Preview: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Minivan

'Peak minivan' may be well behind us, but to paraphrase Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (FCA) presence in the segment its Chrysler Corporation predecessor created in the early 1980s is kind of a big deal. It was far from insignificant, then, that FCA kicked off the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) media preview with the reveal of its sixth-generation minivan, which comes with a new name and adds a gas-electric powertrain that creates the first hybrid minivan in the segment's history.

The irony of Chrysler's reviving of the Pacifica nameplate is not lost on us.

The irony of Chrysler's reviving of the Pacifica nameplate is not lost on us: that badge was last used on Chrysler's first crack at the mid-size, three-row crossover segment, which has been largely responsible for eroding the minivan's popularity among family drivers. But perhaps that's a reflection of the esthetic Chrysler design boss Ralph Gilles was going for: this new Pacifica tries hard to make us think it is in fact a crossover, even though FCA is not shy in admitting this is indeed a minivan.

Start at the front, where the fascia and headlights create a clear connection to the Chrysler 200 family sedan; follow the bodywork rearward to a tail that recalls the first-generation Mazda5 when viewed in profile, while from the rear the closest resemblance is a more recent minivan competitor, the Kia Sedona. It's an appealing evolution of minivan design that nonetheless harkens back to the third generation of Chrysler vans, when the company still produced a trifecta of minis in the Grand Caravan, Town & Country, and Plymouth Voyager.

Technically, the plug-in hybrid option is the biggest bit of news. It pairs a gasoline engine with an "electrically variable transmission" that incorporates a pair of electric motors fed by a lithium-ion battery pack that lives under the floor (where the second-row stow 'n go seats normally fold away) and promises up to 48 km of electric-only driving, and an electric energy consumption rating of 2.9 Le/100 km.

Gasoline models stick with more proven technology, relying on Chrysler's second-generation 3.6L Pentastar V6, which cranks 287 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque through a nine-speed automatic transmission shared with the Chrysler 200 and Jeep Cherokee; those figures make the Pacifica the most power minivan on the market, and give it more gears than its competitors.

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The updated Pentastar sports a new variable valve timing system and higher compression ratio that Chrysler says boosts the torque available between 1,000 and 3,000 rpm by about 15 percent, while a redesigned intake contributes to a claimed six percent improvement in fuel economy. Interestingly, Chrysler hasn't jumped on the direct fuel injection bandwagon with this revised motor, opting instead to retain the old engine's port fuel injection.

Other technical notables include an all-new platform FCA says makes the Pacifica 113 kg (250 pounds) lighter than the outgoing Town & Country, and that architecture incorporates the first independent rear suspension used on a Chrysler-built minivan. Active noise cancellation contributes to a "vault-like" interior designed to mitigate road and wind noise, and general vibration and harshness.

Available tech includes a surround-view camera system, parallel and perpendicular park assists, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with active braking, and lane departure warning with lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring with cross-path detection, rear park assist with auto-stop function. A regular back-up camera is standard across the board.

Convenience-wise, Chrysler says Pacifica brings segment-first handsfree power side doors and tailgate.

Inside, there's a new Uconnect infotainment system, operated through a standard 8.4 inch central touchscreen, and a seven-inch driver information display.

As alluded to earlier, hideaway stow-and-go second-row seats are back in gasoline models, while hybrid versions get lightweight removable second-row chairs. Those stowable middle seats are improved with an assist feature that motors the front seat forward to allow access to the under-floor tub. Chrysler claims the largest interior volume in the segment, and an interior that can accommodate an 4x8-foot sheet of plywood. When all seats up in place, there are five child seat anchors available, which Chrysler claims as another class-exclusive.

Coach class passengers can enjoy an optional triple-pane panoramic sunroof with two panels that open; third-row riders get stuck under a fixed panel.

Two premium sound systems are on offer: a 13-speaker Alpine is the lesser of the two, while a 20-speaker Harmon Kardon setup is aimed at parents who insist on listening to their kids' tunes in the highest possible fidelity.

Following Honda's lead, the Pacifica will also offer a built-in vacuum cleaner marketed (of course) as stow-and-vac.

Chrysler will builds the 2017 Pacifica at the Windsor plant that assembles the company's current vans, but there was no mention of a Dodge version. That's of interest because while the current Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan sell in roughly equal numbers in the U.S., the Grand Caravan is by far the more popular model in Canada.

The 2017 Pacifica is to be offered in four trims, and goes on sale in Canada in spring 2016; the Pacifica Hybrid will follow in the second half of the year, and will be offered in two trims.

'Peak minivan' may be well behind us, but to paraphrase Ron Burgundy in <em>Anchorman</em>, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (FCA) presence in... 1/12/2016 7:05:50 PM