Recreating the Minivan: The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica

It is always a challenge to completely develop a vehicle. The challenges that faced the team for the sixth-generation Chrysler minivan were a bit more daunting.

“I remember the first time I picked up my minivan at a dealership. It was as if I had a big neon sign over my head that said ‘Mom to Be.’” That’s Jessica LaFond, recalling her experience some 15 years ago. Things are different now. One reason is that LaFond is the lead engineer for the 2017 Chrysler minivan.

And while she is a proud mom, she is also proud of what they’ve accomplished in terms of creating something that transcends the check boxes that are associated with a maternal transportation instinct.

Then there’s Irina Zavatski. She designed the exterior. “When I started working on this, I went and bought a minivan.” Zavatski had been driving a MINI Cooper. “I really don’t need a minivan because I just have two kids. But everyone was talking about the stigma. So I wanted to know what the vibe is when driving a minivan.

“If you drive it once or twice, you don’t get it. But every day, when I get cut off or don’t get respected on the road, I feel it. I wanted to make it different. Much better. So you’d get respected.”

Trying to create a minivan with visual zip that rivals almost anything else out there isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean that that’s something they didn’t set out to do.

Brandon Faurote is the head of Chrysler Design, FCA-North America. He says that he grew up as an only child, so there was no minivan in his past. “When I knew this project was coming into the studio, I went out and got a Town & Country so that I could experience it. It was important to understand what it is all about. My wife and I were really blown away by the practicality of the vehicle, by all the features and functions.”

But he discerned something. Or the absence of something. “One thing the Town & Country is lacking is an image. So we were never really comfortable driving the vehicle. We preferred our Durango to the Town & Country.”

Which brings us to Chris Benjamin, head of Interior Design at FCA, North America. “A lot of people know the minivan as a tool. It makes their lives easier. It helps them accomplish tasks,” he says.

Then he shows a picture of four chairs. Four identical, rather ordinary, chairs. He points out that they are tools, serving the function of allowing people to sit. “As a design team, we need to take the tool and turn it into an object of desire. How do you do that? How do you make something functional special?

“You start by making it unique. You make it something that is not only functional, but has that extra amount of beauty, style and sophistication.”

And then he shows a picture of four chairs, three of which are identical, functional. And one that is extraordinary. It is no less a tool. But it is much more.

Winnie Cheung, who headed up the interior design for the vehicle, points out that after her family emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S., their first vehicle was a second-generation Town & Country. She says, “Typically people buy a minivan out of necessity. We want to turn it into an emotional purchase.” It’s not that the functionality goes by the wayside. But it is that there is something special added to the mix.

Arguably, the minivan is one of the more atypical products in the entire auto industry.

Let’s not quibble about things like the 1935 Stout Scarab. Chrysler invented the modern minivan when it launched the model year 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Think about it: this is the creation of an entire new form of vehicle that had its start in the lifetime of many people who are reading this—and so far as the people at Chrysler are concerned, the 2017 minivan has to be relevant even to those who were born post-1984. Maybe more relevant than to those who came before.

And the minivan has become, over the past several years, as we’ve seen the rise of the sport utility vehicle (SUV) and the crossover (CUV), something that is perceived by some—especially women who have become mothers—as something that, for all of its functionality and capability, something of a perceptual deficit. Maybe orthopedic shoes is a metaphor too far, but there was consensus that functional had trumped fashionable when it came to the minivan in the minds of many.

So when LaFond, Zavatski, Faurote, Benjamin, Cheung and their colleagues set about to design and engineer the new Chrysler minivan, the sixth generation, they’d keep the functionality. They’d enhance the number of useful innovations (Matt McAlear, senior manager, Chrysler Brand product marketing, FCA, notes that there are 37 segment firsts in the new vehicle). But they’d make it more appealing.
Zavatski says that when they started working on the project, the entire team—the designers and engineers alike—all watched a “Saturday Night Live” skit titled “Mom Jeans.” Minivans were, in effect, mom jeans. Not cool. “We were all trying to make sure that this one is cool. You’re a mom. You’re still cool. And you’re driving something you’re proud of.”

She adds, “My goal was to get more people into it. People with two kids. People with one kid.”

And it seems as though they’ve succeeded. Zavatski says “Guys that I went to school with in Cleveland”—at the Cleveland Institute of Art—“love it.” Faurote says that his kids—“What’s really great about kids is that you get unfiltered, direct feedback”—are more keen on the 2017 minivan than climbing into the Durango.

And the long-time minivan owner and driver LaFond says, “With this, the neon sign on top of my head has changed. It now says ‘Cool Mom on Board.’”

