When it first unveiled the all-but-ready-for-production Pacifica to the media at last year's Detroit auto show, Chrysler boasted that, true to a legacy of advanced engineering and advanced marketing smarts, it was set once again to create a new vehicle segment--"sports tourers"--much as it had with its landmark minivans of 1984. No one really believed the claim at the time, because, let's face it, it's not easy to invent a new market segment. Now, close to a year later, we've just driven a production Pacifica, and we're still dubious. Mind you, we like the car fine. We're just a little sketchy on the unique, new-segment jazz.
The Suzuki X90--a mid-1990s two-seat 4x4 T-topper plainly designed for circus clowns and their bulb horns--that was pretty unique. But the Pacifica?
It may represent a bold departure from the Caravans and Voyagers of Chrysler's recent past, even if it shares some drivetrain-cradle and all-wheel-drive architecture with the latest and greatest Pentastar minivans. But how can anyone question J. D. Power and Associates' decision to lump it in with the Acura MDX, the Toyota Highlander, the Lexus RX300, the Honda Pilot, the Pontiac Aztek, the Nissan Murano, the Buick Rendezvous, the Hyundai Santa Fe, et al.? If the Pacifica pushes the envelope, it's an envelope we've seen before, marked "near-luxury and luxury SUV-cum-minivan crossovers."
Into this category the Pacifica may be slotted with ease: big, tall, and smooth V-6-powered SUV thingies that don't pretend to handle the heavy stuff off-road and don't actually purport to handle too much on-road, either, owing to cornfed curb weights, high centers of gravity, and suspensions that have been keyed to the hushed and laid-back ride preferences of their unsporty owners. In the company of the aforementioned careful cornerers, the Pacifica occupies a spot to the left of the midway point along the driver-involvement spectrum, tending toward the enthusiastic side yet unlikely to make press-on BMW X5 drivers blow their cool. One other key distinguishing feature: The Pacifica holds six passengers in its three rows of two seats. There's an outsized console between the twin chairs in the middle row. If they're lucky, the two rearwardmost occupants are short, young contortionists. So there you have the true Pacifica difference.
Most other crossovers carry five or seven passengers, in a 2+3 (+ optional 2) configuration. The Pacifica is a 2+2(+2). It's an idea, having one fewer seat. Perhaps not a very good one. And hardly segment-busting stuff, if you ask us.
But there's more to this story. Definitional hyperbole and peculiar seating arrangements aside, the Pacifica remains, along with the Chrysler Crossfire, a highly significant car, the first real Chrysler-side fruit of the 1998 takeover of the company by Daimler-Benz. Even more important, it's probably the best-to-drive North American-built Chrysler in memory.
Which is saying something, if not as much as we all might like. Too many times in the 1980s and '90s, when Chrysler went out for "cheap and cheerful," it came back with "cheap and kind of depressing." The Pacifica (built at Chrysler's Windsor, Ontario, plant, to the tune of as many as 100,000 per annum, if demand warrants) hints (along with the Crossfire, which is assembled in a German Karmann factory) at breaking the cycle of Chrysler crumminess. It won't be KO'ing the Acuras and Lexuses of this world anytime soon, where refinement, fit, and finish are concerned, but neither will the Pacifica have to slug it out at Kia Sorento prices. At least, Chrysler hopes it won't, introducing it with a confidently stiff $31,230 asking price for the base front-wheel-driver, ranging to $32,980 for the all-wheel-drive model.
In its favor, the Pacifica is a solid, well-equipped machine and handsome, too. As tall as most of the previously enumerated SUV candyasses at 66.5 inches, it has chiseled lines, a high beltline, and a low step-in height that somehow conspire to make it look lower and more wieldy than most of its light-duty competition. But it still looks like some sort of truck, and it has nearly 4700 pounds of roadhugging weight to prove it.
The motivational force for Chrysler's sports tourer is the same 3.5-liter SOHC V-6 found in its flagship sedan, the 300M, a car that, though pre-Daimler in its conception, can help you conceptualize the Pacifica. That is, with regard to its overall realization, as well as its engine, the 300M is to luxury sport sedans as the Pacifica is to luxury SUV crossovers. It's not as luxurious as some. The feel of the interior is not entirely convincing (if markedly better than most recent Chryslers), the refinement of the engine is a bit wanting, but, overall, it's better than you might suppose.
The 9.6 seconds Chrysler quotes for the Pacifica's 0-to-60-mph sprint won't set blood aboil; 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque in the face of two-plus tons of sports tourer ain't much. But the Pacifica at least presents the smoothest rendition yet of the long-lived Chrysler six, a stone-reliable unit once known for its asthmatic, slightly tortured soundtrack. With a host of recent refinements and a four-speed automatic transmission paired with Chrysler's familiar AutoStick manu-matic gear selector, it makes a tolerably willing and mellifluous accomplice today.
