On Autos: Chrysler’s hybrid minivan minimizes sacrifices

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is a spacious, family-friendly vehicle that can travel more than 30 miles on an electric charge. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Most car-buying decisions require carefully weighing various tradeoffs. A common one: interior space versus gas mileage. Understandably, the roomiest vehicles on the market are not typically fuel economy standouts — it takes a big, thirsty engine to power a large, heavy automobile.

Gas-electric hybrids have added a fresh wrinkle to this equation. Electric motors take some of the strain from the engine, reducing fuel consumption. But then the price rises to pay for this extra technology.

The new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid promises to avoid all these downsides. The only hybrid minivan on the market, it has the same super-spacious interior as the gas-powered Pacifica, but it can travel up to 33 miles on purely electric power and is rated to achieve an exceptional 32 mpg even after that all-electric range has been used up.

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid has a charging port on its front fender. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Sticker shock risks alienating some prospective Pacifica Hybrid customers — the base price is a whopping $41,090. The tested model even approached $50,000. But those numbers can be misleading, because as a plug-in hybrid with a large battery capacity, the Chrysler can offer buyers a $7,500 tax credit.

Factoring in the tax break, the Pacifica Hybrid’s $33,590 base price is actually $100 less than a comparably equipped Pacifica Touring Plus, which has an EPA rating of just 22 mpg in mixed driving.

To take the most advantage of the Pacifica Hybrid’s fuel-saving capabilities, owners do need to plug the van into an electric power source. Charging an empty battery takes about 14 hours using a regular household outlet or two hours on a 240-volt car charger. During a weeklong test, The Current confirmed that the Pacifica Hybrid can reach its EPA-estimated 33 miles per charge, especially in low-speed city driving. And that range covers a lot of ground in the District, so many owners will rarely if ever need to use any gasoline at all.

At Pepco’s current D.C. residential rates, it costs about $1.30 for each 33-mile charge — the equivalent of getting nearly 70 mpg with today’s average D.C. gas price of $2.62 per gallon.

But Pacifica Hybrid owners can reduce their fuel usage even without access to an outlet. Like the iconic Toyota Prius, it can give itself small amounts of charge during normal driving, which allows the electric motor to fully or partially power the vehicle in certain driving conditions — such as idling at a stoplight, rolling toward a stop sign or even accelerating gently.

The Current wasn’t able to match the EPA-estimated 32 mpg in these conditions. Nevertheless, the van’s trip computer reported mileage in the upper 20s even before factoring in the van’s electric charges. In similar urban stop-and-go conditions, a gas-powered minivan would likely return less than 20 mpg.

There are a few downsides to the Pacifica Hybrid. The gas-powered Pacifica has Chrysler’s handy “Stow ‘n Go” system that allows the third- and middle-row seats to fold easily into the floor to maximize cargo volume. The hybrid retains that trick for the third row, like other modern vans. But the second-row seats need to be wrestled out and stored outside the vehicle, because Chrysler filled the space below the floor with the hybrid’s electric batteries. There’s also seating for only seven passengers instead of eight.

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid has few visual cues to distinguish it from gas-only Pacificas. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Another consideration is that although the hybrid has a slight advantage for its sticker price, dealers may be more willing to offer discounts on the more common gas model. If cost is a top consideration, solicit quotes from dealers for the hybrid and gas Pacificas.

Some buyers may also be turned off by other aspects of the Pacifica. A Honda Odyssey has cushier seats and clever new second-row seat adjustments, and the Toyota Sienna offers crossover-challenging all-wheel-drive.

Another consideration is that all these vans are quite large. For seven-passenger seating and hybrid fuel efficiency in a more compact package, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid crossover could prove appealing. However, it has far less space than the Chrysler at a higher price, and it can’t be plugged in for any all-electric range.

Overall, Chrysler has taken its excellent Pacifica minivan and turned it into the class’s only hybrid — and executed the Pacifica Hybrid well enough to achieve outstanding fuel savings. While there are imperfections, they don’t cancel out this big picture.