One more thing before we look at what they’ve done. As noted, Chrysler has been making minivans for more than 30 years. In that time, a lot has changed. Plymouth no longer even exists. So they decided that not only would they make an entirely all-new minivan—a new platform, new sheet metal, new styling, new technology, new everything—but that they would give the minivan a new name: Pacifica.

Some people will recall that there was a Pacifica in Chrysler’s not-so-distant past. There was the 2004 Pacifica, a three-row vehicle that was unlike anything else on the market. Arguably, it helped give rise to the CUV. When the original was launched, then-Chrysler Group president and CEO Dieter Zetsche said, “There’s simply nothing else like it.” Back then they described the Pacifica as a “sport tourer.” It featured a low profile compared to other vehicles that were capable of handling multiple people and/or cubic feet of cargo. But it wasn’t a minivan.

The Pacifica had a short run. Production commenced in 2003 for MY 2004. Production ended at the Windsor Assembly Plant in the fall of 2007, building the last of MY 2008 vehicles.

But there was another “Pacifica” in the history of Chrysler. There was the Pacifica Advance Product Design Center in Carlsbad, California. It closed in 2008.

And so they’ve taken a great name and given it new life by putting it on a vehicle that is arguably the most important vehicle in Chrysler’s lineup.

“We decided very early on to build a brand new architecture for the Pacifica, from the bottom up,” says Jessica LaFond.

They knew that they had higher safety standards to meet, they wanted to reduce the weight, and they wanted to change the overall proportions (e.g., the outgoing minivan has 17-inch wheels; the Pacifica is available with 20s).

Then they looked at the competitive set and determined areas that would help differentiate their vehicle from the rest. “We selected ride and handling and NVH. Our mission was clear: Make the ultimate family room on wheels that’s fun to drive and quiet,” LaFond says.

She says they started at the very center of the vehicle. One of the innovations that Chrysler brought to the minivan is its “Stow ‘n Go” seating. The company has been offering it since model year 2005.

There is a tub fitted into the floor of the vehicle into which the rear seats submerge. LaFond explains that one of the problems with sliding door vehicles is to have continuity from front to rear in terms of stiffness, which can have a deleterious effect on the fun factor when, say, going through curves. And the Pacifica, of course, has sliding doors. “So we made a key decision to integrate the actual tub structure into the floorpan so we can have a continuous rail from the front to the rear, giving it the stiffness we need.” They’ve increased the stiffness by about 68 percent.

The front suspension is a MacPherson strut layout; there is a twist blade independent rear suspension.

Up front, there is a full-perimeter front cradle that’s made with thin-gauged, high-strength steel. There are hydroformed side rails that are octagonal and splayed so that they are light yet able to manage crash energy. This is one example of how they’ve reduced mass without sacrificing any safety.

Overall, the mass of the vehicle is down on the order of 250 pounds. This is achieved in a variety of ways, such as building the liftgate with a magnesium casting inner and an aluminum outer; featuring the first-ever all-aluminum sliding doors; deploying a magnesium cross-car beam in the instrument panel; and using 22 percentmore high strength steel (nearly half of which is advanced high-strength steel) than its predecessor.

Also contributing to the ride and handling and reduced NVH is an overall shape that cuts through the air. The 2017 vehicle has a coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.30; the 2016 model comes in with a Cd of 0.316. The better number was achieved after 1.2-million CPU hours running computational fluid dynamics and more than 400 hours in the wind tunnel.

The solid, smooth structure helps with NVH, as does a standard noise cancelation system.

As Faurote indicates, an objective was to give the Pacifica an image that’s appealing to people from both the rational side as well as the emotional side. “We used a new form vocabulary. The design is very emotional. There’s beautiful life work and section work.”

Zavatski describes what they did: “Everything is drawn, as with a brushstroke. It is deliberately sculpted; every detail got a lot of attention.”

There is a lot of detail, from the front of the vehicle, where there is the Mobius-strip approach for both the upper and lower grilles. Along the side there is an A-line that travels along the vehicle and goes downward into the rear fascia. There is a lower character line that sweeps up as it travels from front to rear. The back of the roof tucks down. The backlight tucks into the D-pillars. Faurote points out that because of the new platform, they were able to lower the vehicle occupants, which allowed them to have a faster windshield in the front, and to not only lower the rear roof profile, but to tip the tumble home in at the top with a wider track of the vehicle at the bottom.

Zavatski notes that they worked so that “you don’t see the corners of the vehicle.” If a minivan is thought of as being something of a box on wheels, they’ve made this one so that the corners of the box are not readily discernable.

