Fiat Chrysler Automobiles wants to dramatically redefine the minivan category with its new Chrysler Pacifica and a hybrid version — two models with enough fresh styling and performance to potentially re-energize a segment that has lost more than half its sales the past 15 years.
FCA is dropping the Town & Country name and plans to reveal its new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica early today at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The automaker surprised the industry by dropping Town & Country and reviving the Pacifica name. The automaker eventually plans to phase out the Dodge Grand Caravan, too.
Follow the latest news from the Detroit auto show.
The name change is a big gamble because the Town & Country name helped Chrysler retain its position as the king of minivans for nearly a quarter century.
"Sure, it is absolutely risky to change the name, but that's how confident we are," said Tim Kuniskis, head of Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat. "We wanted to change the name so that you think, 'this is new, this is fresh, I need to check this out and forget the perception that I had about the previous minivan.' "
The Pacifica ushers in a completely new look that hides its sliding doors and doesn't even appear to be a minivan at first glance.
"This is a fairly monumental leap. This is no evolutionary change," said Dave Sullivan, an auto analyst for Auto Pacific who also is a minivan owner. "Inside, the materials … and buttons, switches all feel very nice and very high quality, and they really have gone all-in on rear-seat entertainment."
Sullivan said it's clear that the automaker poured every ounce of energy it could into developing a new design and packing the new minivan with innovations that will allow Chrysler to leapfrog the competition for several years.
The Pacifica is equipped with a redesigned 3.6-liter, V-6 Pentastar engine that produces 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque.
The hybrid version will get up to 80 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) in city driving. It will be the only plug-in hybrid on the market when it goes on sale later this year. The minivan will go up to 30 miles on electric power when fully charged. When the battery's energy is depleted, the Pacifica Hybrid becomes a part-time electric vehicle, like a conventional hybrid.
Analysts say the decision to develop a hybrid minivan makes a lot of sense because of the driving habits of minivan owners, and the size of the vehicle offers a lot of space to store the batteries.
"It's an opportunity because the typical minivan owner — their daily commute is about 30 miles. They take kids to school, run errands, go back home," said Bruce Velisek director of the Chrysler brand.
The trick will be ensuring it remains affordable. The automaker hasn't announced pricing for either version.
Catching up on hybrids
The development of a plug-in hybrid minivan was a major undertaking for the Auburn Hills automaker, which is woefully behind the competition when it comes to hybrids and electric vehicles. While competitors including Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota aggressively developed and launched a hybrid and electric cars, FCA held back.
The automaker launched an electric version of the Fiat 500 in 2013 but does not sell a conventional hybrid. The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is a plug-in hybrid but will simply be marketed as a hybrid, Kuniskis said.
"Customers in this segment buy on functionality. They don't buy on the technology side of the business, so they're not really concerned about how it works as long as it works and does exactly what they need it to do," Kuniskis said.
The Pacifica Hybrid's battery is located under the second-row floor, keeping the rear cargo area as roomy as ever and preserving the third-row Stow ‘n Go seating and storage.
When the battery is depleted the van becomes a part-time electric vehicle, like a conventional hybrid. The battery can be fully recharged in two hours using a 240-volt plug-in system.
The exterior and interior design of Pacifica is a giant leap forward for the automaker that will put it ahead of its main rivals — the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna — said Dave Sullivan, auto analyst for AutoPacific.
The goal was to create a minivan that looks more like a crossover than a van and that has sculpted curves and sexy lines to overcome the stigma attached to minivans.
"We are not trying to say it's not a minivan, all we are trying to say is it's so new, so different and so much of a game changer in that segment," Kuniskis said.
Name change, good and bad
Sullivan said the name change comes with some pluses and minuses.
The original Pacifica was introduced in 2003 as a three-row crossover that Chrysler produced for four years. At the time, the Pacifica was viewed as an innovative cross between a minivan, SUV and sedan.
However, it struggled with quality issues and some thought it lacked power. It was one of several models the automaker discontinued as losses mounted and the Great Recession began pushing the company toward Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But Sullivan said starting fresh with the Pacifica name gives the automaker a chance to recast its pricing formula for its minivans.
In recent years, the Dodge Grand Caravan was the automaker's lower-priced van, with starting prices ranging from $22,000 to $31,000, while Town & Country is priced from $30,000 to $41,000.
By renaming its minivan the Pacifica, the automaker can set a new pricing structure.
The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica will be available in six models when it goes on sale this spring while the Pacifica Hybrid will come in two models when it arrives during the second half of 2016.
With the Pacifica, FCA also is doubling down on entertainment.
The Pacifica includes two 10-inch Uconnect screens for rear seat entertainment. Passengers can watch movies, play built-in games, connect personal devices to surf the Internet and stream content throughout the vehicle.
"We think kids are going to love it — even more than they do today," Kuniskis said.
Economic boon for Windsor
In Windsor, where Chrysler has produced the minivan since 1983, the final arrival of the Chrysler Pacifica is being celebrated as an enormous economic development boon.
After a long period of political jockeying, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said in 2014 that the company would overhaul its Windsor Assembly plant for the new minivan, but initially it seemed the investment would be limited. Marchionne's reluctance was caused, in part, by former Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak's reluctance to provide government assistance.
"It was confusing to our members, it was confusing to the workforce, it was confusing to the community at large," said Dino Chiodo, president of Unifor Local 444.
Finally, about a year ago, Marchionne said FCA would invest more than $2 billion to develop the new minivan and retool the plant. FCA has hired hundreds of additional workers and currently employs 5,459 workers at the plant, up from 4,915 last year.
"I think potentially we could have been through this curve I think sooner. I think we've gotten to where we could have been a year ago," Chiodo said. "But in the end ... they took on every project and made every investment necessary … to make sure that this is their pinnacle product."
Key features and facts about the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan
- A redesigned 3.6-liter, V-6 Pentastar engine that produces 287 horsepower and 262 pound feet of torque.
- Pacifica Hybrid gets up to 80 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) in city driving.
- Hybrid powertrain delivers an estimated 248 horsepower with an estimated electric range of 30 miles when the 16-kWh lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery when fully charged.
- The battery is located under the second-row floor, keeping the rear cargo area as roomy as ever and preserving the third-row Stow ‘n Go seating and storage.
- Battery can be fully recharged in two hours using a 240-volt plug-in system.
- E-shift rotary dial shifter located on the integrated center console that electronically actuates shift selection. The e-shift system also enables more packaging and design flexibility when compared to mechanical shift systems.
- Two 10-inch high-definition Uconnect Theater entertainment system in the rear, allowing passengers to watch movies, play built-in games, connect personal devices and surf the Internet.
- Hands-free sliding doors and liftgate and redesigned Stow ‘n Go seating with Stow ‘n Go Assist and Easy Tilt access to the third row.
- Built in Windsor, Ontario.