Life With a Plug-In Pacifica Hybrid Minivan: The First Week

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Pacifica Hybrid photo

The much-awaited Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan (the first of its kind in the US) didn't end up quite as cheap as it was first rumored. But after tax credits, it is very comparable with its non-hybrid cousins.

And I've finally just gotten mine delivered. (We purchased the Platinum model, which came in at $44,995 MSRP, without sunroof.)

Much like my on-going series of posts about life with a used Nissan Leaf, I'm planning a series of real-world, technologically semi-literate updates on how this car/van/oversized tank works our for me and my family. Here's the skinny after the first week:

This thing is big.
TreeHugger regularly rails against pickups and SUVs taking over the world, so I have to start this review with an acknowledgement: The Pacifica is big, even by minivan standards. As such it carries with it many of the ills of car culture, even if it does achieve incredible efficiencies. (See below.) It weighs in at a ridiculous 4,943 lbs, and the dimensions are 204′′ L x 80′′ W x 70′′ H.

That said, its bigness is not without utility. Though we are yet to try it, I suspect we can comfortably transport six passengers plus luggage—and seven can fit in easily for shorter journeys. Used wisely, that capacity could mean taking one car instead of two on family road trips, outings or car-pooling duties. In other words, the better-than-a-Prius around town efficiency numbers get spread even further by replacing additional cars. Just check out how deep the luggage compartment behind the third row seats is. With the addition of the stow-in-place roof rack, I feel confident that we won't want for luggage space, even when the van is fully loaded with people.

pacifica cargo capacity photo

Sami Grover/CC BY 2.0

I also have to note that it doesn't feel that big to drive. Except for squeezing down our narrow driveway, I've found it to be considerably more nimble to drive than the Mazda5 it replaced. While parking the thing does still make me nervous, the parallel and perpendicular parking assist features available on the Platinum should mean that my terrible parking jobs don't get any worse. (We've only used this feature once, and it worked as advertised—although it randomly picked the tightest spot in the lot. I think it was showing off.)

It's incredibly efficient.
In the week-and-a-bit since we picked it up from the dealer, the Pacifica has traveled some 248 miles, and has been hovering around the 50 MPG mark. That number is, to say the least, impressive for a minivan. I suspect, however, that the official MPG number may be actually selling the car short. For 212 of the 248 miles driven, we've used literally no gas at all. Clearly, the mileage calculator is assigning some kind of miles-per-gallon equivalent to its kilowatt hours used.

There's a mixed value in that decision: On the one hand, it reminds you that electricity has an impact too. Fossil fuel-powered electric driving should not be counted as "free" miles. But if your electrons are coming from the sun or the wind, it might be nice to have the option to see MPGs reported as a gas-only number for comparison.

The other thing to be aware of is that calculating the efficiency of plug-in hybrids, versus traditional internal combustion engine cars, is much more dependent on what type of driving you do. For the most part, we drive a mix of city and highway for our daily commutes and errands (the ones we can't walk). And we've stayed close to a 30 mile range in our day-to-day driving. That means we're getting just about optimal use of the battery electric driving. (It's rated at 33 miles of batter range.) Occasionally my wife will drive 35 or 40 miles in a day, which is when the gas engine kicks in for the last part of her journeys. If you regularly drive 60 miles in a day, without the opportunity to charge up, then I suspect your numbers will be considerably worse. Similarly, whenever we do take our first road trip, I am confident our average MPGs will take a significant nose-dive. (I will write about it when they do.)

We're also helped by the fact that we have a Level 2 charging point installed for our Leaf, so we're easily able to top up the battery from empty to full in a couple of hours. Without a Level 2 installed, overnight charging would take 14 or so hours in a regular wall socket. (Supposedly Chrysler are also sending me a free Level 2 charger to apologize for delays. If you're reading this Chrysler, I'm ready to take delivery... :-)

Pacifica Mileage Numbers screenshot

Sami Grover/Screen capture

And it's basically a space ship.
For now, I won't spend too much time on all the gadgets and gizmos that the Pacifica comes with. This is TreeHugger. There are plenty of other sites that will gush over the parking assist, front collision warnings, 360-degree cameras, hands-free liftgate and doors, touch-screen entertainment system in the back etc. I will say, for the most part, that they work as advertised, and are somewhat overwhelming. In a good way. (One of our remotes is currently not pairing with its screen. The kids may have to talk to each other.)

Chrysler's designers have also put some thought into placement of USB charging sockets and other such niceties that make road tripping easier. Hovering in the Pacifica forums, it seems problems with the entertainment system are the most common gripes. But it comes across as a well-appointed, well thought out car with the kinds of technology that—I guess—are now common in many new cars. I still find myself wondering how it is that I happen to live in the future.

And finally, I'll say this: I am delighted to have been able to satisfy the "we need a 3rd row car" family debate and still cut our weekly gas usage by something like 80%. That's an incredible achievement. And if the number of parents I know who have asked me about the van is indicative, I suspect this will be a massive hit with many American families.

I also hope, however, that the minivan in every driveway will soon be obsolete. While it suits my family's lifestyle in a car-centric region in a car-centric country, we do need to move toward cities where car ownership (and certainly gigantic car ownership) is eventually obsolete. Ironically, vehicles like the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan may be helping to make that happen. Not only does it help erode the power of the fossil fuel lobby through efficiency, but in Phoenix, 500 of these beasts have been hacked by Waymo to be self-driving taxis that are open to the public.

In a decade from now, I hope that ownership of a plug-in hybrid minivan, which today makes my transportation significantly more efficient, will by then feel like an awkward relic from the past.

Disclaimer/addendum: I'll be writing about the Pacifica hybrid a lot in the months to come. I suspect that much of my writing will be positive. I believe it's a significant achievement in moving transportation forward. 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.