With the help of a $48-million grant from the Dept. of Energy, Chrysler Group LLC plans to build and test a fleet of 140 half-ton Ram pickups with plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) drive systems sometime in 2011 – with the demo to be conducted with an eye to predominantly commercial applications.

“As you know, the commercial market lends itself to hybrid [truck] applications more than anything else,” Nick Cappa, Chrysler engineering pr manager, told FleetOwner. “A half-ton pickup is much better at carrying a battery pack than a car. [Trucks] really work much better as hybrid vehicle platforms.”

The Ram (The OEM’s trucks are now only known as Rams, not Dodge Rams) PHEV will feature Chrysler's 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 with a two-mode hybrid transmission and a 12-KwHr lithium ion battery pack supplied by Electrovaya Inc., according to Paolo Ferrero, the OEM’s senior vp- powertrain.

Ferrero said the Ram PHEV should be capable of up to 20 miles of zero-emission, pure-electric range without the need for gasoline and offer an overall fuel economy improvement of more than 65% for average drive cycles.

Cappa noted that the hybrid powertrain powering the Ram PHEV is actually the second generation of a system originally developed for the Dodge Durango and Aspen sport utility vehicle (SUV) platforms back in 2008. “That makes adapting it to the Ram pickup line much easier,” he said.

This intensified focus on commercial trucks is part of a sweeping five-year plan unveiled by Chrysler and its parent company, Italy’s Fiat SpA, late last year. The plan included slicing Chrysler’s truck products off from the rest of its Dodge group into a separate division dubbed Ram Trucks, with expectations of increasing annual sales of commercial trucks by some 50% by 2014.

Chrysler is also planning to engineer and produce a pure electric car using the Fiat 500 platform.. Beginning in 2012, Chrysler said it plans manufacture the Fiat 500EV for the U.S. market, with all powertrain engineering and vehicle development taking place at Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI. Pricing will be announced closer to launch, but will be competitive with similar electric vehicles in the market, Ferrero said.