Alas, the poor minivan. I knew ye well. Revolutionary when Lee Iacocca deployed it as the savior of Chrysler, the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town and Country came to rule the province of soccer moms and baseball dads (mea culpa).
A machine of most excellent fancy, a thousand times it bore me and my infield on its back to practices, tournaments, grocery stores, and coastal adventures. How many of us logged more than 100,000 miles amid most excellent child-rearing adventures?
So here we are, 35 years after the "living room on wheels" rolled into showrooms and, yet, the minivan still stands. Chrysler's prominence was lost to more powerful and reliable versions from Toyota and Honda and the minivan's market dominance faded amid a tsunami of SUVs, which stole hearts with 4WD and more muscular panache.
Yet, the minivan lives on. While Americans buy more than 200,000 midsize SUVs a month, they also buy around 80,000 minivans, two-thirds of those from Chrysler. We recently spent the week in the company of a 2019 Pacifica and came away impressed with its comfort, utility, and power. Everything I dreamed for in a minivan in the '80s is in today's iteration.
Whipped through the Wamba ramble, Pacifica's 287-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 engine worked smoothly with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Though it offered no manual method to select gears, simply twisting the selector to "L" was enough signal to the transmission to use more aggressive algorithms in ratio selection.
The result was plenty of torque to hold desired lines through apexes at speed.
Pushed hard, the Pacifica exhibited minimal body roll and above-average control. If you need to run down a Texas interstate highway at 85 mpg, this van will do it with ease. It rides and handles like a premium, midsize car.
Profits, then safety
What I didn't dream of in those days, because this was beyond my expectations, was a vehicle that could keep itself on the road and out of rollover and head-on collisions. Manufacturers have been making these wonders available for several years no.
Like most American manufacturers, Chrysler still makes it exorbitantly expensive to acquire state-of-art driver-assistance technology. Whether it's the gas-powered model, starting at $27,235, or a plug-in hybrid version, starting at $40,245, Chrysler makes consumers climb the model tree before making available a $995 package that includes technology Toyota provides as standard on everything it builds.
To be sure, Chrysler's Advanced Safety Group is a marvelous combination of safety features and desirable options. It includes:
— 360-Degree Surround-View Camera System
— 7.0-Inch Full Color Digital Driver Info Display
— Acoustic Windshield
— Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop & Go
— Advanced Brake Assist
— Automatic High Beam Headlamp Control
— Blind-Spot and Cross-Path Detection
— Full-Speed Forward Collision Warning Plus
— Lane Departure Warning Plus
— Parallel and Perpendicular Park-Assist
— ParkSense Front and Rear Park-Assist with Stop
— Rain-Sensitive Windshield Wipers
The problem is that some of these technologies, like lane-keep and adaptive cruise control, are proven to reduce casualties by more than 30 percent. Paying $600 or $700 a month for a new car without doing everything possible to protect the lives of one's family is unconscionable. By the trade-in time, the public's knowledge and acceptance of these technologies will be so widespread that the loss of retained equity will be simply foolish.
To be eligible to buy that package on a gas-only Pacifica, buyers must move up two models, to the Touring Plus ($33,495). On a hybrid, it takes climbing two steps up to the Limited model, ($45,795). That's roughly a $7,000 premium for what ought to be basic safety.
You'll want more than that.
We think the tow group ($995) with wiring, hitch, sway damping, 220-amp alternator, and a heavy-duty radiator is smart, even if one doesn't plan to take advantage of the resulting 3,600-lb. tow capacity. Families will also want the Uconnect Theater with wireless streaming ($2,395). Dual HDMI ports, seatback screens, and wireless headphones make the van so much more livable.
I still fondly recall a trip to the Smokey Mountains in a Dodge caravan a few years back with the boys in back playing video games while I listened to classical music upfront.
It was nerd nirvana.
Solid fuel economy
For a few years, Chrysler's minivan products, including the Dodge Caravan, lacked the smooth power and better fuel economy of their Japanese rivals. That changed with a redesign in 2017.
Gas-powered Pacificas are EPA-rated at 19 city/28 highway, but several independent testers report getting better than 31 on the open road.
We were sad when our tester arrived without Pacifica's award-winning plug-in hybrid technology. It's the greenest minivan on the planet. The gas engine is the same size, but it is tuned to the gas-sipping Atkinson cycle.
Combined, the gas engine and two electric motors (one to drive the wheels, the other to charge the batteries) deliver 260 hp. The plug-in power gives it an electric-only range of 32 miles. The EPA estimates that for around-town use, most people will average around 84 mpg. On the open road, the hybrid will average around 32 mpg.
Chrysler warranties the hybrid components for 10 years or 100,000 miles.
We should point out that a Pacifica hybrid with proper safety gear will set you back $47,000. A Toyota Highlander does not have the plug-in component, but it starts at $37,520. You can buy a lot of gas for $10 grand.
Chrysler's insistence on jacking up the cost of safety technology carves a big hole in Pacifica's value proposition.
Chrysler, dealers dealing
On the other hand, the right deal could help close that hole.
Today, Chrysler is offering zero interest for 60 months on gas-powered Pacificas and $2,500 cash on hybrid models. A well-motivated dealer could make that deal work out.
Bottom line: I like the Pacifica, I really do. Aesthetics aside, I love the way it drives, I love its utility, and I have no problems with the vehicle's mechanics. (Consumer Reports downgrades its reliability, but I can't find significant data to support that conclusion).
On the other hand, our objections to profiteering on safety are not much ado about nothing. The solution to that is where, as the Bard said, "the golden Ore doth buried lie "