Curbside Review: 2020 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Limited – Plug It In, Plug It In…

It’s hard to believe that Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan has now been on the market for almost four years, in fact for 2021 it is getting a small facelift as well as an all-wheel-drive option that should make it even more appealing.  While minivan sales have been in a continual slump for the last few years, the Pacifica’s introduction was a bit of a breath of fresh air; after all, Chrysler has generally been at the forefront of minivan innovations and with this latest generation they included a Plug-In Hybrid option which in theory should make the van much more fuel efficient than its competitors.

Jumping right into that aspect, it certainly is, in fact over my week and 455 miles with this van as the above picture indicates, I averaged close to 40mpg using the trip computer and plugging the van in every night to start the next morning with a full charge.  Yes, electricity costs money if you aren’t generating your own power (which also costs money to purchase) but in a system this small I didn’t calculate it out and the convenience far outweighs the cost.

On a few of the days I only drove locally and managed to finish the entire day without once having the gasoline engine fire up.  On at least two days I drove in excess of 150 miles each, first exhausting the stored electrons and then running on a combination of gasoline and battery as most other hybrids do depending on load and situation.  I also drove it how I would drive a minivan of my own, not particularly trying to eke out every last MPG or cruising below the speed limits or anything drastic like that.

Chrysler’s EPA ratings are advertised as 82MPGe (combined electric and gas) and 30MPG (gas only, city/highway average).  The MPGe part is a little hard to explain, but basically there is a formula that uses the energy content of the battery pack and converts it to the energy content of gasoline and then comes up with the result.  This does not really mean than the van gets 82 MPG of gasoline (don’t forget the little “e” which stands for “equivalent”).

The highest I ever got the mileage on the trip computer to was in the mid-60’s on a run until the battery pack was empty and the engine started to kick in.  This was a moderate speed run that consisted of about five miles of normal suburban traffic until I got to the outskirts at which point I transitioned to country roads with approximately 50mph speed limits for the rest of my 30 mile trip that day.  Those types of roads seemed to be the sweet spot between not using too much power, generally easy throttle settings, and low-ish wind resistance while still moving without many stops for lights etc.

Higher speed freeway driving cuts the range down but the vehicle also won’t run at over 80mph on electric-only power.  (It’ll go much faster, but only with the engine on).  When fully charged, Chrysler says it should have 32 miles of range.  While I had the van it was generally cold (around freezing most days) so my range was generally diminished by about 20% once I got underway.  Note in some of the pictures that the miles driven, miles remaining, and battery percentage don’t always add up to the full range.

This is due to how it was driven as well as external factors.  The picture above shows the result of a day spent driving from our house to the freeway to an IKEA south of Denver and straight back, i.e. mostly freeway at speeds sometimes slightly in excess of what the van will do in all-electric mode.  Or perhaps representative to what one might do on a multi-state journey to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving etc.  Note that this is about the lowest MPG readout I saw the entire week.  I was not able to empty the tank to refill it and calculate a more accurate total although I did top it off before going down to IKEA as a gas station on the way that had it priced at $1.88/gallon which I could not pass up.  It took about five gallons…

Note that this is by no means a slow vehicle.  The gas engine is an Atkinson-cycle version of the PentaStar 3.6 V6 that is generally well-liked in almost every application of it, and doesn’t disappoint here either.  It’ll easily do an accidental one-wheel burnout when turning from an intersection ahead of oncoming traffic (until the traction control kicks in) and is happy to go as fast as you wish.  In electric-only mode there is a ton of torque and the van just seems to ride a continuous wave, i.e. it’s not lacking for power, but if you floor it the gas engine kicks in as well and it accelerates even faster (or at least louder), in normal driving there was no reason to floor the throttle any more than in any other normal vehicle.

In fact, one of the engineering challenges surely was how to make the van quiet as when it is in all-electric mode without engine noise that would normally mask other noises all other sounds are comparatively amplified, such as wind, tire, and any rattle or squeak that might develop over time.  The body itself was rock solid, with none of the creaking noises that I recall from my older vans or the last (currently sold generation) Town&Country that I rented a couple of years ago when traversing anything but smooth straight roads such as angled driveways etc.  Compared to those vans this is a fortress.

