Hybrid minivan feeling futuristic

BY Willy Williamson / Willy's Garage. Sep 29 04:00 am

Throughout my week behind the wheel of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, North America's first hybrid minivan, I felt more than a little like Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly from the hit 1985 film Back to the Future.

It wasn’t because of the spaceship-sounding whir that emitted from the Pacifica’s electric motor, nor the trivial fact the fictional McFly and I are both now 49-years-old.

My flashback fever all stemmed from minivan memories conjured up from way back in the year 2002, when my wife, Melanie, and I bought a 1997 Plymouth Voyager Sport from our friend and neighbour Louis Fontaine.

It was in near-mint condition, with only about 50,000 kilometres on the clock. It was loaded with bells and whistles including aluminum wheels, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, a factory CD player and even a power driver’s seat.

Our daughter, Kate, was about nine-years old at the time and our Labs Buzz and Boomer were just puppies. The Voyager was seemingly perfect for our small family.

I was, however, mortified.

As a lifelong gearhead this thing was initially pretty much the bane of my existence. Even dark sunglasses and a hat couldn’t hide my disdain. This was right around the time when the small SUV began to replace the minivan — and here we were… buying a minivan.

A funny thing happened though. I fell in love with it. There I was, in my mid-30s with a perfectly good GMC Sierra pickup in the garage, tooling around town in a green minivan loaded with friends and hockey equipment and golf clubs and band gear — while the soothing sounds of Nirvana blared from the stereo.

It may not have been particularly stylish, but it was good on gas, had seating for seven, (I still have the third row seat in my back garage if you want it) and it was reliable.

Plymouth, of course, is long gone. And so is that Voyager. It finally gave up the ghost after about 300,000 km of service.

For some odd reason though, the memory of that Plymouth Voyager has always stuck with me. A big part of why I have such fond memories of that van is because Louis passed away a couple of years ago. Buzz and Boomer are gone too. Sure do miss them all. But, I also miss that van because of its undeniable sensibility.

Chrysler wrote the book on minivans with the first Caravan way back in 1984. It was a game-changer and practically killed the market for station wagons. Families, tradesmen and couriers couldn’t get enough of these handy haulers — Chrysler sold millions of them — and the majority of automakers followed suit with a minivan of their own.

But that was then.

Nowadays, minivans continue to slide deeper into obscurity. In the first six months of 2017 in the United States, minivans only made up about three per cent of all new vehicle sales. Things aren’t much better here in Canada. Much like the minivan killed the station wagon, compact utility vehicles are hammering at minivan sales — outselling them at a rate of about eight to one.

While it is doubtful minivans will ever regain the market share they once held, the Chrysler Pacifica is poised to help Chrysler reclaim the throne as the king of minivan makers.

The Pacifica I tested earlier this year was abundantly excellent. When you add the plug-in factor to the Pacifica Hybrid, it is quite simply the most technologically advanced and innovative minivan ever built — and the nicest I’ve ever driven.

Powered by an electric motor and a gasoline engine, the Pacifica Hybrid seamlessly alternates between the two sources. The 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 gasoline engine is paired with an electric motor powered by a 16.0-kWh lithium-ion battery pack for a total combined horsepower of 260.

You have to plug the Pacifica Hybrid in for nearly 13 hours to get about 60 kms of pure electric driving from a standard 120V outlet, but it only takes two hours with a 240V outlet. The battery also self-charges while driving via regenerative braking.

I figure to charge the battery to 100 per cent requires about $2 worth of hydro. My daily commute from Cooks Creek to the Free Press on Mountain Avenue is about 50 kms one-way. While it’s certainly not designed for fuel efficiency, to offer a comparison my Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD requires nearly 10 L of fuel to travel 50 km. Meaning if gasoline is $1 per litre it costs me $10 to get to work in the truck. Then I have to get home.

Once at work I was able to plug in the Pacifica Hybrid for another eight hours, resulting in almost enough charge to get me home. My commute is likely on the longer side than most, but there’s still no denying even if I had to rely on the gasoline engine for a few kilometres of my drive, the opportunity to save nearly $300 in fuel costs per month is more than a little enticing. On the surface, it may sound like I’m comparing an apple to an orange, but the reality is the bed of my truck is typically empty and when it is loaded it’s only with trash for the dump, firewood, or the occasional building supplies. All things I could easily haul in the cavernous Pacifica.

Throughout the week I wound up driving beyond the range of the battery, but still managed to burn off a tank of fuel with my typically hard driving habits at a combined rate of just 7.2 L per 100 km. With a bit more planning and plugging and a little less rush, I’m certain I could reduce that amount even more and see a combined fuel and electric economy figure of about 5.5 L per 100 km. Which is pretty darn good for a vehicle this size and way less than half the consumption of my pickup. If you only drive 60 km or less a day this van could easily become a zero emissions vehicle with zero fuel cost.

From a comfort standpoint the Pacifica Hybrid, especially when decked out in Platinum trim, is right in line with current luxury vehicles.

Refinement highlights include premium Nappa leather-faced seats with perforated inserts, ventilated front seats, a thick and comfortable heated-leather-wrapped steering wheel, available Uconnect Theatre with dual 10-inch touchscreens loaded with games for the rear passengers, panoramic moonroof, hands-free dual power sliding doors and a power liftgate.

There are also enough power outlets and USB ports to keep a small tech company rolling. The menus are clear and easy to navigate.

On the dash, the 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system features sharp graphics, a clear design and terrific audio quality. Above the steering wheel there’s a seven-inch multi-coloured digital display in the centre cluster with two gauges, one for gasoline use, and the other showing power consumption. It all works beautifully and is visually pleasing. Even the rotary dial shifter, which I usually hate, was easy to get used to and functioned flawlessly.

Although I haven’t spent much time in the executive class of an aircraft — I’ve walked by it plenty of times — and Boeing could learn a thing or two from the folks who designed the Pacifica’s posh interior. It really is that good.

Ultimately, there’s plenty to get excited about with the Pacifica Hybrid. It not only represents a green option in a class of vehicles historically not the most fuel efficient, but is also abundantly comfortable, loaded with technology and safety features and, as an added bonus — it’s easy on the eyes.

If you’re like me and once had a love affair with a minivan, you owe it to yourself to test drive the new Pacifica Hybrid. It may just be the trip you need to rekindle that flame — without burning any gas.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

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