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.