Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
When all-American Chrysler "merged" with German conglomerate Daimler, it seemed an unlikely combination. So it shouldn't be much of surprise that the first product to emerge from this strange brew is itself an improbable mix of minivan, wagon and sport-utility.
Chrysler calls the Pacifica a "sports tourer," and while this may be just another example of the endlessly fertile minds of Chrysler's marketing team, the Pacifica does have a distinctly different personality compared to your average minivan or SUV. Its sleek lines certainly don't scream "mommy-mobile," but look inside and there are more than enough seats to qualify for carpool duty. Juxtapose this with the Pacifica's luxuriously appointed interior and high-end options, and it's easy to see why this vehicle is so hard to wedge into any one specific category.
Although base front-wheel-drive models start at just over $31,000, our particular tester was a fully loaded all-wheel-drive version that came in at a very luxurylike $41,170. While the base price places it against mainstream vehicles like the Honda Pilot and Buick Rendezvous, our lofty bottom line placed it squarely against luxury-branded vehicles like Acura's MDX and the Lexus RX 330 -- a challenge Chrysler feels that its new upscale crossover is up to.
Our week with the Pacifica didn't dispel that notion, as its blend of size, power, handling and features impressed nearly everyone who drove it. We're not so sure that it's the revolutionary "segment buster" that Chrysler touts it as, but if you're looking for comfort and convenience in a stylish package, the Pacifica is a compelling crossover that deserves attention.
Despite what its elevated ride height might suggest, getting into the Pacifica is actually easier than with most cars and SUVs. There's no stooping down or stepping up, you just open the door and the seat is right there to greet you. Power-adjustable captain's chairs for the driver and front passenger are standard, and with easy-to-reach door-mounted controls (a longtime Mercedes trademark), getting comfortable takes little time. Dual memory settings can be set to keep the driver's preferred adjustments, and two-level seat heaters are also available to warm you up on cold mornings.
Much like those of our former long-term Dodge Grand Caravan, we found the Pacifica's seats to be more than accommodating. Their combination of soft leather, ample padding and just the right support renders them comfortable in an instant and continuously so after several hours behind the wheel. Tall drivers never complained for lack of room, and shorter drivers appreciated the standard power-adjustable pedals.
The interior design manages to look upscale and modern without going overboard with gadgets and buttons, while a tasteful mix of wood trim and metallic accents adds color without looking tacky or overdone. The expensive look and feel is reinforced by the high-quality materials used throughout the cabin. It's not exactly Mercedes-quality stuff, but as one editor suggested, "Even if it doesn't always feel top-quality, everything at least looks like it is." Two steps forward and one step back, we suppose.
One definite step forward is the optional DVD-based navigation system that's displayed on a screen within the gauge cluster. This arrangement allows the driver to see the electronic map without having to look off to the side, a potentially dangerous side effect of most systems. Our experience proved it to be a worthwhile benefit, as the screen is clearly visible just below eye level. We programmed the system to find a local restaurant in a nearby city known for its unorthodox streets and it guided us right to it with clear, easy-to-follow directions. The only drawback is the fact that the passenger sitting shotgun can't manipulate the system, but to some drivers this could qualify as its most enticing feature.
Turn the key in the easy-to-find dash-mounted ignition and you're greeted by the pleasant hum of Chrysler's familiar 3.5-liter V6. This engine has been used in numerous vehicles over the last several years, and we've always found it a competent performer, if not a class leader. In this application, it generates 250 horsepower and is matched to a four-speed automatic transmission. The console-mounted shifter falls right to your hand and features the Autostick manual-shift system should you feel the need to pick the gears yourself.
Acceleration from a standstill is a little soft, but once the big V6 gets its wind, the vehicle moves out quickly. Shifts from the four-speed transmission are crisply executed, and it rarely misses an opportunity to grab a lower gear for more power. Our only minor complaint with the drivetrain is its level of noise and shrillness of tone at high speeds. It's excusable in a considerably less expensive sedan, but buyers in this category are likely to expect a little more in the way of refinement.
No such lack of refinement comes through when it comes to ride quality, as the Pacifica delivers a confident over-the-road feel that most minivans, and SUVs for that matter, would find hard to match. While the majority of minivans feels completely detached from the road below, the Pacifica's steering provides solid feedback, and the suspension imparts a sense of surefooted control that borders on fun. We're not going to go too far out on a limb and call it "sporty," but for a vehicle that's specifically designed for family duty, it's surprisingly entertaining.
Standard models feature front-wheel drive with traction control, while our tester was an all-wheel-drive version that splits power between the front and rear wheels depending on conditions. With only 5.9 inches of ground clearance, even all-wheel-drive versions lack the kind of height necessary to allow for off-road adventures, but if you encounter nothing more than slippery roads, the Pacifica's fully automatic system should provide all the traction you'll ever need.
