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First Drive: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid




CULVER CITY, California—It’s all down to Donald Trump. The success of the new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, that is. How’s that? Because of the federal $7,500 tax credit it is eligible for, as current law stands. With the credit, the gas-electric plug-in hybrid (Chrysler doesn’t call it a “plug-in” for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment) will cost Americans less to buy than conventional gas power minivans, even some of its own siblings. But should the president-elect heed the cries of the more strident free-market conservatives in his party, the tax credit will go away. And suddenly, the Pacific hybrid that strikes us as a great deal, well, it’s still really good, but it just won’t seem so great anymore.

To the math: $41,995 (before destination charge) is what Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will be asking for its basic hybrid people mover when it starts taking orders in December for deliveries in the first quarter of 2017. That price, however, is before the credit from Uncle Sam. Subtract that $7,500 and a very reasonable $34,495 (plus $1,095 destination charge) will be the effective price of the model in its well-equipped, entry-level Premium trim. In some jurisdictions it could wind up costing even less thanks to credits offered by states and localities.

An $895 overhead DVD player is the only option with the Premium package. Pacifica Hybrid Platinum models, with their upgraded leather and even vaster array of entertainment and safety options, will start at $44,995 ($37,495 after the federal credit) and also offer only one option: a $1,795 full length, tri-pane, panoramic glass roof.

These post-tax-credit numbers stack up well against conventional Pacificas as well as Chrysler’s main competitors — the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna — in a class that automakers have mostly been abandoning in droves. Pacifica’s good looks, best-in-class interior space and volume, and superior aerodynamics — a cd of .3 leads the field — don’t hurt, either. Its makers claim 30 miles of all-electric range for the stylish plug-in version, an estimated 80 mpg-e on the EPA city test cycle and a 530-mile range, along with an electric-only top speed of 75 mph. So whatever the engine mode, highway driving will not be an issue.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid rear three quarter in motion 02

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid rear three quarter in motion 02

Most family cars don’t travel more than 30 miles on most days, and many customers, Chrysler expects, will go weeks and months without a fill-up. So a system has been installed to detect when the gas in the tank has grown too old. The Pacifica monitors fill ups and, if months pass between them, it will begin overriding the electric motors and run the gas engine, using up the aged gasoline supply before it becomes a liability.

Charging with a built-in plug will take 14 hours on ordinary household current, but just two hours when 240-volt outlets are available. FCA pointedly doesn’t call its minivans plug-ins because internal research showed that the very words “plug” and “in” raise the haunting specters of range and range anxiety.

Of course, that’s the very point of a hybrid — when you run out of battery juice, there’s a gasoline motor to whisk you on your way. So, assuming you can find a gas station, there’s never any need for anxiety. But rather than educate the citizenry on the ins and outs of hybrid living, FCA chose not to alarm potential customers, thus the very useful feature is being downplayed. They don’t talk about it, so the avowedly green, the sort of folk who can’t wait to tell you about their car’s plug-in capability, will just have to figure out this fine Pacifica Hybrid feature for themselves.

Gasoline-fired Pacificas can be specified with seating for eight. But as a hybrid, it only seats seven in three rows. The original 2004-’08 Pacifica crossover, a short-lived machine, sat only six.

Otherwise, the new hybrid impresses much like the Pacifica it is based upon. It is comfortable, handsome, and highly utilitarian while still striking a surprisingly upscale ambiance for a vehicle whose interior may spend most of its service life covered in squeezable yogurt and pulverized Cheerio crumbs.

Outward distinguishing features as to its hybrid identity are subtle, including a black plastic grille with a wave pattern in places of a honeycomb grid, teal blue badges, a unique gauge cluster with a power bar on the left of its video display screen to monitor charging and a fuel gauge to the right, model-specific 17- (Premium) or 18-inch (Platinum) wheels, and a little “hybrid” badge on its tailgate. One color unique to the hybrid, silver teal pearl coat, is available along with the nine existing colors in the 2017 Pacifica range.