As we meander up and down the hills of Sonoma and Marin Counties on our way to San Francisco, the Pacifica scores biggest for its sober body motion. Mind you, nothing about the Pacifica, from its lackluster acceleration to its numb steering, made us want to search out the nearest Skip Barber Racing School slalom. But an MDX, an RX300, and a Rendezvous brought along for comparative purposes reminded us just how badly a crossover SUV copes with the daily necessities of cornering and braking by dishing up embarrassing quantities of slobbery roll, pitch, and dive at every opportunity. The Chrysler won praise for its crisp body control and its suspension's unexpected composure when dealt bumps while loaded up in a corner. Stab the brakes of an RX300 while turning the wheel, and watch its impression of Cleveland Indians fans on ten-cent-beer night. Its high-riding body can't help attempting an impromptu performance of the Watusi before it even considers weebling and wobbling its way back to erect bearing. No such problem with the Pacifica. Without being inspiringly nimble, it feels fluid and accomplished.
Part of the Pacifica's composure is the result of tuning, part because of design. German engineers dropped in for some serious consultation during the Pacifica's gestation, and it shows, for example, in the SUV's sophisticated five-link rear suspension, inspired by (but not using any parts from) the new Mercedes-Benz E-class. Along with some well-considered spring and damper choices, ride and handling mark a real bright spot for the Pacifica, although these are still weighted toward an American definition of acceptable communication with the road.
In case you were wondering, the meeting of Daimler and Chrysler engineers was hardly a one-way street. Select Chrysler engineers lived and breathed development of the Pacifica's cousin, the soon-to-arrive Mercedes-Benz GST, in Stuttgart. Mike Donoughe, vice president of Chrysler's Family Vehicle Product Team, was one of them. He spent three years getting the picture in the Fatherland before returning to the United States to join the Pacifica team. Institutionally, he said, the importance of the Pacifica cannot be understated. Along with the Crossfire, it will "form the foundation from which to elevate Chrysler into the premium segment."
That is the challenge, coming at a time when everybody and his brother are piling deeper into the potentially most profitable luxury segment of the automobile business. While the Mercedes SLK-derived Crossfire looks to enhance brand stature, the Pacifica is perhaps even more crucial for Chrysler, for it is meant to do this and sell in volume, actually helping the brand grow market share. In order to do so, it will have to persuade consumers that it is a genuine luxury vehicle.
So the Pacifica is built to a higher standard. Shut lines are among Chrysler's tightest ever, the vehicle is teeming with consumer electronics, and the styling is handsomer than most, never vulgar, and restrained in a refreshingly un-Chrysler way. Inside, the Pacifica is unusually quiet, owing to the specification of thicker, five-millimeter glass for its windows. It's a better sort of Chrysler.
Because it handles decently, the Pacifica goes straight into our books as a better sort of cross-over SUV, too. What you make of the 2+2+2 interior configuration, however, surely will depend on what row you're sitting in. As the Chrysler press materials note, there is "first-class seating in the first and second rows,"
with four armchairs for passengers. Of course, the big problem with first class is second class, and, indeed, the third-row seats in the Pacifica are strictly steerage grade. So what we have here is an effective four-seater. Bright idea? Maybe. But a Toyota Avalon or a Ford Crown Victoria with optional front bench seating would accommodate as many people, some more comfortably. It would weigh less, probably would get better fuel economy, and likely would be faster. But that's crossover SUVs for you.
Viewed as executive transport for two couples, or two parents and their entertainment-starved children (with an occasional pair of youthful friends), the Pacifica comes into better focus. It is a veritable electronics amusement park, with a hands-free phone, a six-disc in-dash CD player, satellite navigation, power-adjustable pedals, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with drop-down screen and wireless headphones. This last option allows parents to listen to a CD up front while children silently enjoy DVDs in the rear. As anyone who has suffered lasting collateral damage from the background noise of 6000 screenings of Home Alone 2 will tell you, this feature should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Add to this arcade dual-zone climate control with odor and particulate filtration, an optional power liftgate, a standard power sunroof, and a built-in alarm system. And don't forget the ten-way power front seats, with Mercedes-like switches on the door panel. The seats themselves are very fine.
The Pacifica sports a commendable number of safety doodads, with side curtain air bags for all three rows, a newfangled energy-absorbing steering column, and an inflatable knee blocker for the driver. The navigation display, unusually, resides within the speedometer dial, obviating any passenger involvement in the programming, a probable safety miscue, as drivers inevitably will try to program it themselves while driving. Let's hope they're not towing when they take their eyes off the road; the Pacifica will trailer up to 3500 pounds.
Luxury crossover SUVs are thick on the ground these days, and, thanks to the Chrysler Pacifica, the ground has gotten thicker. Its two-plus-two-plus-occasional-two seating does not a segment buster make, but it does a fine job of underscoring how hard it has become to bust open a new segment. Increasingly, it seems, there really is nothing new under the sun--which isn't Chrysler's fault. But, ourselves, we're waiting for the crossunder.