2017’s Top Ten Tech Cars: Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

Energy efficiency today, robotic driving tomorrow

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Surprisingly, there’s never been a hybrid minivan of any kind on the U.S. market. So, when Chrysler rolled out not only a hybrid minivan but a frugal plug-in model, it was a big deal.

This year’s Pacifica sheds 113 kilograms (250 pounds) thanks to a lightened platform, which includes aluminum sliding doors and an aluminum-and-magnesium lift gate, both featuring hands-free operation. The minivan’s 3.6-liter V-6 runs on the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle—as in hybrids like the Toyota Prius—and links to an ingenious twin electric-motor arrangement that can send as much as 194 kilowatts (260 horsepower) to the front wheels. A 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack with 96 cells is designed and built in Michigan and, together with related electronics, weighs in at 295 kg (650 lb) and stretches 75 centimeters (2.5 feet). It fits right in the receptacle where the Stow ’n Go seats disappear into the floor in the nonhybrid version. Many current hybrids use one electric motor-generator exclusively to recapture energy, another to provide propulsion, but the Chrysler innovates again: Its dual electric motors integrate an electronic clutch and planetary gearset. That allows both motors to act as traction motors, boosting the efficiency and scalability of the system.

How efficient? During all-electric operation it reaches the equivalent of 2.8 liters per 100 kilometers, or 84 mpge. And where, say, a Toyota Prius plug-in can manage just 18 kilometers (11 miles) on batteries alone, the Pacifica’s battery will take you about three times that distance before the gasoline engine springs to life—at which point this minivan is still good for 7.4 L/100 km (32 mpg), versus just 10.7 L/100 km (22 mpg) for the nonhybrid model. To ease the load on the battery and heat the big seven-passenger cabin, an engine-powered 7-kW electric heater steps in when necessary.

The automatic transmission can constantly vary gear ratios by varying the speeds of three devices—the engine, motor-generator, and main electric traction motor—through the planetary gearset. That provides all the flexibility and efficiency of a belt-driven continuously variable transmission (CVT), but without the power lag or rubber-band feel you get from a CVT when you punch the accelerator. The engine and transmission can be a bit whinier than those of some hybrids, but the Pacifica drives well and is stuffed with the latest digital goodies.

I dazzled a full load of children and adults by demonstrating the Pacifica’s fully automated parking tech, in both parallel and perpendicular modes. The van’s theater system proved a boon with four children wedged into the back. They all enjoyed the built-in games on dual 10-inch touch screens. In addition, the Pacifica benefits from the ongoing trickle-down of technology from the luxury segment—automated collision warnings and braking, automated high beams, and adaptive cruise control.

Fire up the Uconnect phone app to remotely charge the Chrysler in just 2 hours, when it’s connected to a 240-volt Level 2 charger, or program it to juice at off-peak hours. You can also monitor its charge status or preheat and cool the cabin using electricity rather than gasoline.

At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, this minivan sparked the kind of buzz that’s typically reserved for a Tesla. The Google car spin-off Waymo announced a fleet of 100 fully autonomous Pacificas—co-engineered by Fiat Chrysler and Waymo—that have already gone into testing. They’re scheduled to roll out in a ride-sharing service as early as 2018.

An exciting minivan? I never saw that coming.

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