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  • First Drive: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

    Plug-in hybrid technology gives minivan a green footprint

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

    The all-new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is the first production minivan with a plug-in gasoline/electric powertrain: one of a bumper crop of family-oriented hybrids entering the market. While their first inroads were in the compact segment, hybrids make a lot of sense for busy, value-conscious families.

    The plug-in feature in the new Pacifica gives owners up to 30 miles per charge on electric power. That’s enough for the average commuter to get through a day, so owners rarely need to refill gasoline. Charging with the standard 115-volt plug takes about 14 hours, but those willing to invest in the optional 240-volt plug can fully recharge in two. A Uconnect phone app enables owners to schedule recharging during off-peak hours and remotely change charging times.

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

    While the powertrain is based on its gasoline-powered sibling, there are significant differences between the two cars. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine was modified to Atkinson cycle with a higher compression ratio for greater efficiency.

    Despite its 11.3:1 compression, the engine runs on 87 octane gasoline. Chain drive eliminates expensive timing belt replacements after the warranty expires.

    The hybrid also has a new eFlite electronically variable transmission whose single clutch design enables both of the car’s electric motors to drive the wheels. The most noticeable difference to consumers is that unlike the nine-speed transmission in the gasoline car, the eFlite has no obvious shift points.

    Engineers located the 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack under the second-row seats. While the battery doesn’t reduce interior space, it does occupy the bucket space for Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go system, so the seats in the hybrid are removable but not stowable.

    Buyers can choose between two grades, the Premium priced from $41,995 and upscale Platinum priced from $44,995. Pricing does not include $1,095 destination. Both models quality for a federal $7500 tax credit.

    The test car is the upscale Platinum grade that comes with a 13-speaker Alpine premium sound system, navigation, hands-free sliding doors and 18-inch rims, as well as an active safety package including collision warning, adaptive cruise control, 360-degree around-view camera, lane departure warning, parallel and perpendicular park assist. The car has one option: a tri-pane panoramic sunroof. Final MSRP is $47,885. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring

    Go-to family car reinvented

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring-L Plus

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    It’s no surprise the automaker that invented the minivan has introduced the most compelling new product in the segment. With the Dodge Grand Caravan discontinued, the all-new Pacifica becomes Chrysler’s only minivan offering. But it is more diverse, with a gasoline-powered version on sale now followed by a gasoline electric hybrid that rolls out later this summer.

    Exterior styling is more like a crossover, appealing to buyers turned off by the one-box minivan stigma. This idea isn’t unique to Chrysler: Kia took a similar approach with the current Sedona.

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    Chrysler’s ace-in-the-hole is family-friendly features including chicklets on sliding side doors making them easier for kids to open, and built-in vacuum cleaner. Proprietary Stow ‘n Go seating folds second-row seats into the floor to create a capacious cargo area. Second-row seats can also tilt forward without removing child safety seats for better third-row access.

    The Touring grade tested appeals to value-focused buyers with a base price of $30,495 excluding the $995 destination charge. An optional power liftgate brings the final MSRP to $31,985. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring

    New minivan appeals to active families

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica While they are arguably the most practical vehicles on the road, minivans have long carried the stigma of being soccer mom cars. Chrysler’s solution with the all-new 2017 Pacifica is a crossover-like exterior and versatile interior that’s pure minivan.

    Available in five grades priced from $28,595, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is a sexy-looking car with available seating for up to eight passengers, an expanded roster of active safety features and the newest version of the automaker’s Uconnect infotainment technology. A new hybrid model that gets up to 80 miles-per-gallon with 30-mile pure electric range is a segment first.

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Power comes from a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine and nine-speed automatic transmission, delivering 22 mile-per-gallon average fuel economy. Engineers eighty-sixed the live rear axle from the Town & Country, replacing it with an independent setup that significantly improves ride comfort. The new car is about 300 pounds lighter, so while engine power remains the same, performance during acceleration and passing is improved.

    An updated Stow ‘n Go system enables owners to fold second and third-row seats into the floor to create a large cargo bay that can haul camping equipment, bicycles, kayaks, skis and snowboards. Available tri-pane panoramic sunroof makes the interior a bright and light space that will appeal to outdoor enthusiasts.

    Base price for the Touring model tested is $30,495 excluding the $995 destination charge. Optional eight passenger seating and a power liftgate bring the final MSRP to $33,275. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Kia Sedona

    Minivan breaks out of the box

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Kia Sedona

    2015 Kia Sedona

    Sometimes the best way to increase sales in a shrinking market segment is by redefining it. Kia’s strategy with its all-new Sedona minivan is just that: combining crossover-like styling with new connectivity features to give its family-friendly car twenty-first century appeal.

