If asked what’s the best type of vehicle for a growing family in Los Altos, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a new minivan.
More than four decades ago, Chrysler introduced a motor vehicle – one could hardly call it a car – that offered a maximum of interior space on a standard wheelbase, with sliding side doors, a wide-opening hatch in the back and interior seats that could be reconfigured for every transportation requirement a family with growing children might have.
We are pleased to note that Chrysler remains ahead of the wave in minivans with the new-for-2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. Based on practicality, fuel and emissions efficiency, and leading-edge driving safety, we would rank this plug-in hybrid at the front of the current minivan pack.
The Pacifica minivan can easily be reconfigured for all of the possible uses of parents with children. With all seven seats up, it makes an excellent team bus with easy access to the third row and room for equipment in back.
Fold the rear row into the floor and two baby seats can be mounted in the second row, with easy access from the hands-free sliding side van doors, and room for strollers and groceries in the back.
Fold the middle row of seats into the floor on the standard Pacifica, or fold and remove them without tools on the plug-in hybrid, and building supplies or several bikes can easily be carried in the flat-floor interior.
No crossover or SUV can match this minivan for accessibility or space.
It’s worth mentioning that the Platinum trim vehicle we drove included video screens with built-in game features on the backs of the two front seats. One of our passengers was able to load and engage the game system and play a game of solitaire in the distance between Mineta San Jose International Airport and Los Altos.
There’s even an “Are we there yet?” feature – like those on many airlines – that provides rear-seat passengers with a map showing where the car is and, if the navigation system is in use, how long it will take to arrive at the destination.
Unmatched fuel efficiency in class
With the introduction of the first plug-in hybrid van from any manufacturer, Chrysler has added a significant dimension to fuel efficiency. Rechargeable in two hours on a 240V garage charger, or in 14 hours from a standard 110V outlet, the van can go 30 miles without relying on the gasoline engine – more than enough for a typical day of school drops and errands and the equivalent of 84 mpg.
When pressed into service for a field trip out of town, the combination of gasoline and hybrid regeneration power can go 500 miles between gas stations, averaging 32 mpg. That’s by far the best rating in the class.
Chrysler is also breaking new ground in minivan safety and convenience with the Pacifica, the first to have active lane-keeping assist and cruise control and collision mitigation systems. We found this particularly useful on a recent trip to Monterey, with the van steering itself as necessary to stay in our lane at highway speeds, requiring only a light touch on the wheel. More than once the van’s steering corrected its direction before we noticed the slight curving in the road, and in the typical stop-and-go on Highway 101 between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, it handled all of the speed adjustments necessary to move with traffic.
Another addition that we’ve not seen on any other vehicle makes the Pacifica safer for families with teen drivers. The Pacifica comes with two key fobs, a standard one for regular parental use and a KeySense fob for use by teen drivers. If the KeySense fob is the only one in the vehicle, the various computers limit the van to posted speed limits, control the audio system volume level, mute the audio when front seat belts are unfastened and prevent disengagement of collision mitigation and rear park assist systems.
We also were impressed with the high quality of handling being designed into the Chrysler minivans, a significant safety factor in its own right. In practice, this capability is most noticeable in reducing the motion-sickness factor that once was a typical attribute of minivans when used at highway speeds on curvy roads. But more important, in the event of an unexpected need for accident avoidance maneuvers, the vehicle responds in a much safer and more predictable manner than vehicles from other manufacturers.
Another feature we wish would come standard on any vehicle is the 360-degree camera, automatic when the car is in reverse and selectable when the car is in drive. Using cameras on the front of the car and under the rearview mirrors, the system makes parking inside the lines in a garage or tight parking lot a breeze, despite the vehicle’s wide girth.
In our week with the Pacifica, we found only a few small things to complain about. The outside mirrors can be folded in when parking in the garage – unfolded they actually touched the seals on our garage door opening when parking – but they have to be folded manually. Many other vehicles today have a fold-in switch next to the mirror control.
We also wish the gear selector were a bit more prominent; instead, it’s just another knob on the dashboard and easily could be mistaken for the volume or fan control by a driver in a hurry. But neither inconvenience is close to a deal-breaker.
For all its capabilities, the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid in the highest – Platinum – trim level, which includes all available upgrades, is stickered at $47,885 including destination charges. You can save approximately $4,000 by downgrading to the standard nonhybrid gasoline-engine, but we think the improved fuel efficiency of the hybrid, as well as the potential not to require any gasoline at all between out-of-town trips, would make the choice for us.
Incidentally, during the week after we drove the Pacifica, we drove the 2017 Jeep Cherokee Overland 4x4, another Chrysler product, that deserves a shout-out all its own. All of the same safety systems, including the active lane-keeping and cruise-control systems and the 360-degree camera also were available on the Cherokee, and the same handling improvements we noticed on the Pacifica were evident on the Cherokee. At $41,975 and 21 mpg, this vehicle would be a good choice for all-around driving and occasional off-road and intemperate weather use in Northern California.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.