At the heart of the hybrid exercise is a large, 96-cell, 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack from supplier LG Chem, located underneath the middle row of captain’s seats. The cells take up the real estate where underfloor cubbies would have enabled FCA’s unique Stow ’n Go seating for the middle row, though the third-row chairs can still be folded conveniently into the foot wells if loads dictate, while the second-row seats can be removed and left behind for extra capacity.

Under the Pacifica’s hood — made of aluminum, like its sliding doors and tailgate skin — lies a significantly revised version of FCA’s 3.6-liter V-6 with unique pistons, camshafts, and valves. The compression ratio is higher, rejiggered to run Prius-style on the more efficient, slightly less-powerful Atkinson cycle, which sees intake valves held open deeper into the compression stroke. FCA quotes 260 horsepower but, curiously, declined to suggest a torque figure. When queried about the omission, chief electrified powertrain engineer John Gibson told launch-goers that FCA is awaiting new SAE standards that will allow it to more accurately express hybrid torque figures, though few in attendance could understand withholding a number that might be calculated consistent with current practice when it would be no more misleading than anything else.

The V-6 is mated to a dual-motor eFlite electrically variable transmission. The EVT is like a CVT, with no gear-shifting to be done and no paddles to manipulate — just a rotary dial shifter with D and L settings and a transmission that works to keep the gas powerplant in its most efficient operating range. Utilizing a one-way clutch, both electric motors are capable of driving the front wheels or charging the battery pack, switching fairly smoothly between the two, though drivers are denied the option of selecting electric power for themselves once on the go, Chrysler said, in the name of seamless operation. OK, if you say so; we’d prefer to decide for ourselves sometimes.

The system is at its most noticeable when coming to a halt from higher speeds in electric mode, with whirring sounds that don’t quite recall the 1940s trolley cars of today’s San Francisco, but do make more old-fashioned electric motor noise than we’d expected. This is despite the Active Noise Cancellation system standard in both trim levels, which is presumably aimed at other sounds. In pure electric mode around town, the Pacifica delivers all of the smooth, soothing, quiet that electric cars promise.

Hardware associated with the hybrid power plant increases the Pacifica’s weight by 610 pounds, leading Chrysler to adjust spring rates and bushings accordingly. But with much of that excess weight low down, the hybrid corners and rides well. We did, however, discern some porpoising when traversing dips in the road that we hadn’t noticed in its gas-powered relatives, and this vehicle felt distinctly heavier, at close to 5,000 pounds, if not unpleasant. Braking was consistent, with the hybrid system’s regenerative function inobtrusive in all modes of operation — the way we prefer it.

Over the course of a day first spent running up and down the steep, winding slopes of Topanga Canyon and Highway 1 near Malibu, largely at speeds between 30 and 60 mph, then venturing farther into the valley by interstate with speeds between 70 and 80 mph, performance felt acceptable. Once we’d exhausted the electricity supply and driven a while on IC power, we saw average gas mileage in the high 20s, which struck us as good, not great. It’s still an improvement over conventional Pacificas, though the hybrid can’t help but be more attractive still with those tax credits flowing home. But will they?

“We can’t see the future. We’re going to find out just like everybody else,” a Chrysler spokesman said, acknowledging that the tax situation will have a marked effect on the Pacifica hybrid’s future. Ditto its hybrid powertrain, which is surely intended for other future models, though the company declined to name any.

On the bright side for FCA, visits to its minivan webpages are up 500 percent since the new Pacifica’s launch. One way or another, whatever the president-elect does about tax credits, they think they might have the minivan for you. And so they should. Because conventional or hybrid, Pacifica is making the minivan great again.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Specifications

On Sale: December 2016
 Price:  $46,090 (base) (before tax credits)
 Engine: 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus electric motor/260 hp combined
 Transmission: Electrically variable automatic
 Layout:  4-door, 6-passenger, front-engine, FWD minivan
 EPA Mileage:  N/A
 L x W x H:  203.8 x 79.6 x 69.9 in
 Wheelbase:  121.6 in
 Weight:  4,943 lb
 0-60 MPH:  N/A
 Top Speed:  N/A

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November 22, 2016