The transmission is novel as well, Chrysler calls it their EFlite Si-EVT Transmission.  Basically it’s an Electronically Variable Transmission, somewhat similar to what Toyota and Ford have used for years in their hybrids.  There are two electric motors, two lubrication pumps, an electronic park lock actuator, electronic shifter, and an electric-only reverse gear.

AllPar has an excellent synopsis of this system but in essence the two motors are AC, one at 102kW, the other at 65kW, the larger one is the main motor, and the smaller one handles all auxiliary functions including air conditioning but can also be used to help propel the van depending on mode and requirements.  To make this very short, it works and seems robust and simple, in fact to me it seems far simpler than the voodoo in a traditional automatic.  For more detail I highly recommend you check out the AllPar article, it’s more detailed than I could hope to condense it to here.

As far as the styling goes, I don’t personally have any strong feelings in regard to this or any other minivan currently on the market, while I recognize that most people find this a generally attractive shape, I also believe that if one needs a minivan, then choosing one based primarily on styling probably defeats the purpose of the purchase.  I mean it’s nice that it’s attractive as it doesn’t cost any more to make a pretty van than an ugly one, but in a minivan function should really be the primary motivator as opposed to form.

If anything this one looks more like a continuation/evolution of the third and fourth (the rounded ones) generation of vans rather than the still in production fifth generation Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country twins.  Overall it’s a very modern shape with some interesting lines and nothing to offend most people as well as avoiding any potentially polarizing elements.  I suppose I find the wraparound rear window that really isn’t one an interesting styling touch that works well.

Inside however, I do think this is one of the more attractive offerings, especially in the colors mine was equipped in.  The Deep Mocha and Black interior with gray piping on the leather seats is a very attractive combination and matches/contrasts well with the Granite Crystal (metallic charcoal) exterior paint. (In the picture above the third row headrest is flipped down, any occupant would flip it up before sitting down and leaning back, it’s not that there isn’t one included.)

In fact, I believe the seats and piping material/colors are identical to what was on the Fiat 500X that I tested a couple of months ago.  It was attractive there and it is here as well.  The surfaces are soft where you are at all likely to touch them and harder where you are unlikely to ever do so.

The seating position is typical minivan (i.e. relatively upright) and almost endlessly adjustable, with the sweep of the dash allowing easy access to every knob and button.  Many if not most of the controls are duplicated between the touch/voice command screen and physical buttons and knobs and other items can be programmed such as to turn on the heated seats and wheel or reset them every time etc.

Accessing the second row is simple, the door can be opened from outside either via the keyfob, pulling the handle, or pushing a little button on the handle.  Closing it from the inside can be done from a roof mounted switch in the front, pulling the handle from the second row, or pushing a button in the second row pillar.  Lots of options.

Getting to the third row just means walking between the middle two seats.  Comfort was excellent in both back rows, one consequence of the Hybrid means that the battery pack is below the floor where normally the second row Stow’N’Go seats would fold, so instead you get seats that don’t fold away but are more comfortable.  The seats are individually removable however, in case you need a large flat load floor.

The third row does fold away into a well all the way in the back, and when raised leave tons of luggage room in that well.  Since the third row is split, I usually left one seat down and the other up which created a handy crate-sized hole to hold whatever items I want to carry that fit into it without rolling all over the interior.  I won’t lie, I was able to put this van to great use, be it for grocery shopping (forgot my eco-bags!), Home Depot runs for long items, a big trip to IKEA and of course stocking up on toilet paper at Costco for when the CoronaVirus quarantine kicks in.

Folding the third row is a simple matter of pulling a few straps in order (they are clearly marked) and the seats just do their thing, extremely low effort to the point that I raised and lowered them a few times and can’t even recall doing so.  Basically zero effort/skill/brains required.

This van also had the panoramic sunroof which brightens up the interior significantly when the shade is opened.  At $1895 though it’s a fairly pricey option and likely adds a good chunk of weight right on top.  At least there was so much headroom that even with this roof I had no issues which is I think a first for me.  Still, I’m too cheap nowadays to pay that much for that, but that’s just me.

