When it comes to minivan pioneering, you have to hand it to Chrysler.
It invented the modern minivan more than three decades ago, and followed that with innovations like the Stow 'n Go backseats, which effortlessly disappear into cavities beneath the floor to create more cargo space.
This past spring, it introduced the all-new Chrysler Pacifica, which demonstrated that a minivan can be aesthetic as well as functional. (It is easily the most stylish minivan on the market.)
And now, Chrysler is poised to field the world's first hybrid minivan. Matt McAlear, head of Chrysler brand marketing, said the Pacifica Hybrid will go into production this month, and be in good supply by early next year.
The additional sales engendered by the hybrid model may well put Chrysler into the minivan sales lead. This year, Chrysler minivans - which include the Pacifica and the Town & Country model it replaced - are selling at an annualized rate of 120,000, a hair behind the segment-leading Honda Odyssey. (While Honda is the top -selling minivan brand, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, with an annualized total of 220,000 Chrysler and Dodge minivan sales, is the top automaker in the segment.)
After driving the new hybrid at a recent press preview, I would guess it will sell a few copies. It is a lovely and comfortable car that drives more like a sedan than a minivan and gets 80 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) during battery-only city driving.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which has lagged behind most manufacturers in hybrid development, has the first hybrid minivan.
Although it's called the Pacifica Hybrid, it is actually a plug-in hybrid. Calling it a plug-in evinces a wince from marketer McAlear because he and his colleagues are afraid the term will evoke in potential customers a pure electric vehicle - and the range anxiety that goes with it. But in actuality, the Pacifica's 30-mile all-electric range goes up to 530 when its 3.6-liter gas V-6 is called into the game.
The new hybrid model is not just a mildly modified gas-engine Pacifica. It has been extensively reengineered to deal with the packaging of the battery and two electric motors, and the considerable weight they add.
Even after taking 240 pounds out of the vehicle through the use of aluminum and high-strength steel, the battery and motors still make it 650 pounds heavier. That additional weight, in turn, prompted suspension revisions to allow it to still handle like the gas model, which is to say, quite competently.
Unfortunately, the need to lodge the 350-pound battery prompted a grim trade-off: It replaced the under-floor tubs where the second-row Stow 'n Go seats were stored.
There were also some mild styling changes for the hybrid. It got a unique grille and teal hybrid insignia there and on the liftgate. The teal motif continues inside with trim accents and instrumentation.
While the conventional gas Pacifica starts at $28,595, the hybrid is available only in two high-tech, heavily equipped models: the Premium, which bases at $41,995, and the Platinum, at $44,995. McAlear points out, however, that the people who can afford this car make enough money to qualify for a federal tax credit of $7,500. This, he said, brings the asking price for these two down to $34,495 and $37,495, making them quite competitive with well-equipped conventional minis. (He said 50 percent of minivan sales are in the $31,000-to-$38,000 range.)
This new Pacifica turns out to be a pleasure to look at and to drive.
And you can still get 64 sheets of quarter-inch plywood in the back.