Other aspects of the Pacifica that impressed us were the powerful brakes and its well-insulated cabin. With standard ABS and four-wheel disc brakes, the Pacifica not only stops quickly but does so with a delicate pedal feel that allows for easy modulation of the power. At highway speeds, wind and road noise is minimal but severely rutted roads cause some occasional thumping inside the cabin.
The quiet ride contributes to what is an already serene cabin environment. Optional leather upholstery covered all three rows and the good-looking materials found up front extend to the rear quarters as well. Second-row captain's chairs provide nearly as much comfort as the front seats and an equally accommodating entry height. Satellite climate controls and an optional rear DVD entertainment system further contribute to the first-class feel in back.
As much as we liked the Pacifica's setup, however, we did notice a few details that some parents may find frustrating. With the second-row seats pushed so far back, attending to a small child from the front is quite a stretch, and without a bench seat, you don't even have the option of plopping yourself down between two kids in back on longer trips. Another editor noticed that the rear doors don't open wide enough to provide good access when you're trying to secure a pesky child seat.
Space in the standard third row is expectedly tight, with head- and legroom at a minimum. We did appreciate the fact that the seat isn't on the floor like most third-row setups and that the seat itself is nicely contoured, but overall the accommodations are kid-size at best.
Cargo space behind the third row is on the small side at just 13 cubic feet, but folding both sides of the 50/50-split bench opens the area up to a more usable 43.6 cubic feet. The second-row chairs fold easily as well, bringing the total available cargo space to 79.5. Compare this with the MDX at 82 cubic feet and the RX 330 at 85 cubic feet and the Pacifica is competitive, if not on the smaller side. Our only other gripe concerns the rearward slope of the load floor, as this tends to send anything you're carrying sliding toward the tailgate with every takeoff. On the flip side, our Pacifica's optional power-operated tailgate made hands-full loading considerably easier.
Crash protection is one area where the Pacifica gives up nothing to its competitors. In tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Pacifica received five out of five stars for all four of the rated categories. Advanced features like side curtain airbags and even a knee airbag for the driver help it achieve such impressive ratings.
The real question, of course, is what kind of ratings buyers will give the Pacifica. We found it hard not to like its combination of upscale amenities, sharp handling and non-traditional styling. Add to that an elevated driving position, supremely comfortable seats and top-notch safety scores and it's easy to see why Chrysler believes that it has created a whole new category. "Sports tourer" might be a little optimistic, but if the worst aspect of the Pacifica is its pretentious title, then we would consider that a vehicle well done. System Score: 6.0
Components: Standard on the Pacifica is a seven-speaker, 150-watt Infinity audio system with AM/FM radio and a CD player with changer control. A 385-watt amplifier and an eight-speaker Infinity "Intermezzo" system are available as optional upgrades. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is also available, for those who need to keep kids traveling in back entertained. Our loaded test vehicle included all of these upgrades. Speaker placements include an 8-inch subwoofer in the far rear of the vehicle, outfitted with a wizzer for high-frequency extension; four 6.5-inch speakers -- one in each side door, and each outfitted with a wizzer; two 1-inch cloth dome tweeters, one in each front door; and one 3.5-inch ceramic metal matrix diaphragm mounted on the dash.
With its faux wood-trimmed interior and $41,000-with-options price tag, the Pacifica seems to be making a play for the sort of consumer who has luxury in mind. Does its stereo system live up to its end of this bargain? Well, on the plus side, in an age of overly complex on-board computer systems, we were relieved to find the Pacifica's stereo controls straightforward and mostly easy to use. The system also gets an "A" for ergonomics; volume, seek, bass and treble controls are easy to reach, located on the driver side of the console. We also like the sturdy volume control knob, whose large size and ribbed surface make it a breeze to locate and grip.
We were, however, disappointed to find the Pacifica's head unit a bit light in the features department, relative to its classmates. We pined for an equalizer; some of the Pacifica's competitors offer units that give drivers an assortment of E.Q. curves to choose from. The radio's two-stage preset procedure got the "thumbs down" from many on our staff, who found it unnecessarily complicated. And, given its lofty price tag, we wondered why the crossover didn't offer "mid" tone control, a feature offered by many in its category.
Performance: Speaker placement in the Pacifica creates a pleasing and balanced soundstage, with satisfactory stereo imaging and presence for both front and rear passengers. Bass is thumpy and potent, with the sub stepping in to help deliver warm, full lows. However, highs from the twin door-mounted tweeters tend to be muddy and dull, with none of the soar and sparkle that we expect from a system belonging to a vehicle in this price range. We also noticed a slight amount of distortion coming from the tweeters, audible as we listened to a track with very spare instrumentation. There wasn't much midrange separation, with a lot of nuance getting lost in the muddle.
