Why Not a Plug-In Hybrid Minivan?

By · July 19, 2013

Chrysler Town and Country Plug-In Hybrid

It looks ready for the market, doesn't it? But the Chrysler Town and Country plug-in hybrid is made in an edition of only 25. (Chrysler photo)

Why isn’t anyone selling an electric or plug-in hybrid minivan? I know, you’re going to point me towards the Ford C-MAX Energi, but that isn’t really what I’d call a minivan—it’s more of a car/wagon negotiation. We all know what a minivan is—it’s big and boxy and has sliding doors with tons of cupholders—for that Big Gulp we all need every day.

The floor is carpeted with ossified Cheerios and kid seats are strapped in place. On the back window is one of those annoying “this is how many kids we have” stickers. Nobody is selling a plug-in hybrid version of that.

There is One!

But somebody makes just such a car: Chrysler, of all auto companies. The electric minivan is a version of its popular Town and Country, with an interesting configuration. It has a 3.6-liter gasoline engine (ethanol compatible) and a 12.1 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. A 6.6-kilowatt charger means it can recharge in two to four hours at 220. Fuel economy is estimated at between 30 and 40 m.p.g. Not bad.

Electric range is 22 miles, and full range with the gas engine 700 miles. What, you’ve never heard of this automotive paragon? That’s because Chrysler has fielded only about 25 of them. Duke Energy has eight, the city of Auburn Hills, Mich. has four, and others are at DTE Energy, Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. It’s a pilot program, with Chrysler “collecting data” through June of 2014. You and I are footing the bill, through a $10 million grant from the D.O.E.

Enough With the Pilots

I’m tired of utility-based pilot programs, and “collecting data.” It's 2013, let’s get on with it. There’s a market for a plug-in hybrid minivan, or at least a hybrid one like the Toyota Estima currently on the market in Japan. The latter, introduced in 2006, offers four-wheel drive and gets approximately 40 m.p.g. on the U.S. driving cycle (47 on the Japanese).

Ford C-MAX Energi

The Ford C-MAX Energi: It's not really a minivan, is it? (Jim Motavalli photo)

I have brought up the concept of a plug-in hybrid minivan several times to automakers, and they always dismiss it. Their claim: Minivans are big and boxy, and the fuel economy wouldn’t improve that much with a hybrid drivetrain. Plus, they’d be expensive (the Estima is $50,000). Besides, that segment of the market is really not that big, they say.

They're Still Buying Minivans

I agree that those are challenges, but minivans actually saw a 22.5 percent sales jump between August of 2011 and August of 2012. And minivans are sorely in need of a fuel economy upgrade. The 2013 Town and Country with a 3.6-liter V-6 gets 20 m.p.g. combined. The Honda Odyssey is barely better at 22 combined.

Tesla Model X

Designer Franz von Holzhausen shows off the Tesla Model X. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Even if you squint, the 2014 Tesla Model X won't really become a minivan, either, but it's likely to be highly utilitarian (dig the "Falcon" doors) and sexy, to boot. So it might grab a corner of the market that an enterprising automaker could now be grabbing with a plug-in hybrid child carrier.

After all the negativity from Fiat-Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne, the company is showing new life in the plug-in car space. Mike Duhaime, its new EV chief, told the Detroit Free Press, “We started with the 500e. As we look forward, there has to be additional vehicles coming at some point. We will announce those when the time is right.”

OK, fair enough, announce a plug-in hybrid minivan. Or someone else is going to get there first.

New to EVs? Start here

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