Payne: Pacifica Hybrid is the coolest minivan in town

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

My favorite minivan story comes from the Chrysler Pacifica’s launch last year in Los Angeles. I took the stylish, 3.6-liter, V-6-powered seven-seater to my 6-year-old nephew’s elementary school. No one appreciates minivans more than kids, and I looked forward to Henry’s friends (Henrys are everywhere in my family) enjoying Chrysler’s latest tricks. But one first-grader was resistant.

“Mr. Payne, my father has a Model S,” he said confidently, as if there was nothing that could impress him after the Tesla experience.

I agreed the electric Model S is one of the seven wonders of the auto world, but that he wouldn’t be disappointed by the Pacifica. After a half-hour roaming the Chrysler’s interior — making seats magically disappear into the floor, exploring backseat theater screens, running the vacuum cleaner, sliding doors with a wave of the foot — the kids were impressed. Even my early skeptic.

“Mr. Payne, this car is better than my dad’s Model S!” he exclaimed.

Don’t look now, Tesla, but the coolest ride in town just got cooler. The Pacifica is now available as a plug-in hybrid.

When Chrysler invented minivans three decades ago, it birthed one of the most innovative vehicles on the planet — the Swiss Army knife of the auto industry. But their boxy, dowdy shape branded them as mom-mobiles, and women fled the segment for SUVs. With Pacifica, Chrysler has gone a long way to erasing that stigma.

The hybrid EV is the coup de grace.

First, a disclaimer. I am a hybrid skeptic. Equipping a big, family vehicle with a second power source (gas engine plus battery) comes at a huge variable cost (back-of-the-envelope math with Chrysler developers puts the hybrid cost at $5,000 to $7,000 north of a comparably equipped gas-fired minivan) that takes years to make up in gas savings. But government mandates to build zero-emission vehicles put automakers in an awkward position: How to sell vehicles few want?

Chrysler’s minivan turns this into a positive. In reinventing the minivan, engineers built the Pacifica from the ground up to have a plug-in option. What could be cooler than a minivan that doesn’t use gas?

Pacifica was designed with a best-in-class 0.30 drag-coefficient. Increased torsional rigidity to take a big battery. A battery big enough to haul its girth around town for 30-plus miles on electrons — but also qualify for Uncle Sugar’s full $7,500 tax credit. $7,500! I didn’t pay that much for my first car.

Bottom line: Buy a nicely equipped, $42,000 Pacifica Hybrid Premium, subtract the tax credit, and you’ve got a cheaper ride than the regular, gas-powered Touring — and it will save hundreds of dollars at the pump. Who says there’s no free lunch?

Chrysler prefers the term “hybrid” to deflect range-anxiety concerns that come with the word “plug-in,” but this 4,900-pound bowling ball works just like a plug-in Chevy Volt.

Plug it in overnight and it’ll go 33 miles (the Volt will do 58) on nothing but battery. On our drive around the rolling hills of north Los Angeles, most media drivers were getting 36 miles. No way, you say. Payne, you’re snorting the Kool-Aid.

Well, you’d have a point, because the physics of the U.S.S. Pacifica means that — unlike the little Volt skiff — it does have to call on the V-6 gas engine for the heavy lifting. Like hard stoplight acceleration. Or going up hills. Or cruising at more than 75 on the highway.

But these are momentary asks in a daily commute, so for the most part Pacifica comes by its 30-mile EV range honestly. More importantly, its combined 538-mile battery-gasoline range (the Volt gets 420) means fewer visits to gas stations. I averaged a compact car-like 31.5 mpg over 122 miles.

Buyers will want to spend a little extra to maximize the plug-in experience. For example, $2,500 gets you a 240-volt home charge system so you can replenish the battery in just two hours (versus 14 hours on a standard 110-volt plug).

That $7,500 subsidy will run out after 200,000 sales, but if Pacifica reaches that number it may have a hit on its hands.

Even without the subsidy, the $40,000-something yacht makes a $50,000 Audi Q7 look plain.

The supersized Pacifica starts out well-proportioned and gorgeous. Its “candy-knotted” chrome lower grill is art. Its swept flanks are elegant. Its hidden C-pillar is stylish. And the hybrid takes it up a notch.

Its ribbed grille, teal highlights, and silver teal pearl paint make it look like an iMac on wheels. Pinwheel rims complete the tech-y look. Pacifica Hybrid doesn’t telegraph minivan mom at all.

What Pacifica most resembles is the old Mercedes R-Class wagon. Pacifica interior designer Chris Benjamin nods at this analogy — because he was the R-Class’ interior designer. “I agree there is a resemblance,” he says, “and, to be honest, the Chrysler blows the R-Class away in utility.”

This isn’t just Benjamin’s pride talking. Despite losing Chrysler’s famed, unique “stow ’n’ go” capability to the 16 kWh battery, the Pacifica still wows in its interior dexterity. Let me count the ways:

1. It’s a pickup bed with a roof: In seconds, I removed the middle buckets, stowed the third row and opened enough acreage to swallow a grandfather clock, chest of drawers or ATV.

2. It’s a home entertainment center: In their middle-row captain’s chairs, kids can play checkers and other games on the rear-seat infotainment system for hours.

3. It’s a road office: I sat in the third-row seat with my laptop, folded the middle throne into an ottoman and connected via in-car WiFi.

When it comes to luxury autos, it’s “all about the badge,” a friend of mine likes to say. The Chrysler minivan may not be a luxury name, but with its elegant looks, exclusive teal colors and e-Hybrid logo, it has the badge. Yes, the Pacifica Hybrid is as cool as a Tesla.

And for $35,000, it’s a steal at half the price.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid


Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel drive, seven-passenger minivan

Power plant

AC motor powered by 16 kWh battery and 3.6-liter Atkinson cycle V-6 engine


Electrically variable transmission (EVT)


4,934 pounds


Two trims available: $43,090 Premium; $46,090 (Platinum as tested)


260 total system horsepower


0-60: 8.2 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 110 mph

Fuel economy

EPA 84 MPGe (33-mile range on battery), 25 city/33 highway (Car & Driver)

report card


Upscale styling; nicely priced, and a steal with tax credit


Lose middle seat stow ’n’ go capability; add $2,500 for Level 2 charger for charging convenience


Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★