Inside the Pacifica is more commodious than its predecessor. The maximum passenger volume is 168-ft3, compared with 158.6-ft3 for the 2016 model; the total passenger volume plus volume behind the third row is 200-ft3, compared with 190.8-ft3.

So the interior design team had more to work with, and they executed it with a new approach to the interior execution. Similar to the way that the tail lights of the Pacifica are horizontal compared to the vertical orientation of the Town & Country, the instrument panel and the center stack of the Pacific also are more horizontally biased for a sense of spaciousness (although given the fundamental roominess, that goes with the territory).

Storage was taken exceedingly serious as the design team worked to find the places for driver and passengers to accommodate whatever—all the way to the point that they worked with engineering so that there is actually a depression in the floor pan of the Pacifica such that there is a deeper storage space just ahead of the center console.

Technology is certainly a price of admission in any segment, and the implementation in the Pacifica is exemplary. For example, there is an available 8.4-inch touchscreen for the center stack, a tablet-like screen. Benjamin points out that this screen is mounted flush and has a gloss black surround. Again, this was something accomplished by working with the engineering team: the screen is separate from the “silver box” that is usually attached to it. Those electronics are located elsewhere within the instrument panel structure, connected to the screen by a cable.

Because minivans are largely about the kids in the backseat (a “Cool Mom” is still a mom), there is what’s called the “Uconnect Theater” rear seat entertainment system, which puts two 10-inch touchscreens on the back surfaces of the two front seats; this not only allows the streaming of videos, but they’ve developed the “Are We There Yet?” app so that those who might otherwise be asking that question can see the answer on an animated navigation display.

One thing that Benjamin emphasizes in relation to this rear seat system is that the design team paid careful attention to the remote control unit: “We designed it so that it feels like a piece of high-end audio equipment, not a piece of cheap, black plastic. It is really meant to be as high quality as the rest of the vehicle.”

And that is wholly telling of the care and attention that went into the entire execution of the Pacifica.

Speaking of the second row, they did research and determined that of all areas within a minivan, that’s the place where the Cheerios and other detritus tends to be in greatest abundance. (The driver’s position is second.) So they put a vacuum cleaner in the second row quarter trim. The “Stow ‘n Vac” has 14.2 feet of hose that accordions in and out of the C-pillar trim. LaFond says that there is an extension, as well, of 14.2 feet, so that the whole vehicle can even become a tool from the standpoint of facilitating the vacuuming of other cars in one’s driveway.

Then there is the powertrain. The 2017 Pacifica comes in two flavors: gasoline-only or a plug-in hybrid. Both types use the same redesigned 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine. In the gas-only configuration, the engine produces 287-hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. An objective in the engineering work that was done on the engine was to improve overall fuel economy through such measures as reducing mass (by about 13 pounds) and minimizing friction. The engine—which is mated to a 948TE TorqueFlite nine-speed automatic transmission—delivers a highway EPA fuel economy rating of 28 mpg, which is 12 percent better than the outgoing model. The combined cycle rating is 22 mpg (city is 18 mpg), which is 10 percent better.

At the time of this writing, the hybrid version of the Pacifica is not commercially available. However, here’s what we do know about what will become the industry’s first electrified minivan.

The same Pentastar V6 is used, but it features an efficient Atkinson cycle combustion system for improved pumping efficiency. The engine produces 248 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque. It is supplemented by an in-house-developed electrically variable transmission that features two motors, both of which can drive the wheels. The company estimates that the vehicle will have an electric range of 30 miles, based on the 16-kWh lithium-ion battery that’s housed in the tub where the second-row Stow ‘n Go seats in a gasoline-only vehicle descend into. (There is still a third row Stow ‘n Go capability in the hybrid.)

An interesting aspect of the two-motor setup is that whereas in other hybrid systems one motor operates as a generator (e.g., for collecting energy during braking) and the other a wheel-driving motor, this features a one-way clutch so that the “generator” motor can also be used to drive the wheels, depending on driving conditions.

Let’s be clear. Any vehicle development project is a challenge. When the vehicle in question is one that your company pioneered and is responsible for a considerable portion of overall sales, it is all the more challenging. And when the vehicle also carries an image (or, as Faurote says, the lack of an image) that is unappealing to a major segment of the buying public, then that challenge is exponentially increased.

The 2017 Pacifica team has clearly met and overcome those challenges. Whether moms (and dads) are going to start foregoing SUVs and CUVs for a minivan remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the Pacifica team has created a compelling, attractive, capable and appealing reason for them to do so.