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.


· · 5 years ago

Chrysler had several models of extended range EVs in 2008. One of these was a minivan. I still believe there is a market for a commuter car (Volt size), a minivan and a crossover SUV. Imagine the market of suburban car owners driving their kids to violin practice, baseball, etc. None of these trips is over 50 miles a day. But you still don't want to spend $30-$40K on a vehicle you ONLY can drive that way. On the weekends you want to go farther. Those people would go weeks and weeks without stopping at a gas station.

· · 5 years ago

I will take even a hybrid minivan....

Automakers just don't think MPG is on top of the shopping list for minivan buyers.

· · 5 years ago

Because Chrysler, the mini-van kings, have been luddites when it comes to EVs.

· · 5 years ago

Said Spec:
Because Chrysler, the mini-van kings, have been luddites when it comes to EVs.

Well, the other minivan royalties (if not kings) such as Honda and Toyota have been EV luddites too. A rather shameful and telling exposé on their commitment.

"Don't crush the Fit EV!"

· · 5 years ago

It truly is an untapped market. My wife and I really like the minivan format and don't really get why SUVs are so popular for so many city dwellers. We carry around orchestral string musical instruments (cellos, etc, ) which are generally bulky but relatively light. A low-to-the-ground vehicle makes for easy loading. The heavy weight hauling capability and high ground clearance found on pickups or big SUVs is relatively unimportant to us. We also hold no pretension to be stylish or trendy with a ride like this.

I had a mid '80s Plymouth Voyager (one of the original minivan breed) that was a very nice compromise in size, hauling ability and mileage. It had a lot of miles when it came to me (it was actually part of an inheritance) and I only wish it was something I could have owned longer.

Our next (I'll blame my wife for choosing it) was a mid '90s Ford Aerostar. Sad to say, this was the worst vehicles we ever owned and has made us squeamish about owning any Ford ever again. In addition to horrendous mechanical reliability, mileage was terrible. It came with all-wheel drive (a feature we occasionally found useful on an earlier Subaru wagon but almost never used on this land yacht) that only made it more prone to breaking down and guzzling even more gas. As it was on its final leg and dying quick, it got a pathetic 10mpg in town.

The current one is an early 2000s Mazda MVP, which has proven to be generally reliable and got us through the roughest years of hauling our son (transitioning from kid to teenager) and his friends around town. It's about the same size as the ill-fated Aerostar (larger than we really need, actually,) but with marginally better mileage because of the 2WD format . . . yet still too much of a gas guzzler for our tastes. Maybe it gets something like 20mpg in town and a little less than 30 on the highway? Gas, obviously, is also more expensive since we bought it.

It's also now fairly beat. After the kid goes off to college next year and we generally retire from day-to-day scholastic age car pooling, it will almost certainly be replaced. But with what? We still would like at least one of our cars to be able to haul light yet bulky stuff and a few people at the same time. There are no plans to cross streams at breakneck speeds with canoes tied to the roof rack while wearing our wool plaid shirts. Even if we could afford it, the Tesla X would be a non-starter for us.

A logical replacement would be something of similar size and format to the old Voyager but with a true 21st century PHEV drive train, such as found on the Volt. Such a vehicle, sadly, doesn't seem to be on the production radar screen of any OEM that we know of.

· · 5 years ago

"A logical replacement would be something of similar size and format to the old Voyager but with a true 21st century PHEV drive train, such as found on the Volt. Such a vehicle, sadly, doesn't seem to be on the production radar screen of any OEM that we know of."

I think the closest option might the be Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV coming up.

I agree, Honda should be able to put their Accord PHEV powertrain into the Odyssey. However, they do have to find some space to sacrifice for the battery.

· · 5 years ago

Several years ago Chrysler was going to do what Tesla ultimately did, for instance a Viper EV, then a jeep and a sedan.. Then they went bankrupt. To date they have nothing in NY State. So I agree with JM, enough with the studies and tests of the obvious. How bout actualy making something?

· · 5 years ago

Here is a vote for a straight PIVan! No complication of the hybrid, but with gear to support a larger battery. The mini's are often more local runabouts. Ford offers a larger PIVan not from their own production line. Toyauto could also make like the Rav4-EV, but as a van, and maybe even sell it, or at least make it available across the country. They need to realize that every EV prospect does not live in CA.
Bottom line may well be that they are all waiting for the new, larger cap batteries that are on the horizon. It will shake them all up and destroy the ICE auto. But, hey, the auto corps thanks you for buying their old ICE stock so loyaly. Illusions always have a cost to maintain. The greater the illusion, the larger the cost.

· · 5 years ago

I think the Mini-van might be a good candidate for the BMW i3 model . . . an EV with a very small range-extender. Most of the time the battery will be enough. But the $2K range-extender will be there for longer trips and for peace of mind.

· · 5 years ago

I'll have to look at that Mitsubishi PHEV Outlander, MMF, but I'm still not all that wild about the SUV format. It mostly comes down to having the single liftgate and the extra headroom that a van gives you. The closest thing I'm describing above might be something like this Chevy concept from a few years ago . . .


Even that one has more of an SUV feel to it than van proportions.

As far as a pure EV van, Nissan is doing a slow motion rollout of their eNV200 van, based on Leaf technology . . .


There is some indication that these will be available in 2014, but the US might be down on the list behind Asia and Europe.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen has any number of one-off concept electric vans they like to parade at auto shows, such as this one . . .


One of VW's design engineers, Murat Gunak, became one of the principals of the French/German Mia company a few years ago and this micro van of theirs is already selling on the European continent and is rolling out now in England . . .


It's probably a lot smaller than most here would think to be practical (even the "stretch" Mia U) and underpowered even by my standards, but I'm nonetheless intrigued by the design of this one.

· · 5 years ago

A minivan is interesting for sure, but with electrification there is more that is possible then a standard minivan. You could actually have a mini home in which you can stay for longer duration and have almost mobile home like facilities. Perhaps not a toilet or a shower, but certainly a larger TV set and a fridge. Up to now you had either a car or a mobile home but with an EV with Rex you can have everything in between.

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