On the Road Review: Chrysler Pacifica and more car news

Chrysler invented the modern minivan in 1983 and reaped huge sales rewards with a transportation-altering vehicle. New England’s auto-scribes got to see the next generation minivan recently at a Chrysler event featuring the all-new Pacifica.

With FCA (Chrysler) struggling to build meaningful small cars, the Pacifica is proof positive the automaker knows how to do family vans. Investing $2 billion in this new line, Chrysler has rendered a stylish box packed with new features.

The refined interior — easily better than the competition — retains the Stow-N-Go seating arrangement, but with added pizzazz; the front row seats automatically power forward when you select to stow the second row seats. There is also room in the floor for the added entertainment gear that is available with the new U-Connect Theatre System — two separate rear screens that can be operated individually for included game apps, Blu-Ray movies, even Xbox. The third row, more spacious seating than before, still folds into a deep well when not needed so the new Pacifica can continue to haul 4-by-8 sheets of building materials safely inside.

Other technologies include new parallel and perpendicular parking assist systems, a 20-speaker Harmon-Kardon audio system, laser-guided cruise with Stop-N-Go mode, heated rear seats, hands-free power doors and rear liftgate access, as well as a new vacuum system capable of handling the whole car’s interior.

The new Pacifica is slightly wider than the departing Town N Country (no Dodge Grand Caravan at this point) while the sliding door tracks are well integrated into the clever exterior. A short drive produced more ride compliance in the revised chassis, while the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is smoother, quieter and the most powerful engine in the segment. A new nine-speed automatic bumps EPA mileage estimates up to 28 mpg highway.

Still the best way to move lots of people over lots of miles, the minivan segment needed a kick in the pants to move beyond established paradigms. The Pacifica is a giant shove in the right direction. Recognizing the comfort role of kids, the Pacifica’s nav system even has “are we there yet” buttons in the rear so they can link to what the driver sees.

Pricing will start around $30,000 with new Pacificas available now.

Auto sales changes

At the halfway point in the selling season, retail sales numbers tell some interesting stories. Trucks, crossovers and minivans are dominating the new car market with almost 60 percent of total sales. As fuel prices remain low, car transaction prices increase — now up to almost $33,000 for the average new purchase price, heavily affected by the proliferation of luxury pickups and high-priced premium cars. Hybrid and electric vehicle sales are sliding — to less than 3 percent of the new car market. Survey results illustrate buyer detachment to this segment; sixty-seven percent of drivers don’t even know anyone with an electric or hybrid car.

The giant sales gains of recent years might be about to end, however, as economic indicators point to a slowdown. Sub-prime auto loan delinquency rates have ballooned, plus over 1.6 million cars were repossessed last year. Borrowers have over $1 trillion in auto-loans on the books.

The good news is that Subaru continues to set sales records every quarter, Jeep is keeping FCA relevant in America with escalating sales, and American’s are buying crossovers at such an elevated rate, even dated designs are selling so well that automakers are loathe to make rapid changes to these profitable platforms. Volvo looks like it is playing the role of Phoenix, with its latest offerings finally making an impact here, while the Ford F-series, Chevy Silverado and Ram pickups dominate the sales charts with continued growth — good signs that some optimism still reigns in the marketplace.

Leasing is expanding, automakers are cutting discounted fleet sales, and the income statements are improved almost across the board. Consumers will find deals, as the sales goals are aggressive and every brand is looking to gain market share or volume.

Tesla’s future

No auto brand garners more ink or media attention than electric-car maker Tesla. Its products are stunning performers on the road, yet Elon Musk’s cars have yet to meet sales expectations or income projections. The company is burning through cash at alarming rates, while sales are slowing here and worldwide. Musk claims that he will sell 500,000 cars a year by 2020, yet the brand has yet to build 50,000 cars a year at the modern California plant. Through the end of May 2016, Tesla had sold fewer than 11,000 of the vaunted Model S sedans and Model X crossovers here in the States — less than Chevy’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf combined.

Tesla does not operate in a vacuum. The established auto brands will soon have comparable electric cars. Audi, BMW and Chevy’s new Bolt will soon be available and early-adopter drivers who have been Tesla’s core market will be tempted by available products, not cars that are promised and still unproduced. Chinese-backed Faraday Future will soon be producing similar electric cars — with more money than Musk has been able to generate despite government backing and high stock valuation for a company that has yet to make a single red cent of profit.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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