This van (and various other FCA products) has as one of its options something called “KeySense”.  This provides an additional keyfob marked with a KeySense logo instead of a Chrysler one and has various settings enabled in case one needs to loan the van to a teen driver or someone else in that vein.

I had originally received two keys on one keychain (and removed one to reduce the bulk) and didn’t realize what this was at first until it became clear that the van was limited to a top speed of 80mph that could not be overridden in the menus until I realized that I needed to use the other key.  So after leaving it on my desk and using the regular one the limiter was removed.

Playing with it some more revealed that with the KeySense key if a passenger got in the van, the 760Watt 20-speaker Harman-Kardon audio system would go mute until they fastened their seatbelt.  The radio was also limited in volume, while still loud, it would not go to a DEAFENING level no matter how far towards eleven you turned the knob.  Say what you want about safety nannies, I found this to be an excellent option/feature and one that I would pay extra for if I had a car that I shared with or was purchasing for a younger, less experienced or less mature driver.

Cars, even minivans, are much faster and more powerful than most cars were when we were young and learning to drive, radios are more powerful/louder/distracting, and simple safety features such as belts should be used (the radio muting idea is brilliant in my opinion as a Dad).  In the case of this van’s particular trim level it was included as a no-cost option.  I believe it normally runs around $250 which is not bad at all since a spare keyfob alone costs close to that anyway in most cars nowadays.

The handling of this van was….good for a van of this size, I suppose.  It reminded me a lot of how a current Toyota Sienna handles, i.e. definitely on the softer side, it leans a bit in corners, sort of wobbles at first and then takes a set and completes the turn.  Basically an understeerer it doesn’t really reward aggressive driving but isn’t at all dangerously bad.

It’s not an Alfa Romeo but that isn’t its mission, it shouldn’t be and isn’t advertised as such.  It rides very well, goes over bumps softly, presumably your babies would fall asleep within minutes, and gets you to where you want to go.  Driven like you’d expect a minivan to be driven it does just fine, I got the tires to squeal a bit on an off-ramp then got bored with that and played with the satellite radio instead.  I will say that it handled the S-curve at my favorite drive-thru in stellar fashion, I placed, paid for, and received my order in less than two minutes, a new course record!  The tires on my van were sized at 235/65R17 and were Yokohama Avid All-Seasons, overall they seemed like the perfect choice for the application.

Braking, being of the regenerative type and burdened with the additional weight of a battery pack, is a little different than normal.  It slows the van down just fine and quickly/strongly enough but the feel is fairly artificial and also seems to vary a bit depending on speed or perhaps battery charge level, I found myself adjusting my pedal pressure during braking more than usual as compared with a conventional system.

Sometimes when I thought I had it just right I didn’t and had to apply more brake towards the end.  The best way to describe it is somewhat like driving a truck with a heavy load or perhaps a liquid load when while braking the load shifts a bit and causes the stopping dynamics to change mid-act.  It didn’t feel outright dangerous or anything like that, just different from the norm.

The battery pack measures in at a 16kWh capacity and obviously includes a charger cord.  The van will charge one of two ways.  First, you can choose to charge it using a regular 120V grounded outlet as most garages or sides of houses will have.  This is the cord that is included and from empty to full takes up to 14 or so hours.  I found myself plugging it in every evening and unplugging it again in the morning at which point the electron tank was full.  I also got in the habit of just plugging it in every time I came back home as well for an hour or two mid-day.

In addition I sometimes took the cord with me and plugged it in at a different house that I was at for several hours a couple of times.  If I owned this van I’d probably get a spare cord to have one in my garage and another stored in the side cargo bin for “away” charging.  The cord itself is about twenty feet long but different lengths are available as well, at least on the aftermarket.

Actually I would probably go for the second option if I owned this, which is to install a 240V outlet in the garage, with which the van can achieve a full charge in right about two hours.  In all cases the system is programmable as to what times it will charge, for example you might want to vary it if your utility company uses Time-Of-Day rates as mine does.

