Life With the Plug-In Hybrid Pacifica Minivan: A Proper Road Trip

©. Sami Grover

OK, let's try this again.

Last time I wrote about a road trip in our plug-in hybrid Pacifica minivan, I ruffled a few feathers by not providing a "factually complete, compelling and informative article." Which lead me to post a more extensive review from a technologically literate auto journalist.

Still, some people seem to also appreciate the more informal updates. So here's the latest:

We recently got back from an extensive road trip that took us from Durham to Pittsburgh to Toronto, and then back via Columbus, Ohio. The van was extremely comfortable, performed exactly as it should and was a pleasure to drive. And while we probably all should move to smaller cars and less car dependent lifestyles, a road trip is probably the optimal function in which this Brit can begin to understand the America penchant for big freaking cars. (Especially when you're surrounded by other drivers in their big freaking cars!)

In terms of gas mileage, which is what most TreeHugger readers have been asking about—I decided to track two specific segments of the journey which should give us a better understanding of consumption in different real world conditions.

The first segment took us from Durham, NC to just outside Weston, West Virginia. We measured that as 354.2 miles, over some pretty mountainous highways. (Weston has an elevation of 1,020′, while Durham is 404'. On the way we passed through Beckley, at 2421', Bluefield, at 2,611' and Ghent at somewhere around 2,900'. You get the idea...) Having started out with a full battery, we got 32 miles of all electric range before the gas motor kicked in. And by the time we filled up, we'd used 11.86 gallons. According to my calculations, that makes 29.86 literal mpg if you don't count the electricity you charged up with, and just over 27 mpg if you remove the 32 miles of all electric range from the equation.

That's not great if you compare it to the (on paper) 28 mpg that a regular Pacifica gets, but mountain driving and high altitude conditions can impact gas mileage on any car. So it would be interesting to take a non-hybrid Pacifica on a similar journey to compare. (Sorry, you'll need a real car journalist for that assignment!) We did, by the way, notice significant recharge of the battery on long downhill stretches, sometimes getting as much as 3 or 4 additional miles of all electric range when we were able to coast—so I suspect the hybrid is at least making up for the extra weight we are lugging around as batteries.

The other stretch we chose to monitor was from Buffalo, NY to Lewis Center, just outside Columbus, Ohio. That was a pretty straight, flat stretch of driving on good roads with no major traffic conditions. We started out with a fully depleted battery at that point, so this offers my best measurement of hybrid mode driving without the plug-in capabilities helping out. On that stretch, we traveled 310 miles and used 9.68 gallons, which comes out at just a smidgen over 32 mpg—comparable to what others have been reporting in comments and on the various user forums that are out there.

This begins to feel significant. While you'll obviously get much, much better gas mileage out of a Prius, or simply a smaller car, the fact that you can transport 7 adults or a whole bunch of stuff and still get 32 mpg on the highway is not bad—especially considering you can switch into all electric mode by charging up once you reach your destination(s). Indeed, this is one often overlooked aspect of a plug-in hybrid: We were able to (partially) charge up at public charging stations in Pittsburgh, and Niagra Falls—and to get full charges (twice) when we stayed with friends in Toronto, and also in Ohio. All of which means that there are additional efficiency benefits for your around town vacation driving too. And this will only get easier as charging infrastructure becomes more commonplace.

I will say, though, that this trip has confirmed what I was beginning to suspect: A family which is looking for a vehicle that's primarily used for long-distance driving only may only experience incremental, though not insignificant, efficiency benefits compared to a non-hybrid model. If that's the case, you might want to consider something like a Prius V if the 3rd row isn't important, or look at some of the 3rd row crossovers that are out there if it is. But if your car will also be used for around town trips, especially carpooling or stuff hauling, then the Pacifica eHybrid offers some significant best-of-both-worlds benefits, albeit in a gigantic package.

One day, it'll be easy enough to hail one of these only as and when you need it. (Heck, that's already sort of possible in Phoenix.) In the meantime, this does offer a much more efficient way to meet America's big vehicle addiction.