Life With the Plug-In Hybrid Pacifica Minivan: The First Road Trip

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CC BY 2.0. Sami Grover

A happy mix of memories, mountains and many miles per gallon.

When I wrote that I had achieved 155 mpg in our Pacifica hybrid (not including electricity), many readers were eager to know what those numbers would look like once we took this giant hunk of metal on the road.

We now have that data. Sort of.

Earlier this month we packed up the van with 3 adults, 2 kids, 4 suitcases, a whole bunch of pool toys, and a little more beer and liquor than was strictly necessary. We then drove from Durham, North Carolina, to Morganton, a small town outside of Asheville near the shores of Lake James. The drive took us exactly 174 miles—going from an elevation of 404' to over 1,160'—and we used a whopping 4.77 gallons of gas. I make that 37 mpg. Not bad for a fully loaded minivan going uphill.

That said, there is a caveat: We started the journey with a full battery, meaning we got as far as Burlington, NC without using a drop of oil, but with the help of Duke Energy's mixed environmental record. If you exclude that portion of the journey (about 31 miles), I still make our pure fuel efficiency as right around 30. It is an equally impressive number, when you consider that on highway driving, going uphill, there is very little benefit—and a lot of extra weight—to all the batteries and regenerative braking capabilities, not to mention all that beer.

Unfortunately, the data for the rest of our trip is a little less than stellar. In fact, it's non-existent. I was on vacation, and not inclined to be filling out a spreadsheet. That said, I can tell you that most of our short journeys—for more beer, more ice, or a damn pepper grinder (what vacation rental doesn't have that!)—were achieved entirely on electric. We simply brought along an extension cord and plugged into a regular wall outlet overnight. Even an overnight jaunt to Asheville was significantly boosted by a long, slow charge at the beautiful New Belgium brewery.

I can also report that going downhill made a significant difference to consumption—gaining an easy 4 or 5 miles of battery charge during a six-mile downhill stretch out of Asheville. Exactly how this impacted fuel consumption, I'm afraid I can't report for reasons already confessed. But watching the estimated range essentially not go down for 30 or 40 miles on the way back to Durham, I'm confident in saying that the downhill leg—perhaps combined with less beer in the trunk—more than made up for the few extra pounds I gained on vacation. Next time, I'll be sure to measure it, but I am fairly certain we achieved better than the 37/30mpg figures I quoted on the way up.

As for the rest of the experience, I won't get into too much detail—I am not an automotive journalist—except to say it was comfortable, pleasant and worked as advertised. We had to fiddle a bit with the rear-seat entertainment system, but that may well have been user error. The only downside, albeit a major one, has been the terrible customer service from Chrysler. (I am not including my sales guy at the dealership in this. He was awesome.) Not only do the rumors of a recall appear to be coming true—just with minimal to zero information from Chrysler—but a phonecall a few months back to offer me a free charging station as a goodwill gift for waiting for my order has since been followed up with... nothing. Silence. And confused responses from customer care and dealership representatives.

Still, the van itself has been awesome so far. And it represents a major step forward in terms of efficiency and innovation in a segment that's not exactly known for either.

We have another road trip coming up soon. I will keep you posted, and may even take better notes. (In the meantime, check out my previous posts. Especially the more data-oriented commenters.)

Ongoing moan: I'll be writing about the Pacifica hybrid a lot. Much of my writing will be positive. But it would be negligent of me not to mention—each and every time I write—that Chrysler, like most major car makers, has been actively lobbying to weaken fuel efficiency standards. Do with that information what you will.