First Drive: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Don’t call it a comeback – or a minivan
Rarely known for independent thought, the auto industry is more susceptible to groupthink than most. A case in point would be minivans. Few companies anymore even offer these small-sized vans that once dominated the field at school pickup time, despite the big-box design making so much practical sense.
So, first off, let us say Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has exhibited commendable independence and initiative launching a new, sixth generation of its signature minivan, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica. It's a market they created and one they'd be foolish to abandon. True, overall minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million sales in 2000 and by last year were down to 507,217. On the other hand, there used to be 17 nameplates, and today there are six or fewer, by Chrysler's reckoning. Supply a little pizzazz, and that number could rise again, with many of the proceeds winding up in FCA's coffers. The period when minivans were the uncool thing your uncool parents drove is fading in memory, which if you accept the industry's precept that you won't like the types of cars your parents drove, ought to mean they're coming back. And so should station wagons, since your grandparents drove those. But they're not coming back. By the same token, SUVs and crossovers ought to be going away. But they aren't.
We digress. Of course, none of this is to say we weren't prepared for a self-inflicted wound here, with FCA throwing in the towel on minivans, much like it has on compact and midsize passenger cars. But to the contrary, it has, with an investment of $2 billion, delivered an all-new minivan, a game expression of four decades' institutional knowledge of an automotive genus it effectively invented. They don't necessarily want to call the new thing a minivan, but they do want to call it a benchmark. For what? Well, er, minivans.
To assess the company's success in Pacifica, whatever anyone cares to call it, FCA flew dozens of testing teams from the media -- moms and their families, dads and their families (including mine), and various random groupings of friends and relations -- all the way to Newport Beach, California, for a three-day vacation junket spent mostly in them. Lots of Southern California suburban and highway driving ensued, because safely moving loved ones all around the asphalt mall-scape is an automotive role the minivans' makers have always embraced. In our case, destinations we chose to get us into a minivan state of mind included San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, and Legoland in Carlsbad, although we didn't have several kids with a powerful need to be entertained en route, just one. Fortunately, while we couldn't figure out how to use the deluxe Uconnect Theater system, the lad had an iPad so didn't miss it and we didn't try.
At night and breakfast the following mornings, we'd compare notes with other groups. The reaction to the new Pacifica, which offers a choice of seating for six, seven, or eight, was uniformly positive.
Said Chrysler brand design chief Mark Hall, "It's not the same family of 30 years ago. Families [today] are different." OK, whatever. Vastly more stylish than its immediate predecessor, Pacifica is the best-driving Chrysler people mover yet, with new architecture from the ground up. There's more tech than ever, naturally, so there are multiple TV screens, individual controls and entertainment options aplenty, including an app designed with kids in mind. It's called "Are we there yet?" Some may be left mumbling about its new name, which may not help, but for all these reasons Pacifica is guaranteed to sell. How well is the question?
Gone is the long-running Town & Country moniker and returned in a new role is the less familiar Pacifica, a sobriquet previously reserved for use on a slow-selling six-passenger all-wheel drive model that ran from 2004 to 2008. Cosmically and corporately twinned with then-partner Mercedes' similarly arranged but equally stiff-selling R-Class model, it wasn't a bad idea for a new type of vehicle: crossover fun with minivan function. You could even say it was ahead of its time. But Chrysler couldn't get the marketing right and the moment for the wannabe upscale Pacifica seemed to quickly fade, the mediocrity of its sales and subsequent cancellation likely accelerated by the Great Recession.
But now Pacifica is back. Priced more competitively ($29,590 through $43,490) it's a minivan that's kind of pretending -- with shorter overhangs, a wider, taller stance, less glass, and optional 20-inch wheels -- to be a kind of crossover. But make no mistake, with the convenient electric sliding side doors -- now foot-operated -- improved Stow-N-Go seating, and all that gear in the rear to keep the peanut gallery entertained, we are deep in the competitive, feature-laden heart of minivan country. Buy a Limited Platinum model (beneath this are Touring, Touring-L, and Limited tiers), and you get a vacuum cleaner -- built-in.
