In a Class by Itself?
In 1983, Chrysler introduced a new type of vehicle that revolutionized the family automobile. The company called it a minivan. Twenty years later, we find ourselves once again hearing Chrysler's horns heralding the birth of a new segment, this time christened "sports tourer." What is a sports tourer, you ask? You're not alone. Proving that there is no such thing as a stupid question, a bevy of automotive journalists has been asking the same thing since the Chrysler Pacifica first debuted as a concept vehicle at the 2002 North American International Auto Show.
Chrysler insists that the 2004 Chrysler Pacifica is not a minivan, SUV, station wagon or even a crossover, and the company is intent on launching its new product in a class of its own. We recently had the opportunity to drive a production Pacifica, and while we're still unsure of the sports tourer classification, we did learn some hard facts and form various opinions by comparing it to both minivans and SUVs.
Powering the Pacifica is the same 3.5-liter V6 engine used in the Chrysler 300M. It produces 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, and is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission that uses Chrysler's "AutoStick" automanual. Front-wheel drive with traction control comes standard on the Pacifica, or buyers can opt for an all-wheel-drive version, which Chrysler expects to make up 70 percent of Pacifica sales. The 3.5-liter engine may be a fine performer in the 300M sedan -- a car that weighs nearly 1,000 pounds less than the hulking Pacifica -- but we found it a little sluggish and noisy in this application, especially when entering freeway traffic or climbing the steep grades of the San Diego mountain range. A five-speed automatic transmission might help the powertrain perform better, as the four-speed often seemed to be hunting for gears.
The Pacifica uses a five-link independent rear suspension that was optimized in the Mercedes-Benz driving simulator in Berlin. Its architecture (not parts) is borrowed from the recently redesigned Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. The four-wheel independent suspension allows the Pacifica to provide a soft ride, more like a car than a truck-based SUV. There's also a standard load-leveling system that will help keep the vehicle from sagging under added weight. The maximum tow rating is 3,500 pounds, enough to enable the Pacifica to pull a small boat or a couple of jet skis, but not much else.
At first glance, you'll realize that this vehicle is big, but not unmanageably tall or long. At 198.9 inches in length, the Pacifica falls above the 189.1-inch-short wheelbase Chrysler Voyager, and just below the 200.6-inch-long wheelbase Town & Country, but still shares some of the minivans' underpinnings. The Pacifica's track is extra-wide -- a whopping 66 inches (the largest they could make it and still produce at the Windsor, Ontario, Chrysler plant) as opposed to the 63-inch-wide minivans, or the Volvo XC90's 64.3-inch track. A wider track promotes more stable handling, and as the Pacifica is a broader, lower vehicle than most midsize SUVs, it feels much more confident and less top-heavy going into sweeping curves or around tight corners.
This aggressive-looking vehicle carries up to six passengers without using bench seating, but six individual chairs instead. First- and second-row seating are spacious with full-length center storage consoles between seats. Even the second-row seats are fully adjustable, allowing passengers to recline to a near prone position. Lack of legroom for third-row passengers should limit the last row to occasional use only, unless you're a child.
The second- and third-row chairs can be tumbled easily to fold flat into the floor, maximizing level-loading space with an extra storage bin under the cargo area. Since the rear seats can be configured with only one seat folded down in each row, the Pacifica can make a Home Depot run for lumber while carrying a passenger in each of the second and third rows. Maximum cargo capacity is less than some competitors', though. The Pacifica has 79.5 cubic feet, while the seven-passenger Volvo XC90 has 85 cubic feet and the eight-passenger Honda Pilot has 90 cubic feet.
Standard features abound inside the Pacifica's cabin, leaving only a short list of optional equipment. All Pacificas come with a 10-way power driver seat, and a four-way power front-passenger seat. Power-adjustable pedals with memory are also standard, a great benefit if one-half of your driving team is short and the other is tall. The driver seat and outside mirrors also have memory, allowing the regular driver to settle in quickly with just the press of a button. Occasional drivers and front passengers needing to make seat adjustments won't find the Pacifica's power seat switches along the base of the seat, but instead mounted on the door in Mercedes-Benz fashion.
Another unusual placement is the instrument panel-mounted ignition switch -- no more hunting along the steering column in the dark. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in your hands, and the steering wheel-mounted audio controls are easy to use. The instrument panel is trimmed in attractive brushed aluminum, with numerous stereo and climate control buttons. Rear passengers have their own set of climate controls, so the expansive cabin's temperature can be adjusted conveniently by all passengers.
During our test-drive, we found the leather-trimmed front seats comfortable and supportive, but seat comfort gets progressively worse as you move toward the back. The second-row seats seem harder and flatter than the front buckets, and the third-row chairs have minimal padding. Heated seats are optional for both first- and second-row seats, and we admit that the added warmth may have made us a tad more forgiving while evaluating the second row's comfort.
Other Pacifica options include 17-inch chrome wheels instead of the standard aluminum discs of the same size, high-intensity discharge headlamps for added nighttime illumination and a power sunroof and liftgate. Power liftgates are becoming more common on minivans, and are much appreciated by people who load and unload the rear cargo area with a stroller or groceries. The Pacifica will be only the second utility vehicle to offer one, the first being Lincoln's Navigator.
The Pacifica gets even more high-tech as you move down the options list, and the last five items are bound to appeal to the audiophile or entertainment freak in your family. The Pacifica offers Sirius Satellite Radio with up to 100 channels as a dealer-installed option, and a factory-installed rear-seat DVD video entertainment system with a ceiling-mounted seven-inch LCD screen and two sets of wireless headphones. The eight-speaker Infinity Intermezzo digital surround sound system with AM/FM/cassette/CD is a step up from the standard AM/FM/CD with seven Infinity speakers. An optional in-cluster navigation system, an industry first, places the navigation screen within the circle of the speedometer, with the intention of helping drivers keep their eyes on the road. The DVD-based nav system allows drivers to search for destinations eight different ways, including by address, phone number or point of interest, using just four simple buttons.
Lastly, a "UConnect" hands-free communication system can be factory installed, enabling Pacifica occupants to integrate their own personal cellular phone into the Pacifica's electrical architecture. Once activated, the UConnect technology will distinguish when someone enters the vehicle with a recognized cell phone. The system will automatically allow the audio to be heard through the radio speakers, and the user's voice to be picked up by a microphone housed inside the rearview mirror, while the cell phone is placed anywhere in the vehicle. Conversations will not be disrupted while users are entering or exiting the vehicle, since calls can remain linked to UConnect within 30 feet of the Pacifica.
After wading through the benefits of an SUV and the convenience of a minivan, while mulling over the Pacifica's starting MSRP of $32,980, we again (scratching our heads) return to the sports tourer classification. Our test-drive didn't lead us any closer to uncovering the truth regarding the need for this new segment. But if you don't want to drive a minivan or SUV, the underpowered Pacifica is still a well-packaged family vehicle, but when talking to Chrysler, don't call it a crossover.