WINDSOR, Ontario – Fiat Chrysler appears poised to add an all-wheel-drive option to its Chrysler Pacifica, which would challenge the only other awd minivan: the Toyota Sienna.
Dino Chiodo, national auto director at Unifor, which represents about 6,000 hourly workers at the Pacifica plant here, said the company is closely examining the viability of an awd version. In addition, two sources who didn’t want to be named have been told the move is in the works. They include a supplier employee working on a part being designed to accommodate an all-wheel-drive layout for a “Chrysler minivan.”
“It’s going to help them with their leadership of the product,” said Joe McCabe, CEO of consulting firm AutoForecast Solutions in Chester Springs, Pa. He said his data, compiled from industry sources, shows FCA will begin production of an awd Pacifica in the second quarter of 2020 in Windsor.
“It adds some relevance to it other than what a minivan is defined as.”
All-wheel drive could boost sales of the Pacifica. The Pacifica tallied 5,999 sales last year in Canada, compared with 32,253 sales of FCA’s entry-level Dodge Grand Caravan minivan, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
In the United States, the disparity is not as lopsided. The Pacifica tallied 118,322 sales last year, compared with the Caravan’s 151,927.
LouAnn Gosselin, a spokeswoman for FCA Canada, said the automaker does not “have anything to announce relative to future minivan product plans.”
Mike Szymkiewicz, head of product planning at FCA Canada, also declined to comment on future product plans. But he acknowledged that awd – designed to improve traction and control -- is a popular feature in Canada, where winters are long and harsh.
“I think it’s definitely an opportunity with our market,” he said. “If you look at some of the competitive vehicles, maybe not the traditional minivan, but even some of the bigger duty [trucks] you can get front-wheel and all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive take rate generally is quite high in all those offerings; I do think it would be an opportunity for us.”
According to Toyota Canada, 58 percent of Sienna minivans sold across the country last year included the awd system.
At the time of the Pacifica’s launch in 2016 as a 2017 model, FCA executives said they could not make a business case for an awd powertrain.
Chiodo said FCA is revisiting the awd option, but has yet to make a decision.
“All-wheel drive is obviously a very popular question right now,” said Chiodo. “FCA has not provided us with any intel with regards to future product, but they are looking at the viability and being able to bring that to market.
“But, if you recall [late FCA CEO Sergio] Marchionne had suggested that the Pacifica [platform] had built-in capabilities to incorporate all-wheel drive.”
McCabe questioned, however, whether FCA would be able to accommodate both awd and Stow ’n Go seating, one of the minivans’ key selling features.
“My only concern about an all-wheel-drive version is how it affects the Stow ’n Go because one of the biggest features of the Pacifica is the ability to drop the seats into the floor,” said McCabe. “So, if you have a drive shaft in the rear, then you’d have to reconfigure those seats because you have limited space.”
All-wheel drive had been part of Chrysler’s minivan lineup through the 2004 model year. It was then discontinued with the introduction of Stow ‘n Go because “it did not allow for” the system, said FCA’s Gosselin.
FCA’s two minivans command 59 percent of segment sales in Canada and 56 percent in the United States, said Gosselin.
Windsor Assembly underwent a $1 billion retooling to build the new Pacifica, but Marchionne said at the time the new platform was capable of building a variety of vehicles, including sedans and utilities.
During the 2018 Detroit auto show, Marchionne told reporters that the Caravan’s aging architecture meant it would have to be replaced with another minivan built on the Pacifica platform.
Szymkiewicz said he could not comment on Caravan’s future, saying only that it “is an incredibly important vehicle to us.”
The Caravan remains FCA’s second-highest selling vehicle in Canada, behind the Ram pickup.
The Windsor plant assembles the Caravan and the front-wheel-drive Pacifica as well as its hybrid plug-in version on three full shifts.