The debut of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica marks a lot more than a name change and a new, sixth-generation version of Chrysler’s minivans.
For one, it’s the first minivan on the U.S. market to get a plug-in hybrid version, the Pacifica Hybrid, which will offer 30 miles of pure electric driving on a charge. Secondly, it signals a new direction for these vans—not just in their far more flamboyant styling, but in a package that for the first time won’t be essentially mimicked with a Dodge version.
The Grand Caravan and its sliding side doors on the way out, to be replaced this next year by a model that’s expected to offer comparable three-row seating and space but characteristically brawnier Dodge styling and hinged rear doors.
Last week at the Detroit Auto Show we caught up with Tim Kuniskis, the North American head of passenger-car brands for Dodge, SRT, Chrysler, and Fiat, for some more details. And while he wouldn’t reveal any more information about the Grand Caravan’s replacement, found out a lot more about the how and why the Pacifica took the form it did.
Chrysler minivans winnowed down to one—Pacifica
“It’s going to be ultimately the only minivan in the portfolio, going head-to-head against a long list of mainstream competitors,” said Kuniskis. “So making sure we had all the right package and content, and being able to price this vehicle... you’ll see that we’ll be lined up well against our competitors in the segment.”
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
The Pacifica is built on what’s called the RU platform. The RU vehicles don’t share any likeness, components, or geometric “hard points” with the RT predecessors, which arrived in 2008; and it’s not related to the “short wide” platform that underpins the Jeep Cherokee, among others.
It was entirely developed by Chrysler’s U.S. engineering team, with scalability and the easy addition of all-wheel drive in mind, and it can apply to cars, vans, or SUVs, down to compact (D) size.
Kiniskis says that the team wanted to overcome the “mental image of a minivan,” and decided on the name change from Town & Country to Pacifica “because as we moved through the development of the vehicle we realized that this is a complete, revolutionary change.”
Not the first time Pacifica has signaled a sea change
Reviving the nameplate might not be a positive to everyone, as the previous Pacifica did suffer from some quality issues—such as transmission woes—but it was noteworthy in design, as one of the first SUVs to undergo a rather revolutionary change, pitting it against the Lexus RX in some respects. Even today, Kuniskis says, they found that the name has “good consideration and awareness.”
Chrysler 700C Concept - 2012 Detroit Auto Show
The spark for emphasizing design this time around came in part from the strong (and mostly positive) reception of the Chrysler 700C Concept from four years ago, which was an early test of the waters for more radical change. Then, Chrysler then wasn't sure what kind of reception the van might get from the press, and thus revealed it in "stealth mode," quietly unveiling it on the auto-show stand, without a conference or immediate press release.
“We kind of tested the boundaries of how far can you push the design of a minivan [with the 700C],” Kuniskis said. “From that stage, we took several design concepts out to research, and invited several CUV and minivan intenders to come out and see it. At the end of the day, he says, the takeaway message was that they wanted a stylish vehicle but didn’t want to compromise on the space and comfort of a minivan.
“We pushed the design as far as we could,” he added.
A new opportunity with Millennials
Putting more emphasis on design and technology also goes over well with Millennials, who are having kids and looking for family vehicles—and in many cases, entering the vehicle market for the first time, without the preconceptions that Gen X parents had about minivans.
2017 Chrysler Pacifica
The automaker clearly has some big sales hopes for the Pacifca. Chrysler is targeting as many sales as for the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country combined—or about 190,000 sales this past year, when they were down somewhat as the result of four months of assembly plant retooling.
On the Chrysler side, the next big step is building the brand, Kuniskis concedes. “You know when you look for well-defined brands in the marketplace, it’s either a product attribute that helps people define the brand, or it’s an emotional, aspirational connection that helps people want to connect with that brand,” he said.
“On Dodge we have product plus bad-boy attitude; we’ve got to do a better job identifying a product attribute and an emotional connection for Chrysler, and that’s our next job.”