Ford's a little slow from the line, but the automaker made clear today that it wants to win the electric car race. The company announced that it will invest $135 million in its engineering and production effort for its next-generation electric-hybrid vehicles. That will include plug-in vehicles, to compete with those planned by GM and Nissan. The move shows a renewed effort on the part of Ford to be a leader in green autos.

Ford offers a few hybrid models already, including versions of its Focus compact Fusion mid-size* vehicle and Escape SUV. But it doesn't plan to release a plug-in vehicle until 2011, with its Focus Electric. The car's introduction will likely be a little anticlimactic, since the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf plug-ins will already be on the road at that time -- both expected to hit the market in late 2010. Ford's new initiative won't speed up its timeline, as the new vehicles the investment is intended for won't go into production until 2012.

This news closely follows Toyota's announcement last week of an investment in and partnership with electric carmaker Tesla. While it's tempting to compare the two initiatives, they're actually pretty different. Ford already has an electric car in production, so the $125 million investment announced today is supplemental to its current effort. It's an investment in becoming an electric car leader -- not just another player. Toyota, on the other hand, just announced $50 million investment in Tesla, which would include a partnership that allows Toyota to leverage the electric vehicle maker's experience and expertise.

With GM and Ford showing a clear intention to produce mass market electric vehicles, it makes you wonder where the other U.S. automaker -- Chrysler -- stands on electric. Between its Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram brands, there's not a hybrid to be found. In fact, the only car it offers that's even close to the subcompact style most electric vehicles would take is its Dodge Caliber.

If consumers end up liking electric vehicles, then that will be a major problem for Chrysler. It hasn't diversified itself much beyond the meaty, gas-guzzling vehicles embodied by its sports/muscle car options and trucks. Indeed, in the "Coming Soon" section of the Dodge website, rather than a fuel-efficient plug-in, it shows its "Nitro Detonator," which it advertises as having "a road scorching 260-hp 4.0L V6 engine" and "aggressive 20-inch aluminum wheels." From that description, it sounds like it would get even fewer than the 22-mpg (highway) that the current Nitro SUV gets.

Of course, it's unknown whether the American consumer will embrace the electric car. But clearly, Ford today raised its bet today, as Toyota did last week. Meanwhile, not everyone must be convinced, however. Chrysler isn't even in the game.


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