The much-maligned minivan has had to continually reinvent itself in America following its SUV-instigated fall from grace as the family vehicle of choice. The latest round of resuscitation has included the pursuit of K-VIP elegance (the Kia Carnival), an unusual focus on in-vehicle vacuums and intercoms (the Honda Odyssey) and even all-wheel drive soft-roading (the Toyota Sienna).
Surprisingly, those few proud badges that remain unashamed of their dual-sliding side doors and distinctly box-like styling haven’t made much of an effort towards electrification. Seemingly custom-cut for accommodating a battery, given the bulky dimensions of their respective platforms, there are only two minivan-makers that have opted to add electrons into the mix. Narrowing things down further, only one has elected to go beyond the traditional hybrid playbook and install an actual plug.
The Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid is one of the few options available across any class of vehicle that combines a big battery with three comfortable rows of seating, plus a cabin so cavernous one could conceivably land a drone inside without touching wingtip to window. Not only that, but the plug-in version of the Pacifica is heavily weighted towards its top-tier trim levels, which do a convincing job of elevating its overall experience above what one would expect from what was once a commonplace people mover.
Is it time to trade in your SUV and take up the mantle of the minivan? Let’s take a look.
Go Big, Go Long
Unlike pickups, whose popularity is almost entirely divorced from their promise of practicality, no one buys a minivan unless they absolutely have to. The ultimate in function-over-form automotive design, it’s nevertheless rare that you’ll see a minivan haulin’ air. The only reason you paid for these seven-to-eight seats, and the hangar-like accommodations that enclose them, is because you’ll damn well be using them on the regular.
This attitude was exactly why I found myself piloting the Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) — although not so much for the seats, but rather the bounty that is revealed when they’re out of the picture. In the middle of a move from Montreal into the Eastern Townships countryside of Quebec, the 140 cubic feet of cargo room yawning behind the Chrysler’s front two positions was extra appealing for transporting all the fragile artwork, musical instruments and other precious objects I was unwilling to entrust to the moving team we had hired.
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That’s more space than what you’d find in all but the very largest of truck-based SUVs, and it’s considerably more capacious than the only other (non-plug-in) hybrid van on the market. The Toyota Sienna, which adopts a more traditional hybrid drivetrain and doesn’t offer electric-only operation, is an astonishing 40 cubic feet behind the Chrysler when it comes to stuffing it to the brim. That makes it 30% smaller inside despite sharing very similar overall dimensions.
One Drop (of Fuel) at a Time
Not only is the Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid larger where it counts as compared to its only electrified competitor, but it’s also remarkably frugal. Despite being laden with the contents of my condo, I was able to squeeze a full 500 miles out of a single tank of fuel. Of that driving distance, nearly 40% was done on electricity alone, a testament to the real-world accuracy of the van’s advertised 32 miles of EV range, plus its ability to cut the gas engine and coast while coaxing a few more kW of energy out of the regenerative system at highway speeds.
My new home is currently without a Level 2 charger, which means I was forced to trickle charge the PHEV’s battery using a 110-volt outlet over a longer period of time (about 10 hours from empty to full) than normal. Charging was also done asynchronously, as I wasn’t able to hit up a plug during the city load-in leg of each round-trip. This makes the van’s electric driving distance that much more impressive, as its regenerative capability must have been working overtime to keep the 16-kWh battery juiced. Overall, it worked out to 35 mpg for the entire move, a fantastic figure for a big-and-bulky van being put to work the entire time.
Even more remarkable is that Chrysler achieves the Pacifica’s fuel-sipping without imposing a miserable drive. Regularly loaded to the ceiling, the 3.6-liter V6 and pair of electric motors outfitted to the PHEV had no trouble at all shuttling its 260 total horsepower to the front wheels as it dealt with the more mountainous terrain leading to my new neighborhood. I was routinely impressed with the van’s acceleration while passing, which is only a smidge behind the somewhat mightier, non-PHEV version of the vehicle. Aside from an occasional low-level vibration through the steering while under power, there was little to indicate the gas/electric alchemy being managed behind the scenes by the Pacifica’s nine-speed automatic gearbox and hybrid software.
Pay to Plug
It’s worth noting that Chrysler has positioned the Pacific Plug-In Hybrid as a luxury-adjacent alternative to the standard sport-utility vehicle uniform, which leads to the primary concern with the vehicle: its price tag. You can spec a Touring L trim level version of the vehicle for just over $50,000, which is a considerable step up over the standard Sienna hybrid (MSRP $37,000), a van that democratizes its hybrid drivetrain across its entire lineup and doesn’t poach into the premium segment until you’ve climbed several rungs on its order sheet.
That being said, there’s no doubt that the Pacifica, by and large, provides a more upscale offering than what Toyota can deliver. Moving past the fact that it’s considerably more useful due to the gigantic difference in passenger and cargo room, there’s also the existence of the Pinnacle trim, which includes quilted Nappa leather (with throw pillow-like lumbar cushions and HD screens for those riding amidships), a surveillance camera for spying on the kiddos without turning your head from the road, and an overwhelming number of speakers attached to its infotainment system. Of course, you’ll need to add another $10,000 to the Chrysler’s bottom line to enjoy all of the above.
During my test drive, the Pacifica felt quiet and comfortable, and certainly didn’t add any fatigue to what was already a challenging week of lifting boxes noon-to-night. Perhaps my favorite feature was its hands-free power tailgate, which worked flawlessly to pop the hatch when my hands were full of items I couldn’t easily perch on the curb before loading. It’s a pity that the big battery means the deletion of Chrysler’s excellent Stow ‘N Go fold-flat seats, as I had to lift the captain’s chairs out of the vehicle on my own. At the very least, the third row still folds flat, and when it’s in use by human cargo you can take advantage of the sizable storage bin it sits in.
No Alternative to This Alternative
You can’t currently buy a pure electric minivan. Although Volkswagen has one on the way with the ID.Buzz, until it arrives the Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid remains the only game in town for those seeking to stretch fill-ups between hockey practices as far as possible. Given its superb propensity for extending its electric-only driving range, for those who can charge at home or at work, there’s reason to believe that urban dwellers would be able to accomplish most of their commuting in the absence of the Chrysler’s internal combustion engine, which puts the van in the “close enough” category for those who can’t wait for a full EV.
I’ve already mentioned that the only people buying minivans are those who absolutely need to access a level of practicality beyond what an SUV can offer. By the same token, anyone willing to step up and shell out for the Pacifica PHEV is likely in that subset of shoppers who won’t settle for anything without a plug. Whether the appeal is its considerable federal tax credit, the ability to crowd the HOV lane or a legitimate desire to divorce the drive from fossil fuels, there are multiple angles from which one can justify the Pacifica’s price tag.
However you end up behind the wheel, you’re unlikely to regret spending the extra money on this outlier once you’ve arrived.
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