Chrysler aims to revive minivan with new look of Pacifica

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan is unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan is unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. AP

Thirty-three years ago, Chrysler invented the minivan. Now, it’s reinventing it — with styling reminiscent of an SUV, high-tech features and a first-ever hybrid version that Chrysler hopes will make minivans popular again.

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica was unveiled Monday morning at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

It’s the latest incarnation of the family hauler that took the suburbs by storm. Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s former chairman, drove the company’s first minivan off the assembly line in 1983. Baby Boomers loved its sliding doors and roomy interior, and the minivan quickly replaced station wagons as the vehicle of choice for shuttling around kids. By the early 1990s, Chrysler was selling more than 500,000 per year.

But minivans took a hit when car companies started making crossovers — small SUVs that had as much space as minivans but handled more like cars and had better fuel economy. General Motors and Ford stopped making them altogether. Last year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — Chrysler’s current owner — sold less than 200,000 minivans in the U.S.

Fiat Chrysler aims to reverse that slide with the Pacifica, which goes on sale this spring. It replaces both the Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, although its car chief Tim Kuniskis says the company will keep making the current model of the Grand Caravan as long as there is buyer demand. Sales of the Grand Caravan fell 28 percent last year.

There’s hardly anything the company didn’t change with the Pacifica. It has a sleeker, swept-back look than the current boxy models, which were last redesigned in 2008. It sits lower to the ground and has bigger wheels, giving it a more substantial feel. It looks more luxurious, with bright chrome strips outlining the windows and LED-accented headlights and taillights.

But Fiat Chrysler knows that looks alone aren’t enough to fend off rivals like the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna, which have been eating away at Chrysler’s market share for years.

So it’s debuting several segment firsts. The Pacifica will be the only minivan with a plug-in hybrid version. The hybrid will go up to 30 miles on electric power alone before its gas engine kicks in, thanks to a lithium-ion battery tucked under the second-row seats.

And Chrysler is changing the minivan’s hallmark feature, the sliding doors: They'll be aluminum and hands-free, opening automatically if the driver waves a foot under them. The vehicle also can automatically perform parallel and perpendicular parking, and the rear-seat entertainment system has two ten-inch touchscreens that let passengers play games, watch movies or surf the Internet.

Pricing hasn’t been announced. The current Chrysler Town and Country – the fancier of the company’s models – starts at $30,000.