Ford and General Motors have abandoned the genre, so is the minivan still relevant?
Ford and General Motors have abandoned the genre, so is the minivan still relevant? Chrysler, or FCA as the automaker is now known, certainly thinks so, and it invested some $2 billion in re-inventing the family-friendly van it launched several decades ago and in which a generation or two of Americans grew up.
No longer is there a Plymouth Voyager or even a Chrysler Town & Country, and the Dodge Grand Caravan is on its way out as well. Replacing them all is the new-for-2017 Chrysler Pacifica. The new name, well, actually a somewhat familiar name, is used to underscore the fact that this isn’t your traditional soccer mom’s minivan but a new and even revolutionary vehicle, in some ways perhaps as revolutionary as that first minivan back in the mid-1970s.
How new? Chrysler notes that in addition to a new architecture, a twice-as-stiff body structure, new independent rear suspension, and the most horsepower in the segment, the 2017 Pacifica introduces 37 segment-first features. In the previous five generations of Chrysler minivans, Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler accounted for a total of 78 new-to-segment innovations.
Speaking of innovation, the Pacifica takes its name from what was Chrysler’s West Coast design studio, also known as the Dream Factory. Located north of San Diego, Pacifica was established in 1983 as a design think tank, a place to experiment without corporate executives or bean counters looking over the designers’ drawing boards. “Free to fail,” as one Chrysler design executive put it, the Pacifica studio produced a succession of stunning concept cars and even a few production vehicles.
Among them was the original Pacifica, a crossover based on a minivan platform but with an interior inspired by a luxurious private jet aircraft.
Once upon a time, minivans were all the rage, and as recently as the 2000 model year there were 17 brands from which to pick and Americans were buying a million of them each year. Now, the market is half that size and there are only six nameplates and of them, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota dominate sales. But the question is, are minivans still viable or did FCA waste that $2 billion?
Let’s go for a walk around, and then for a drive before so we can provide an answer.
We’re walking around a top-of-the-line 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited, one of five trim levels, though a sixth — the Pacifica Hybrid — is coming before the end of the year.
The Pacifica is a little longer, wider and lower than the Town & Country, but also 250 pounds lighter. In each of the past two summers, I’ve rented a three-row vehicle — Ford Explorer two years ago and Chevrolet Traverse last year — to take daughters and grandchildren to Florida. The Pacifica appears to offer not only more comfort for seven people (with an option for an eighth), but much more room for luggage even when all the seats are filled.
The Pacifica LX is the base model, starts at $28,595 and offers Stow ’n Go second- and third-row seats, six-speaker audio, etc. There are Touring, Touring-L, Touring-L Plus and Limited versions, the Limited starting at $42,495 and pushing just over $50K if equipped with every available option.
Chrysler notes that each of its Pacifica models costs less than the comparable Honda (by an average of $900) and Toyota ($500 average), while offering the most-powerful engine in the segment.
Until the hybrid arrives, all of the new Pacificas share the same drivetrain — 287-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 with 9-speed transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 28 on the highway and 22 overall. (The Pacifica Hybrid, which also will have a gasoline-fueled V6 engine, promises some 30 miles just on its plug-in electrical charge and then another 500 or so miles of range before you’ll need to refill the 17-gallon fuel tank.)
Standard equipment on the Pacific Limited includes blind spot and cross-traffic detetion, rear park assist with automatic stop, stability control, etc.
Also, leather seats with power up front, heated front and second-row seats, and a power-folding third row that also features a power-reclining seatback. The second-row seats are Stow ’n Go and fold into storage bins built into the floor, which means you can carry 64 4X8 1/4-inch plywood sheets inside. Speaking of those second-row seats, they have a tip feature so you can access the third row without having to remove a child safety seat in the second row.
Not only is there plenty of room in the second row, but adults can sit in the way-back seats without becoming claustrophobic.
Speaking of children, there’s a button on the power-sliding door handles that a child can press to open doors from outside the vehicle.
