When then-Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca introduced America to the minivan in 1983, he ushered in the era of the boxy family hauler that singlehandedly killed appetites for station wagons. By the early 90s, the minivan had become the most profitable vehicle segment in the American auto market. Roads were filled with Plymouth Voyagers, Dodge Caravans and Ford Windstars.
But what was once as ubiquitous in driveways as today’s small SUVs had along the way turned into a running joke about sluggish, emasculating boxes on wheels. The minivan has been abandoned by all but a small number of fiercely loyal families that have kept Toyota Siennas, Honda Odysseys and Chrysler Town & Countrys in production.
Now, Fiat Chrysler wants to change the image of the minivan, and its first step in the process debuted at the Detroit Auto Show on Monday. Out is the Chrysler Town & Country; in is the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, Fiat Chrysler’s attempt to lure consumers away from the SUV vehicle segment. In addition to a complete overhaul, the Pacifica will be Chryslers’ first plug-in hybrid, offered as an optional powertrain giving up 30 miles of electric-only travel for 80 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent).
Fiat Chrysler sold more than 93,000 Town & Country minivans last year, almost outselling the Dodge Charger, making the vehicle well worth producing and advancing. The automaker hasn’t said how much the Pacifica would cost, but considering the innovations and technology add-ons, it’s safe to say it will start above the $30,000 for the 2016 Town & Country.
— Henry Payne (@HenryEPayne) January 11, 2016
“We need to retrain customers’ brains. We can’t afford to have them see the ’80s minivan with the wood paneling on the side,” Tim Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s head of North America passenger car brands, said in a statement announcing the reinvented Town & Country. “We need to retrain what they see in their brain when they hear ‘2017 Chrysler minivan.’”
This is perhaps why Fiat Chrysler adopted the Pacifica name -- it was last used for a midsize SUV Chrysler stopped producing in 2008.
Fiat Chrysler says the Pacifica has a lighter and stiffer body frame than other minivans, improved aerodynamics and enough seating for eight plus modest crossover-like hauling space. And it’s loaded with tech, including an 8.4-inch touchscreen, 360-degree camera views and two 10-inch screens for the kids in the back. A forward collision avoidance system, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings come standard.
While smashing the minivan stigma seems to be the goal here, the Pacifica comes with many of the same features that won’t turn off the families that have kept the vehicle type alive even as most have moved on to SUVs, including plenty of storage and cup holders. Fiat Chrysler has even taken its cue from Honda and installed an in-car vacuum cleaner to suck up the cookie crumbs and other detritus of a family road trip, even if the trip is just to the local Home Depot.
The minivan might not be as popular as it once was, but sales have been strong enough to keep it in business. The new Pacifica might have just raised the bar.