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Auburn Hills — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s most important product of the year — the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan — is arriving at dealerships with high expectations.

Although minivan sales are far from their heyday of nearly 1.4 million in 2000 to fewer than 513,000 domestically in 2015, the segment is extremely important for the automaker’s reputation and profitability.

Fiat Chrysler is the sole Detroit automaker left in the minivan segment, which Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. abandoned a decade ago. Its largest competitors are the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, which have grabbed a combined 40 percent of the minivan segment since 2008.

“It’s the cornerstone of what the Chrysler brand is going forward,” said Director of Chrysler brand Bruce Velisek during an event Wednesday with more than 200 Midwest dealers picking up the minivans at The Palace of Auburn Hills. “We’re a family oriented brand that appeals to the mainstream market. This is really, call-it, the halo vehicle for our brand.”

Between the Chrysler Town & Country, which the Pacifica replaces, and the Dodge Grand Caravan, the company has represented at least 40 percent of minivan sales since 2009, according to Edmunds.com. That’s excluding 2015, when the plant that produces minivans in Ontario was shut down for months for a massive retooling for the Pacifica.

Dealers have been anxiously waiting for the all-new minivan, which replaces the well-established Chrysler Town & Country and is slated to eventually replace the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan.

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“This is one of the biggest things that we could possibly have,” said Jeff Laethem, owner of Ray Laethem Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Grosse Pointe. “It’s the mainstay of the Chrysler brand. This is the franchise.”

Laethem said he expects the Pacifica to not keep current Chrysler minivan owners but attract customers from Honda and Toyota as well as those who may have moved to crossovers and SUVs in recent years.

Pacificas began arriving in some dealerships earlier this month but Wednesday’s event marked the official rollout of the vehicle throughout the Midwest.

“We’ve been anticipating it,” said Mike Riser, general manager of Telegraph Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Taylor. “It’s a big segment for us. It’s our third best-selling vehicle.”

Pacifica production started on Feb. 29 at the automaker’s Windsor Assembly plant.

The plant, which employs about 5,500, was shut down for roughly 14 weeks to retool the facility for the new minivan, which also will be offered as a plug-in hybrid. The company’s investment was $2.6 billion, up from an initial expectation of $2 billion. It also has hired 1,200 people since September 2014 to support the launch of the minivan.

“It’s a big investment for the company; over $2 billion went into the development of this product,” Velisek said. “It’s a segment we frankly have dominated for 30 years in volume.

“It’s something we’re going to continue to do.”

The Pacifica, a name the automaker used for a midsize crossover in the 2000s, is powered by an upgraded 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine mated to a segment-exclusive nine-speed automatic transmission.

A plug-in hybrid model — due out later this year — will feature the same engine as well as an all-electric mode with a range of 30 miles that delivers up to 80 miles per gallon equivalent in city driving, company officials said. The engines are mated to a segment-exclusive nine-speed automatic transmission.

Starting prices for the Pacifica range from less than $30,000 for the entry-level LX to roughly $42,500 for the high-end Limited. Other trims include the Touring at $30,495, Touring-L at $34,495 and Touring-L Plus at $37,895.

Fiat Chrysler expects the Touring-L to be about 30 percent of Pacifica sales, followed by the Touring at 27 percent and the Limited at 20 percent.

The more than 200 Pacificas at the Wednesday event were Touring-L models in Granite Crystal.

mwayland@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2504

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