The Limited also comes with a 506-watt, 13-speaker audio system with 8.4-inch display screen and all sorts of storage compartments and USB chargers, even a built-in vacuum with a 12-foot hose and a 12-foot extension hose so you can clean up well beyond the inside of the van. When the vacuum bin is full, you can dump out the debris and put the bin into your dishwasher for cleaning.
Also standard on the Limited is a three-pane Panoramic sunroof, or instead of that roof you can opt for a second-row bench seat and 8-passenger capacity.
Options on the Limited we’re checking out include 20-inch wheels, Chrysler UConnect Theater package with seatback video screens, Blue-Ray DVD player, 115-volt outlet and other features to keep the kids occupied in the second and third rows.
Other available options include a 760-watt, 20-speaker Harmon Kardon audio, Advanced SafetyTec that will stop the vehicle to avoid a frontal or rear collision and 3,600-pound trailer towing setup.
There’s more, but let’s get into the car and go for a test drive.
The Pacifica drives smaller than it is, turning easily around a tight roundabout and maneuvering easily through surface-road traffic. Turn the V6 into a freeway entrance ramp and you’re very quickly to the legal limit. You’re also likely to notice how dated all the other minivans on the road appear to be from your new vantage.
Hey, there’s lots of room for people and their stuff, it’s easy to get in and out — even from the third row, and without having to remove an infant safety seat from the second row. There’s great audio, nav, and seemingly everything else you might want, and you’re pushing 30 mpg on the highway. Maybe there is a future for minivans, at least for those like the new Pacifica.
And you don’t have to accept the opinion of someone old enough to have bought one of those early Dodge Caravans back in the ‘70s. One reason Chrysler doesn’t think it wasted its $2 billion is that millennials are starting to have families, don’t seem to object to minivans — but at the same time do object to the soccer-mom aura, and thus the change not only in the Pacifica’s structure and features but in the name as well.
Second opinion, by Bob Golfen
Like most car guys, I’m not all that enamored of minivans, even if they are the most practical and efficient vehicles on the road. And as Larry Edsall notes above, they are a fading breed, largely replaced by three-row crossovers that blend the minivan formula with SUVs.
So when I found myself piloting the Chrysler Pacifica during Arizona Car Week, during which I drive to the all of the collector-car auctions and events, I was none too pleased. I wanted to look cool as I roll into, say, Barrett-Jackson’s monumental auction event, and a minivan just wouldn’t cut it.
Yet in no time, I discovered that the Pacific is an exceptionally nice-driving vehicle that provided agreeable comfort and maneuverability for the hundreds of miles I would clock during the week. Although I never used it for its intended purpose, which is to transport a number of folks on board, I found that driving home after a tiring day of auction hopping – with the excellent audio system playing – was a relaxing experience that I much appreciated.
Pacifica is a repurposed name for Chrysler, with the original model that came out in 2004 being a sort of anti-minivan, more of a crossover that was trim and stylish. They were pricey, though, and somewhat ahead of the curve in design, and produced for only four model years.
The reborn Pacifica is again a more-stylish version of a minivan, though now adhering to minivan basics, such as sliding side doors (now powered). It is essentially loaded with all the practical features that Chrysler has adopted during its decades of minivan production, such as hidden cubbies, seats that are easily folded and deployed, and that built-in vacuum for sucking up spilled Skittles and such.
Plus, it’s a pretty sharp-looking craft, which takes away much of the onus of being a car guy seen driving a minivan. During Arizona Car Week, I learned to sit back and enjoy it.
2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited
Vehicle type: 7-passenger minivan, front-wheel drive Base price: $42,495 Price as tested: $46,655
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 287-horsepower @ 6,400 rpm, 262 pound-feet of torque @ 4,000 rpm Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 121.6 inches Overall length/width: 203.6 inches / 69.6 inches
Curb weight: 4,330 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 18 city / 28 highway / 22 combined
Assembled in: Windsor, Ontario, Canada