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.