    Kia is one of a handful of players who continue to produce minivans, competing against Toyota, Honda and Chrysler. While its competitors continue to play it safe with tried-and-true features such as foldaway seating and giant center console bins, the Korean automaker is sacrificing a bit of practicality for some much needed sex appeal.

    Design guru Peter Schreyer penned the exterior, with a more pronounced front end and grille that bears striking resemblance to the mid-sized Sorento crossover. A taller beltline results in a narrower greenhouse, but gives the Sedona some shoulders and a more interesting profile. A roof-mounted spoiler and aggressive rear fascia frame the wrap-around tail lamps, preventing the slab sided appearance that plagues many members of the genre.

    Inside, the Sedona seats up to eight passengers. Optional lounge seats in the second row rival living room furniture for comfort, while an available dual-pane sunroof adds a welcome dose of ambient light. The newest version of Kia’s UVO infotainment system developed in conjunction with Microsoft adds new services such as geo-fencing and curfew alerts for younger drivers as well as a host of new apps under the Kia App Store umbrella. Read the rest of this entry »

  • First Drive: 2015 Toyota Camry, Yaris and Sienna

    Toyota pumps up the style with three mid-cycle refreshes

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota Camry

    2015 Toyota Camry

    The 2015 Toyota Camry doesn’t look like a mid-cycle refresh. All new sheet metal with the exception of the roof panel gives the Camry a dramatically different exterior. A new model called the XSE appeals to younger buyers with a unique grille, larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. Pricing for the four-cylinder LE starts at $22,970.

    The subcompact Yaris changes significantly as well. Styled at Toyota’s European Design Studio and produced in France, it stands poised to capture millennial buyers purchasing their first car. While value remains one of the Yaris’ key attributes with a starting price of $14,845, the new three and five-door hatchbacks are more than pretty faces, with restyled interiors and new technology including Entune infotainment, HD radio and Bluetooth interface.

    Changes to the Sienna are less dramatic, focusing on interior refinement. Designers revised the instrument panel using softer, more appealing materials and added a thin-film-transistor information display in the gauge cluster. Upholstery offerings have also been updated, and customers can opt for lounge-style second-row seating on upscale models. Pricing for the front-wheel drive base car starts at $28,600.

    Engineers enhanced torsional rigidity on all three models by increasing the number of spot welds throughout the bodies. New acoustic materials reduce NVH for quieter, more comfortable interiors.

    Although the drivetrains are carryover, retuned electric power steering systems, new wheel and tire combinations and retuned suspensions give the 2015 models sharper steering response and a firmer ride. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Nissan Quest 3.5 LE

    Seven-seat minivan hauls soup to nuts

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Nissan Quest

    2014 Nissan Quest

    It might not be as fast as the GT-R or as sexy as the 370Z, but at times, the Nissan Quest minivan can seem like a gift from God. Our annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year event in mid-October is one of those times, when I find myself doing multiple airport transfers, ferrying bagels and coffee for 130 of my closest friends, schlepping signage, chairs, display stands and PA systems from one spot to the next. Some people call me the program director but I prefer to think of myself as a well-trained Sherpa.

    And the Quest is, so to speak, a yak on steroids, with seating for up to seven passengers, a cavernous cargo bay, power liftgate, 260-horsepower V-6 engine, continuously variable automatic transmission and speed-sensitive power steering that makes the 16-1/2 foot-long vehicle capable of U-turns on two-lane roads.

    The test car is the upscale LE model priced from $42,870. Standard comfort and convenience features include leather upholstery, second-row captain’s chairs, tri-zone climate control, fold-flat second and third-row seats, DVD rear entertainment system, navigation, rearview monitor, around-view monitor, blind spot monitoring, Bluetooth interface, 13-speaker Bose audio system, conversation mirror and six-way power driver’s seat with memory. Adding the optional dual-pane sunroof and destination charges, final MSRP is $45,315. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Nissan Quest 3.5 LE

    Room for seven passengers and 200 bagels

    By Nina Russin


    2012 Nissan Quest

    For 51 weeks out of the year, I’m not much of a minivan person. My husband and I don’t have children, and our cat fits into pretty much anything. But for one week, leading up to our Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year finals, I am more about minivans than the queen of soccer moms.

