Since it began in the late 1990s with the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, hybrid technology has has touched virtually every aspect of the automotive landscape. There have been hybrid pickup trucks (for better or for worse), hybrid race cars, and hyper-performance cars. Sedans, SUVs, and hatchbacks alike have all gotten the electrical treatment, ranging from the Toyota Prius C to the BMW 7 Series.
One aspect, however, has been left notably untouched: minivans. But Chrysler is hoping to change that with its Town & Country, perhaps as early as next year, according to a report from Automotive News. And not only will this be a hybrid vehicle, but a plug-in model, which allows its owners to travel a certain distance on electric power alone before needing to use any gasoline at all.
The news that the new van — which is expected to get a combined fuel efficiency rating that would rival that of Toyota’s Prius, which is considerably smaller — is coming later next year means the new Town & Country could be hitting streets about a year before Chrysler’s previous projections. To say that this will be a force to be reckoned with might be an understatement: Most vans available now use V6 engines and rarely achieve more than 25 miles per gallon combined.
The Honda Odyssey, for example, gets just 19 miles per gallon around town and 28 on the highway. A Toyota Sienna — which can notably stow up to eight occupants — is worse, at 18 and 25 miles per gallon, respectively. The Nissan Quest doesn’t fare much better, at 19 and 25, respectively, and the current Town & Country also gets 25 on the highway (and less around town), so a minivan with the fuel consumption of a Prius would be quite an appealing option.
Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, at the Paris Auto Show earlier this month, said “electrification is not a panacea to increase the fuel economy of his company’s fleet,” Automotive News reported. “I think you need to be very, very careful if you think that electrification, given its inherent limitations on range, especially in markets like the U.S., will effectively displace combustion,” he was quoted as saying. “It will never provide the travel distance that you require, especially based on what we know today about the storage capabilities of batteries.”
It’s no secret that Marchionne isn’t the biggest fan of EVs, and he has admitted that if it wasn’t for compliance issues, Fiat wouldn’t even bother making the 500e. For him, it’s a matter of balancing Fiat’s budget. “I keep on running into this fundamental economic obstacle of overcoming the cost equation of electrification. You can’t. You can’t unless there is a wholesale change and a fundamental shift in the pricing structure of cars,” he said.
Al Gardner, who is the brand head for Chrysler, implied earlier this year that a minivan plug-in hybrid could achieve fuel economy that would be competitive with the Prius. For reference, the popular hybrid hatchback gets a combined 50 miles per gallon, and the plug-in variant can manage 95 mpge when running under EV power alone before functioning as a traditional hybrid once its electric power is exhausted.
Most details are still scarce, including price, but seeing as the 2014 model runs at roughly $41,000 for the fully loaded model, it’s likely that a plug-in hybrid model could cost between $35,000 and $40,000 before options and delivery costs are added. However, for frequently commuting families who are in the car a lot but don’t necessarily cover extensive miles, the gasoline offset might be too good to pass up.
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