow and Stout Scarab of the 1930s. It was all just a little too much, and at the same time, not quite enough. Many just could not see this in Chrysler’s product lineup in the future.
As it turns out, they were right. Within weeks of the ecoVoyager’s introduction at the 2008 Detroit motor show, the investment bank Bear Stearns would collapse, setting in motion a chain of events that would signal the beginning of the end for the old Chrysler and General Motors, and almost the entire American automotive industry.
As for fuel cells, they remain an outlier of the new era of propulsion, although their greatest use may be in mass transit, powering buses. Toyota, Hyundai and Honda still believe in the technology, but the proliferation of electric cars means that the days of fuel cell cars may be numbered, except in certain limited markets.
The ecoVoyager may not have been the most elegantly-proportioned concept car ever introduced, but it was a car of ideas, and a real experiment in packaging and the future of luxury automotive travel. Some version of its interior and monoform architecture may yet find their way into a future car as urban dimensions and electric power become more ascendant in automotive design. But for the moment, it seems crossovers and sport utility vehicles reign supreme in the luxury car segment.