    During that week I haul people, signage, traffic barricades, trophies, fruit platters, coffee tureens, and enough bagels to feed a small army. There is no vehicle better fit for this sort of duty than a minivan.

    Minivans tend to have a bad rep, which is a shame. While they aren’t hot rods, minivans have more versatile interiors than most crossovers, and get pretty good gas mileage to boot.

    I like to think of them as pop-up tents on wheels. Who doesn’t love something that folds into a backpack and unfolds into a living room? Minivans can haul an entire household, and unlike pop-up tents, they come pre-wired.

    When I test drove the Nissan Quest this week, I equipped it as I might for a camping expedition, with flats of water bottles, cartons of energy bars, duct tape, tarps, tie downs and first aid supplies. Add a pair of Oakleys and some good reggae, and the Quest becomes a vehicle befitting its name. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Toyota Sienna SE

    Eight passenger minivan for active families

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Toyota Sienna SE

    Minivans seem to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the car world, and I can’t quite understand why. While they might not have the acceleration of formula cars or the exhaust notes of a werewolf, minivans are a practical, fuel efficient option for active families.

    One-box architecture makes minivans more slippery in the airstream than two-box crossovers and sport-utility vehicles, for better fuel economy. Sliding side doors make it easier to load child seats in the car in tight parking spots. Toyota’s have bullet-proof pinch protectors so kids can’t get in accidents.

    When Toyota introduced the most recent iteration of its eight-passenger Sienna, engineers diversified the product offerings to include both luxury and sport models. The Sienna Swagger Wagon, a customized XLE featured at last year’s SEMA show, proved yet again that the terms “hot rod” and “minivan” are by no means mutually exclusive.

    The SE is part of a five grade strategy which ranges from the base model to the upscale Limited. Buyers can choose between front and all-wheel drive versions, both powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine. An Eco option optimizes the Sienna’s fuel economy when power demands are low, to further improve gas mileage.

    A six-speed automatic transmission provides large overdrive gears to extend fuel economy on the highway. The front-wheel drive Sienna averages 20 miles-per-gallon in combined city and highway driving according to the EPA: pretty good for a 4500 pound car. I averaged just over 20 miles-per-gallon on my 150-mile road trip to Tucson. Towing capacity is 3500 pounds, meeting our ALV minimum standard.

    Base price for the front-wheel drive SE is $30,550, not including an $800 delivery charge. Standard features include Toyota’s Star safety system, cruise control, first and second-row captain’s chairs, tri-zone air conditioning and a MP3 compatible audio system.

    A premium option package on the test car adds automatic climate control, rear window sunshades, an upgraded audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel audio controls ($1545). Carpeted floor mats and a security system add $324 and $299 respectively, bringing the price as tested to $33,518. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Dodge Caravan Mainstreet

    Minivan is a best value for active families

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

    In this challenging economic environment, families trying to maximize their  budgets should re-familiarize themselves with minivans. Few other vehicles with a seven-passenger capacity can match their value-pricing or fuel economy. The Dodge Caravan Mainstreet which I drove this past week is a case in point.

    Base price for the Mainstreet with fold-in-floor seating is $25,995, not including the $835 destination charge. The Mainstreet is not a base-level vehicle: convenience features include tri-zone climate control, remote keyless entry, a six-speaker MP3 compatible audio system, 12-volt power points front and rear, and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    by Jim Woodman

    Road trip. It’s funny how, depending on your perspective, those two words can conjure up entirely different images. For college students, it’s all about the fun and adventure. Who can say no to a road trip?

    Yet, as parents, we tend to shudder at the very thought of driving more than a couple hours with any child under six. So when my wife and I came up with this crazy idea to drive to Seattle, from San Diego, and back with our eight, six and two-year-old sons, we wondered whether we should check ourselves in for counseling.

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    “Are you nuts?” or “Wow, that’s really brave of you guys” are some of the typical comments we’d get when sharing our road trip idea.

    Fortunately, auto manufacturers have been listening to lamenting parents and, when you factor in the startling array of onboard entertainment in today’s vehicles, especially the family minivan, a road trip can be – dare I say it – a lot of fun.

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    Since Chrysler and Dodge recently introduced their fifth generation of minivans, with the Town and Country and Grand Caravan respectively, it made even more sense to take one of these all-purpose family vehicles and put it to the road trip test.

    Remember, Chrysler launched the whole minivan revolution and had the market to itself back in 1984.

    Today, choosing a minivan is not so easy. Just about everybody’s got stow-able rear seats, DVD players, satellite radios and options in just about every size and shape. Consumers end up choosing based on styling preferences, safety features, available accessories and, most importantly, price.

