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If you’re looking for the minivan with the best ride and handling, the best crash-test results and the most-comfortable seats, look no further than the Honda Odyssey. This van is the class standout in those categories, while also offering a well-rounded experience with no glaring faults.
Its closest rival for the best-in-class title is the Chrysler Pacifica, which blends elegant looks with standout functionality — you can fold its second- and third-row seats into the floor, rather than needing to remove any of them to maximize cargo space.
But maybe instead of seeking a jack-of-all-trades minivan, you’re interested in one with its own unique strong point. Two recently tested models have some downsides but also offer desirable class-exclusive features.
They are the hybrid version of the Pacifica – the only minivan with a gas-electric powertrain – and the 2019 Toyota Sienna, which is the only minivan that’s available with SUV-rivaling all-wheel-drive.
The Pacifica Hybrid is the more unique of the two. It’s a plug-in hybrid, meaning that you can charge it up using energy from the grid, and then the gasoline engine comes on after your all-electric range is used up.
That means you get the experience of an electric car on short drives without having to worry about running out of charge.
In the case of the Pacifica Hybrid, it can travel an EPA-estimated 32 miles per charge, and then averages 30 mpg in mixed driving until you get a chance to charge up again. It takes about 13 hours to recharge using a standard 110-volt household outlet, but a dedicated 220-volt car charger can top off the van in less than three hours.
The Pacifica Hybrid debuted as a 2017 model, and the 2019 model year brings a new “S” appearance package — included on the tested car — that adds a sportier style to this fuel-sipping package. The Pacifica enjoys clean lines without fussy details, confidently wearing a minivan shape rather than awkwardly pretending to be tough, and its velvet-red paint draws the eye nicely.
The only hybrid-specific details are a different wheel design and a charging port on the front driver’s-side fender.
As with the gas-only Pacifica, the Pacifica Hybrid boasts a stylish dashboard, pleasant ride and handling, and plenty of passenger and cargo space. However, the hybrid forces a few notable trade-offs compared to the gas-only Pacifica.
The most obvious one is how much it costs. The gas Pacifica has a base sticker price of $28,480, compared with $41,490 for the Pacifica Hybrid. That said, the penalty isn’t nearly as steep as the initial “sticker shock” would suggest.
That’s because the equivalent gas Pacifica to the base Pacifica Hybrid is the well-equipped Touring Plus model, which starts at $34,740. Furthermore, Pacifica Hybrid buyers can claim a $7,500 federal tax credit, which effectively drops its price to $33,990 — even less than the comparably equipped gas-powered van. Although buyers may find additional discounts on the gas Pacifica.
Another downside is that the Pacifica Hybrid gives up the gas Pacifica’s eight-passenger seating (maxing out at seven) and its “Stow ’n Go” middle-row seats; in the hybrid, you have to remove the seats from the van (just like in the competition) to maximize cargo space, whereas the gas Pacifica lets you fold them into the floor. The hybrid does let you fold the third-row seat.
The Pacifica Hybrid also has a rougher engine sound than the gas-only Pacifica. Both use a 3.6-liter V6, but the hybrid is tuned differently to work together with an electric motor. The gas engine can sometimes shut off to let the electric motor take over — even after your range from the grid is used up — but when the engine comes back on at low speeds, it can sound like a stick dragging under your car.
During a chilly week of January, the tested 2019 Pacifica Hybrid didn’t match its EPA ratings for range and fuel economy. The engine wanted to run often in cold weather, even when the van was fully charged. The gas engine also kicks on to help out at high speeds or under heavy acceleration. A 2017 Pacifica Hybrid tested in more temperate conditions did better, but still came up a few miles short of the EPA’s 32-mile-range estimate.
Even so, the Pacifica Hybrid is an extra-thrifty way to shuttle around your family, and it keeps going even when you don’t get a chance to recharge it. While there won’t be a fuel-economy advantage during road trips, you’ll spend plenty of time in the daily grind burning no gasoline. And it’s the only minivan that can do that.
Our other recently tested minivan with a class-exclusive desirable feature is the 2019 Toyota Sienna, with its optional all-wheel-drive system. Like the Pacifica, it isn’t styled to look tough like an SUV, but it does promise better performance in slippery conditions than other vans.
Sienna prices start at $32,210 — that’s higher than other minivans, but Toyota offsets that a bit with extra standard safety features and two years of free scheduled maintenance. All-wheel-drive costs about $2,500 extra and is available on most Sienna trim levels.
The tested all-wheel-drive Sienna missed its chance to demonstrate its performance in the snow, which came just after its weeklong January test wrapped up. However, journalists with luckier timing have praised the Toyota system.
They’ve had plenty of time to do so. The current Sienna has been on the market since 2011. The design has been tweaked, and the powertrain has been overhauled, but the Sienna doesn’t have the extra-cushy luxury of the Pacifica, Odyssey, or Kia Sedona.
Toyota has kept the Sienna up to date for acceleration and fuel economy: 22 mpg in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive, the same as the non-hybrid competition, and 20 mpg with all-wheel-drive. The Sienna also recently got a new infotainment system with brighter displays, superior responsiveness and Apple CarPlay (though not Android Auto) smartphone integration.
But even with prices on the high side, the Sienna lags the class leaders for luxurious refinement and also for crash-test performance – another symptom of its aging design.
There are so few minivans on the market that it’s worth considering the Sienna even if you don’t demand all-wheel-drive. But if that extra traction is a priority to you, the only other option is a less-spacious crossover or a massive Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition Max.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-pacifica-hybrid to see more photos of the tested 2019 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, and visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-sienna-19 to see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Sienna.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.