Plugging it in couldn’t be easier, there is what looks like a second fuel flap on the front fender, it opens with a push, then the charger handle just slots into the receptacle and a blue light on the dash comes on that is clearly visible from the outside telling you it is plugged in and charging.  Taking the charger out just requires pushing a thumb button on the unit and it releases.

The whole unit seems quite rugged, not at all flimsy or easily breakable.  I’ve owned a Hybrid before but have not had any experience (beyond brief drives) with either a Plug-In Hybrid or a Fully Electric vehicle and this was as painless as it gets with the benefits of electric power but no anxiety about anything.

Come to think of it, there is also a third option which is to never plug it in at all.  Nothing is forcing anyone to do so, one could just drive this as if it was a regular van, and it would act like a typical hybrid, i.e. pretty much the same as any other vehicle but with better gas mileage overall.  You’d still get the potential financial benefit without any additional costs, which I get into below.

At this trim level this van base prices at $45,845, the only options were the aforementioned KeySense (no charge), the panoramic sunroof ($1,895), and the Advanced SafetyTec Group for $995.  Including 360 degree surround cameras with overhead view, Full Speed Forward Collision Warning Plus, Adaptive Cruise, LDW, Park Assist, ParkSense, Rain-sensitive Wipers, Auto Headlights and High Beams and Advanced Brake Assist that package is a no-brainer for a likely often-distracted family driver.  The last option, also at no charge at this trim level, is the dual screen BluRay DVD system in the second row with wireless headphones and remotes as well as extra media ports and supplemental inputs to plug in and use other devises

Standard features include everything you might expect: power everything in regard to the front seats including four way lumbar, heated front seats and wheel, 4G LTE WiFi HotSpot, Apple CarPlay/AndroidAuto, the UConnect system with Navigation, Hands-Free Tailgate and Sliding Doors, and much, much more.

So while I liked the van in general, didn’t dislike any specific thing, and loved the fact that my mileage just about doubled what I could get out of either of the minivans that I used to own myself (2005 Sienna and 2006 Odyssey), if I was in the market for a semi-luxury minivan (i.e. any of the upper trim level vans on the market with leather and all the other goodies) this would rise to the top for one simple reason: value.

While this was a pretty much loaded van and rings up at a hair over $50,000, what changes the equation significantly is the fact that the US federal government as well as my particular state government are kicking in a large chunk of money.  Assuming one’s tax burden is high enough, this van qualifies for the full $7,500 tax credit from the feds as well as a $5,000 tax credit from my home state of Colorado.  (Note that the starting base price for the Pacifica Hybrid is $39,995 for a slightly lower-spec’ed version to which the exact same rebates apply)

At that point the sticker is effectively reduced to just about $37,500 for this van as pictured and $27,500 for the lower trim level that is in no way a base model.  If I avoided the sunroof I could have everything else you see in these pictures for about $35,600 and that’s BEFORE any factory or dealer incentives are figured in.  (But yes the sales tax etc is likely figured before any of those credits so that adds a little back in).  Still, that makes it much more affordable than a top-level Sienna, Odyssey or even likely a Sedona or maybe even the older Caravan/T&C models.

The entire hybrid system and battery is warrantied for 10years or 100,000 miles (10/100) here and longer in some other states, the rest of the powertrain is 5/60, and bumper to bumper is 3/36.  A smart buyer planning to spawn a multi-kid family might get this when the first kid is two years old, and then drive it for the next decade until the last or third kid is in mid-elementary school, at which point both this as well as any other competitors van are likely pretty fully depreciated.

Over that decade if one drove 12,000/yr and was able to get 40mpg vs other vans 20mpg, that would amount to 3,000 gallons of gasoline not needed to either purchase or even go to the station for.  Regular gas around here has averaged around $2.60 or so for the last decade from what I can recall so that’s another savings of around $7,800.  Your electricity costs would need to be factored in as well and would offset that somewhat or if you don’t even plug it in, seeing 30mpg still seems easy.  Your mileage may vary, however…Still, those are compelling figures and I’m very surprised that no other van maker has offered a plug-in hybrid over here yet.  You could potentially save a lot of money to then spend elsewhere…