Hybrids, plug-ins and electric vehicles are the current best bets for the future of the automobile industry, but Chrysler says its entry into the fray will take at least another 3-5 years to suss out. The carmaker's already woeful lack of small cars is hurting sales as fuel prices continue to rise, so the news of the delay to a competitor for General Motors and Toyota's plug-in hybrids, due in 2010 or shortly after, is worrying to dealers.

Late last year the company announced a new division called ENVI, tasked with developing the carmaker's hybrid and electric-drive vehicles. Given the recent foundation of the division, the 3-5 year turnaround from design to final product is impressive, but one must wonder why it's taken so long to get development underway. Dealers are wondering the same thing, according the the Detroit Free Press. Even more worrying for some is that they've been told not to expect hybrids throughout the lineup before 2012 at the earliest.

Chrysler does have two hybrids on deck for short-term release, however: the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs. Both are expected to be priced below rival offerings from General Motors. They will go on sale in September.

The company is betting heavily that the electric cars that eventually do roll out of the ENVI project will help transform the carmaker's role in the marketplace, enabling it to not only meet but surpass the looming CAFE regulations.

As Chrysler spokesman Frank Cappa put it, "if you want to go ahead and make everything a full hybrid system, fine, but what if you can turn everything into a range-extended vehicle and take it beyond the 2020 campaign for 35 miles per gallon? The new technology ENVI is developing could do that."

No details about the cars the ENVI project is developing have yet emerged, but possible directions could include the Dodge Zeo concept (pictured) shown at this year's NAIAS auto show. The Zeo was designed as a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, but the same basic design principles would likely underlie a battery-powered EV as well.

Rumor circulating in recent weeks have pegged a Tata-Chrysler tie-up for the production of $5,000 EVs that could be headed to North America in the near-term. The cars are expected to be sold under Chrysler's Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) brand. Earlier this year we reported on Chrysler's partnership with General Electric to develop plug-in hybrid technology with partial funding help from the U.S. Department of Energy.