It went from being one of the hottest products on the market to the butt of jokes. But is the minivan slated for oblivion, or can Chrysler make it cool again?
That’s likely to be one of the biggest questions of this year’s North American International Auto Show as the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica makes its debut. Not to be confused with the wagon-like crossover of a decade back, Pacifica is the name Chrysler has chosen for the replacement for the old Town & Country minivan.
“People will tell you the minivan segment is dead,” says Tim Kuniskis, the head of the Chrysler brand. “But it’s still selling 500,000” a year. The question is whether the new Pacifica can reverse the steady decline of a segment that once accounted for more than 2 million sales annually.
If anyone is set to reinvent the minivan, it’s probably not surprising that would be Chrysler. It’s generally credited with inventing the modern version of the people-mover back in 1984, and was long the segment sales leader, though it has struggled to keep up with the Honda Odyssey in recent years.
The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica will pick up on some of the features that Honda has introduced in recent years, such as the built-in vacuum cleaner. And there’ll be the traditional touches that have worked well on the older Town & Country, such as the Stow ‘n Go seats.
The reality is that few vehicles are more effective at doing what they set out to do. Minivans are just plain functional. What they aren’t is cool. And so, led by design director Ralph Gilles, the Chrysler team had to figure out how to make it possible for minivan buyers to brag, rather than apologize, for what they’re driving.
“There’s a martyrship about owning a minivan for some people,” said Gilles. “We wanted to get that out of the ownership experience.”
The first step is to visually transform the minivan, and a quick glimpse at the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica reveals a number of ways the design team has done that. They’ve picked up on some of the design cues of today’s crossover-utility vehicles, such as the more sharply raked windshield, the lower roofline, more muscular wheel arches and the wheels-to-corner layout.
If anything, the new model bears more than a passing similarity to the popular Honda Pilot – though the new Chrysler model maintains the minivan’s must-have power sliding doors. There are also hints of the Chrysler 200 sedan, especially with the big new winged Chrysler badge on the grille
“When we say ‘minivan,’” explains Kuniskis, “we want them to see something different” from today’s minivans.
Designer Brandon Faurote, who headed the Pacifica project, puts it another way. The goal was to find “a perfect balance between right brain and left brain, between functionality and expressiveness.”
The interior of the 2017 Chrysler Town & Country has also gotten a new, and decidedly more upmarket, look. Winnie Cheung, who headed the interior design, describes it as “very sculptural, with a hand-crafted quality to it.”
There’s a new, 8.4-inch touchscreen display to operate the latest version of the Chrysler Uconnect infotainment system.
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The Pacifica, which can seat up to eight, also gives passengers an expansive view of the world with what Chrysler claims to be one of the largest panoramic sunroofs ever, with three separate panels covering the roof virtually front to back.
Functionality remains critical, as you’d expect of a minivan, so there are plenty of storage nooks and bins, including a hidden one in the rear capable of holding the equivalent of two gallon-sized milk bottles.
If the new design doesn’t win buyers over, Chrysler is hoping the optional 2017 Pacifica Hybrid model will get the job done by offering an optional 80 miles per gallon fuel economy. That’s about 50% more than what the fourth-generation Toyota Prius can manage. That’s a bit misleading, however.
While the maker is calling its battery-based model a hybrid, it’s more accurately a plug-in hybrid. (Like “minivan,” Chrysler research suggested the term “plug-in” has a bad connotation among consumers.) It relies on a 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery paired to the same basic 3.6-liter V-6 found in the standard, gas-powered Pacifica.
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The Hybrid will get as much as 30 miles per charge in electric-only mode, better than a number of other plug-ins, though nowhere near the 53 miles of the second-generation Chevrolet Volt.
To further enhance fuel economy, by the way, Chrysler engineers were able to shave about 200 pounds of mass off the Pacifica compared to a similar version of the old Town & Country.
As one would expect of a family-hauler, Chrysler engineers paid a lot of attention to safety, as well. They expect to get a top grade in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s tough small overlap crash test. And they’ve loaded up with active safety technology designed to prevent a crash in the first place. That ranges from the segment’s first 360-degree camera to active cruise control and forward collision warning with auto-braking.
Whether that all adds up to a winning formula remains to be seen, but Chrysler is confident the 2017 makeover will get people talking, rather than joking, about minivans again. And they note that between now and 2025 at least four million more American families will come into the market for a vehicle like the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.
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“We’ve reinvented the minivan for today’s modern family,” says marketing director Bruce Velisek. Whether those family buyers will take Chrysler up on the offer is far from certain, but Chrysler has clearly given the project all it has.