The historically minded among us will want to take a moment here so we may note that soon to be absenting itself from the minivan stage will be Dodge. For a brief interval, the long-lived Chrysler sub-brand plans to carry on selling the outgoing Grand Caravan. There are no Dodge vans anymore (thank Ram) and now no Dodge minivans either. Finito. That's OK, we were told, because there's no stand-alone dealers anymore; any FCA dealership can sell you a Pacifica. Good thing we're not Dodge loyalists or sadness would overrunneth our cup holders. We were lucky enough to be riding in a Pacifica Limited Platinum, so we would be vacuuming up our tears.
The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, however, is on a mission to be hipper than minivans of yore, with interior trim packages named for places in America, (Santa Monica! Soho! Juneau! Wait, Juneau?), and a materials palette that for Chrysler marks a serious improvement. Interiors that look good are hip. But what makes it hipper still for us is the fact that it is getting perilously close to being good to drive. Credit an all-new trailing arm, independent rear suspension, and weighing up to 300 pounds less thanks to pound-saving aluminum hood and sliding doors, a magnesium lift-gate inner and extensive use of high-strength steel.
A not unpleasant accomplice to the Pacifica is Chrysler's upgraded 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which churns out only 3 hp more (287) and 3 lb-ft more torque (262) than its forebears, but somehow feels more refined. Overall, fractionally shorter and similarly less than half an inch wider and taller than the vehicle it replaces, Pacifica is lighter and more efficient. Optional 20-inch wheels help it look less dorky to the immature eye (the one that's impressed by big rims), but they take a predictable role in degrading ride quality that would otherwise be OK.
Mated to the six, an automatic transmission with a startling nine speeds helped us stretch 25 miles out of a highway gallon of gasoline under conditions that toggled back and forth between traffic-choked and 85 mph, annoyingly mostly the former. Less likable about the transmission, which is operated by a rotary dial a la Jaguar, is the lack of any paddle-shift or, for that matter, any way in which to request a specific downshift. Select the L station on the rotary dial, with all unnecessary concentration that implies, and it will drop out of the nine-speed's four-overdriven top gears, but to which gear, basically the who, what, when, where, and why of it, is for you to find out. It's disconcerting to the driver who spends any time at all thinking about his or her choice of ratios. We know minivans are supposed to be boring, but this is vibe-killer boring.
Announced but not on sale till the fall is a plug-in hybrid example of the Pacifica, which we got to look at but not drive. It looks very similar to conventional models and shares most of its features with ordinary examples, excepting the boxed wells in its chassis, which would otherwise accommodate the Stow-N-Go seating, are here filled with batteries. Unique wheel and grille colors distinguish hybrids, along with teal-accented labeling and a giveaway charge port, plus that lack of Stow-N-Go. Chrysler claims a figure of 80 mpge.
Speaking of Stow-N-Go, the disappearing seats are better than ever, more convenient, and now the steel wells in which they hide become structural members. They're part of what adds up to a doubling of the new van's torsional stiffness versus the preceding model. It's quieter too, with body mounted side-view mirrors among the aero (and visibility) improvements. A full belly pan underneath helps to achieve a class-leading Cd figure of .3.
Ford and GM didn't come close to developing their minivans with the gusto and affection they brought to their truck launches. The problem may have been that the standard was being set too high by the likes of Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler. I've driven the Aerostar and the Windstar, I've driven the Lumina and the Uplander, and let me tell you, they're no Odyssey or Sienna. FCA's attempt, entirely credible and class competitive, is to be lauded. They're fighting back.
2017 Chrysler Pacifica Specifications
|Engine:||3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/287 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 7-8-passenger, FWD minivan|
|EPA Mileage:||18/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||203.6 x 79.6 x 69.9 in|