Best Feature: Intuitive, easy-to-access controls.
Worst Feature: Lack of high-end refinement from the vehicle's twin tweeters.
Conclusion: Interested in an audio system that addresses the basics? The Pacifica has you covered. But if you're seeking a system that offers premium sound and extras, look elsewhere. -- Warren Clarke
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Although Chrysler trumpeted the Pacifica as a "segment buster" when the company unveiled it at last year's Detroit Auto Show, I don't really agree. To me, it's either an aggressively styled minivan with a longer nose and swinging, rather than sliding, rear side doors. Or, if in all-wheel-drive guise, it could be thought of as a larger, cushier and lower-riding crossover SUV. At that show, a lot was made of the "2x2x2" seating configuration, which is essentially the same as a minivan with second-row captain's chairs. But the rearmost seat isn't really so much a pair of individual seats as it is a small bench split down the middle. That said, the Pacifica's cabin is nicely turned out, with quality materials and handsome wood-tone and metallic accents. Other high marks go to the driver's power lumbar support with its wide range of adjustment, one-touch down for all four windows and the nav system's screen location -- set right into the instrument cluster.
Performance is respectable for the most part, though at times I noticed the heft of the vehicle (we're talking nearly 4,700 pounds here); nailing the gas when going up an incline seemed to generate more noise than thrust. And this was just with me (150 pounds) on board; it made me wonder how performance might suffer given a full complement of passengers. To its credit, the Pacifica's handling is impressive for such a bulky, luxury-themed vehicle, as it felt composed when I pushed it through the curves along Sunset Boulevard.
After my drive loop, I wondered what type of buyer the Pacifica was aimed at. Then it dawned on me -- someone who really needs a minivan but doesn't want to buy one. Compared to the Pacifica, any number of high-end minivans will provide equal comfort as well as more room for those riding in the way back. But let's face it, not everyone is "comfortable" driving a minivan, and for those folks the more stylish Pacifica may be worth a look.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Pacifica doesn't offend me, but I don't see anything that wows me, either. I can say that it seems much larger when seeing it in person. Pictures of the Pacifica make it look like a wagon about the size of a Volvo Cross Country. In real 3-D it's more the size of a Town & Country minivan -- except that there's really nothing mini about it.
The navigation screen housed within the gauge cluster is nothing short of brilliant -- much like the Ford Expedition's fold-flat third-row seats, the Pacifica's centrally located nav screen will surely be copied by countless others. And I really like how Chrysler has taken the Mercedes idea of providing rear-seat passengers with a level of luxury that almost matches the front.
As horsepower and torque output for modern cars grows, I'll admit to being one of those who has become so drunk with sweetly abundant V6 and V8 power that all I can think of is how I want more. That being said, I think the Pacifica's 250 hp is respectable. But somehow that impressive number on paper doesn't translate to peppy performance on the road. The firm- and precise-shifting transmission is a big plus; however, the car feels heavy and a tad bit sluggish when you really stomp the gas. At the end of the day, the Pacifica is a mixed bag for me -- it does some things really well, but falls flat in more crucial areas.
"Great cornering, wide stance and hold you in your place seats. The interior comfort for the front two rows is awesome; our best friends have as much room in the second row as most people have in the front of their cars. The DVD is perfect -- but don't let your kids watch too much TV (rot your brain and all). The third row is for KIDS not adults, but at least it's bigger than any other third-row vehicle in its class. (MDX & XC90). I'm getting more looks from other drivers than in any other car I've driven, and a lot of 'What's that car?' I'm very proud to have bought American as well." -- Ciboney, April 18, 2003
"This is the best-looking and most functional crossover at a reasonable price. Only crossover to offer three rows of seats with room to spare. Throw in navigation, DVD and Dolby surround and you've got a rolling theater that never gets lost. Having owned a CLK and BMW M5, the Pacifica's ride and handling is smooth and tight. Power is adequate. Better-looking than a minivan and safer than an SUV. The 7-year/70,000-mile and Full Maintenance (with rental) addresses any first-production-year problems." -- CarNut, April 17, 2003
"Talk about wow. My wife and I have been stuck driving a minivan for the past seven years. NO MORE. We went to the dealership after we were told it had arrived. We bought the first one they received. We paid full sticker but feel like we got our money's worth. The ride is great and the look is even better. I am so glad that we can still get our three kids around and look cool at the same time! " -- Pacifist, March 30, 2003
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