    I had heard that Dodge and Chrysler had done some very cool things with their redesigned fifth generation minivans. Word was out that the bar had been seriously raised for their Japanese and Korean counterparts.

    So we started thinking about how great it would be if we could score a new Dodge Grand Caravan SXT for our road trip? Since one of the things I do for a living is review new vehicles, I pitched the idea to the folks at Chrysler and Dodge. Fortunately, they liked my idea of testing their latest and greatest up the California and Oregon coasts with a car full of kids.

    Our Grand Caravan arrived a couple days before our journey and we quickly realized – much to our pleasure – that the Caravan is all about onboard entertainment.

    20 Gigabyte Hard Drive

    Being a technology geek at heart, I have to admit that one of the coolest features – and something I had not yet seen in a car – was the 20 gigabyte hard drive built into the Grand Caravan’s entertainment system. Yes, I said 20 gigabytes! I remember the day I heard you could get a one gigabyte hard drive in a computer. I thought that was outrageous. Now, twenty times that is built into your car!

    So what’s the purpose of a hard drive in your car, you ask? To load music and personal photos. Dodge has essentially allowed you to turn your car’s stereo into an iPod-like entertainment system. I had my choice of loading music through a USB port, or music CDs. Once loaded, just like on an iPod, I could sort by artist, song, genre, etc. Very, very cool. One thing missing, however, was the ability to create a custom playlist.

    I chose to load music through a USB thumb drive, and while it was very simple to do, I would’ve liked to see some sort of progress bar to let me know how much had been loaded. It’s always a little disconcerting to not know how much time it’s going to take to transfer files and, more importantly, not be sure if everything’s loading correctly. That said, it takes about a minute and a half to load a typical album.

    The photo feature allows you to put only 10 images on the hard drive and then choose a default image to display on your dashboard. With today’s digital cameras, real geeks can literally add photos of their vacation – while on vacation – to their car’s dashboard. Yes, admittedly, I went the real geek route myself. Just thought you’d want to know.

    My test vehicle also had an outstanding Sirius satellite radio which, in my humble opinion, is one of the best entertainment values you can sort yourself out with – especially if you take a lot of road trips. No matter how remote your location, you’ve always got a myriad choice of music, talk radio, news and sports.

    DVD Entertainment

    Staying on the entertainment theme, there’s no question that a built-in DVD entertainment system is the single most important item a parent can install for their children – if they want some peace on the road.

    Now, don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not advocating placing your children in front of a TV or video screen all day. But when you’re on the road for six or more hours a day, there’s only so many are-we-there-yet or how-much-longer comments you can take before you want to scream and kill your children or yourself – neither of which is a very good idea.

    Our Grand Caravan had two overhead LCD screens that allowed our boys in the second and third row seats to get a very clear view of their movie. And by giving each child their own wireless headphones, my wife and I were free to listen to satellite radio or any of the music we’d loaded onto the hard drive.

    If you’re not a parent, you won’t know what I’m talking about. But for those with children, you can certainly appreciate the fact you don’t hear a peep out of the kids when they’re watching a movie. Is the DVD entertainment system worth it? You betcha. Are we horrible parents for letting the movies entertain the kids? Hmmm. That’s material for another story, another day.

    It’s funny when you look at things from a child’s perspective. I asked my six-year-old if he liked road trips. “Yes … because you get to watch movies,” was his immediate response. As much as we’d like to believe our kids can appreciate any of the scenic beauty we experience along the coastline, it’s just not going to happen – especially under the age of 10.

    While our vehicle wasn’t so equipped, an optional dual DVD system can play two different DVDs on the two separate LCD screens. Or one row can watch a DVD while the other row plugs in a gaming console (there’s a power outlet built right into the C-pillar). Or, get this, thanks to Sirius Backseat TV, either or both rows can watch live television from three channels: Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Once they add ESPN to that offering, there’s no question my wife will be doing most of the driving.

    Another very cool option that Dodge offers is their “Swivel ‘n Go” second-row chairs that literally flip around 180 degrees so that the second row passengers now face the third row occupants. A removable table, that’s centered between both rows, makes card games and eating drive-thru fast food a pleasure. Essentially, your minivan is getting to be more and more like an RV.

    Convenient LED reading lamps highlight the cabin and an overhead “halo” light bathes the interior in a soft blue. These cool blue lights, believe it or not, were a big hit with the kids.

    Our vehicle also featured second row “stow and go” seats that easily fold into the floor. If you get the “Swivel and Go” seats for the second row, they won’t stow away like the third row seats.

    Cupholders, as in all American vehicles, were everywhere. I especially liked the center console where I was able to easily store a quart-size water drinking bottle in addition to a few cokes. If you need your coke, coffee or beverage fix on a road trip, the center console on the Grand Caravan will store everything you need and then some.

    Driving Impressions

    As mentioned up front, the new Grand Caravan is completely redesigned. You’ll notice the rear is a little more squared-off which allows you to carry more luggage and gear and have greater visibility out the back. The roof is six inches wider than its predecessor. We loaded all our luggage into the rear compartment, behind the third row, which allowed the kids to have plenty of room inside.

    There’s nearly two more inches added to wheelbase and overall length. Standard tires are now 16-inches and suspension is thoroughly revised with struts up front, a rear twist beam with coil springs, and a larger front stabilizer bar for improved control. That said, it’s still a minivan and rounding corners on tight, windy roads up the California and Oregon coasts made me realize it’s impossible to get great handling characteristics in a vehicle with this high center of gravity. In other words, you don’t buy a minivan to zip around tight corners.

    Dodge no longer offers the previous four-cylinder base engine – which is a smart move. Who wants to chug up a hill, or accelerate to freeway speed, in a four-cylinder minivan? The new Grand Caravan lets you choose between three V-6s: a flex-fuel 3.3-liter (175 hp), a 3.8 (197 hp), and a new, 24-valve 4.0-liter unit that delivers 251 horses and 259 pound-feet of torque. The 3.3 is coupled with a standard four-speed automatic, while the two larger engines dial you into six-speed automatic transmissions – the first offered in a minivan.

    Our vehicle was equipped with the 3.8 liter engine and was very adequately powered. Interestingly enough, there were no Low or Second Gear transmission options. The idea here is that the six-speed automatic transmission has low enough gear ratios to get you up those steep hills. I had a couple instances where we’d driven down to some coastal beaches and, during the steep, dirt-road drive back up the hill, the transmission performed flawlessly. Since most people rarely shift into anything other than “Drive” on their automatic transmissions, this is probably another wise move.

    And with two less gear options to worry about, the shift lever is now mounted on the dash, just to the right of the steering wheel, and doesn’t take up very much room. EPA Fuel economy is rated at 16/23 city/highway respectively. I found, however, I was getting just over 20 miles to the gallon with a predominance of highway driving. We drove north up the coast, which involved a lot more stop-and-go driving, and returned via Interstate 5. In California, where much of the highway speed limit is 70 mph, I found that cruising between 75 mph and 80 mph was very easy on the engine. You don’t really want to drive a minivan faster than 75 anyway, as highway crosswinds in a higher-profile vehicle will make handling a little squirrelly.

    Powerful remote keyless entry

    I was also very impressed with the remote keyless entry. The range on this thing was the best I’ve ever seen. I could literally open and close the sliding power side doors or power liftgate with a touch of the button from about 75 yards away. No kidding. At one point, I was inside my brother-in-law’s house in Seattle, which sits on top of a hill, and I opened the car doors at the bottom of the hill, much to the surprise of a friend who was walking toward the car.

    The Grand Caravan is loaded with safety features, including standard all-row side-curtain airbags, standard electronic stability and traction control, tire-pressure monitoring and optional rear park assist and backup camera.

    Our vehicle was equipped with the “Customer Preferred Package 25K” at an additional $2,395, that included all the entertainment goodies I mentioned plus the rear back up camera. The only thing I didn’t have, which would have made the Grand Caravan the ultimate road trip vehicle was the integrated navigation system.

    Here’s the real kicker. Everything, including all the power options and entertainment toys stickers out at only $30,330. Yes, the new Dodge Grand Caravan comes in at a lower sticker price than previous models. When you consider a fully-loaded Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna can quickly get you to $40k, I have no doubt a lot of folks are going to be rethinking Dodge and Chrysler.

    For the record, if you have to do a road trip, and I don’t care if you’re a college student or parent of screaming quadruplets, the Dodge Grand Caravan is an outstanding option to get you there in style, comfort and safety.

    Yes, I would do that road trip in the Grand Caravan again without hesitation. It was truly a lot of fun.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Dodge
    Model: Grand Caravan SXT
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $ 26,805
    As tested: $30,330
    Horsepower: 197 Hp @ 5200 rpm
    Torque: 230 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Fuel economy: 16/23 mpg, city/highway