You might think that minivans are going extinct with the rate at which everyone is jumping on the SUV bandwagon, but minivan sales were booming in the first half of 2016, and the all-new Chrysler Pacifica just hit dealer lots in May. It should be a big second half and possibly the best year since 2008 for minivans.
Some of you may recall the Pacifica name from an early (failed) crossover experiment in Chrysler’s past, but this is something entirely different: This is the replacement for the Town & Country minivan, while Dodge’s Grand Caravan continues on largely unchanged. Pricing reflects this, as the Grand Caravan is value priced from low $20,000 to mid-$30,000, while the Pacifica basically starts at around $30,000 and can reach almost $50,000!
The platform is entirely new, using aluminum, magnesium and high-strength steel in key locations to make a lighter, stiffer frame, and the 3.6L Pentastar V6 is paired with Chrysler’s new nine-speed automatic transmission, all of which should contribute to much-improved fuel economy. There is also a boatload of new tech onboard, from a back-up camera and touchscreen display on base models to hands-free tailgate and driving assistance systems like lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.
With changes this extensive, nothing less than a new name would do.
The All-Important Interior
However, it’s what hasn’t changed that makes minivans great for families, and some standout features from Chrysler that make it a great minivan.
The trunk behind the third row alone has a whopping 32 cubic feet (915 litres) with a deep well that means you can easily pack in running strollers, a couple bikes and other bulky items. With the third row stowed, that grows to 87 cu-ft (2,478 L), and with all seats down, there is a staggering 140 cu-ft (3,979 L) of cargo space, and enough flat floor space to slide in a 4×8 sheet of drywall or plywood.
Of course, Chrysler minivans’ claim to fame is Stow n’ Go seats that collapse into the floor, which is standard for both rows in the Pacifica. Dropping the third row is as easy as yanking a strap and letting gravity do all the hard work. Getting them back up requires a bit more muscle, but is still plenty easy. The only thing easier in the segment is the power folding third row in top Pacifica trims. The fact that the second row stows remains an exclusive in this segment.
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Something new on the practicality front is the way the second row flips forward to allow access to the third row even with big, bulky child seats installed, a huge win for parents juggling their most precious, struggling, squirming, screaming and generally uncooperative cargo.
The driver’s seat is comfortable enough to be at home in any living room or den, and all three rows have plenty of legroom and headroom, but the rear seats give up some comfort, designed as they are for collapsing and folding into the floor. Kia and Toyota both have gone the other way, with available second-row captain’s chairs that include limo-like reclining functions with La-Z-Boy-style flip-out footrests.
Quality, long a sore spot for FCA minivans (and cars and SUVs) is much improved, with convincing leather seats, carpeted cargo area, and soft-touch dash, easily eclipsing some of the antiquated plastics in its rivals from Honda and Toyota, but some of the switchgear still feels brittle and cheap.
Out on the road, the Pacifica’s mission is built right into its name, with a smooth ride and silky powertrain that provides a peaceful and quiet cabin in any situation. Its mission is comfort first, second and third, with a suspension that soaks up any road imperfections short of a bomb crater, and a transmission that shifts imperceptibly. The Pentastar V6 delivers 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to move the Pacifica’s 4,330 pounds (1,964 kg). This minivan is also more than a hundred pounds lighter than its predecessor. It gets up to speed without effort and without commotion, humming along at highway speeds at under 2,000 rpm.
With that lighter platform and new powertrain, the Pacifica earns EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway, and an expected 22 combined, but in our week, we managed no better than 18 mpg in our usual commuting and city driving routine.
It even drives well, staying planted in its lane on the highway with minimal steering inputs, and steering is firm and steady at speed, but effortless at low speeds, making mall parking lots and school drop-off maneuvers a cinch.
Key competitors: Toyota Sienna and Kia Sedona
Throughout my week with the Pacifica, the nine-speed transmission never faltered, though in other FCA products, it has been far from perfect and some have reported rough shifting in the Pacifica as well, so pay particular attention to its behavior on a test drive. On a more personal note, I really can’t stand that rotary knob shifter – when making three-point turns (or sometimes seven-point parking adjustments), it just seems unnatural, slow and clunky to shift between Drive and Reverse.
But with that standard backup camera and light steering at low speeds, parking in tight spots isn’t too much of a chore despite the length of this vehicle. A 360-degree camera is also on the option sheet. Additionally, visibility out the sides and back isn’t great, so driving in traffic requires an extra level of attention, especially in trims without the blind-spot warning. In addition to that blind-spot warning, all the latest driving aids are on the menu, from adaptive cruise control and forward collision alert to lane departure warning and rear park assist with cross traffic alert.
Uconnect is brilliant, our tester’s upgraded 8.4-inch touchscreen offering plenty of real estate and sharp graphics, but even the smaller standard 5-inch screen is bright and clear. The logical menus and quick responses mean it’s not distracting when on the go, even if the number of features may seem overwhelming.
However, Uconnect is just the tip of the iceberg for the Pacifica’s feature list, from conveniences like power memory seats and heated steering wheel to a headrest mounted touchscreen entertainment system with wifi headphones, remotes and HDMI input. One neat little feature of the rear seat entertainment system is the “Are We There Yet?” app, which gives impatient kids updates on the progress of a journey programmed into the route guidance.
Also available on the top trim Pacifica is a built-in vacuum cleaner that extends from just behind the rear sliding doors on the driver side. I liked that it is centrally located to more easily reach all corners of the van, especially the more frequently used and messy first two rows.
Uncharted Price Territory
In every way, the Chrysler Pacifica is a better minivan than the vehicle it replaces, but it comes at a price. Starting at $28,595, it’s competitively equipped (including power driver seat, Uconnect, Bluetooth, back-up camera, Stow ‘n Go and 17-inch alloy wheels) and still features all the essential mechanical goodies of this totally redesigned platform. As the price climbs through the $30,000 range, features pile on, like power sliding doors, power tailgate, leather interior, sunshades, driving and parking aids, and upgraded stereo, there is value for your money, but Chrysler might have a hard time convincing people to part with more than $40,000 when many perceive the brand as a bastion of poor reliability and low quality.
The Verdict: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Review
Despite a price tag for top trims that many just won’t be able to accept, the Pacifica is a massive leap forward for Chrysler and minivans. It’s stylish enough to draw attention from unexpected sources and has enough technology to satisfy today’s demanding consumers. And sure, it drives well, but most importantly, the Pacifica is filled with thoughtful touches and practical engineering that makes life easier for busy families, so it stands out as a new leader in the minivan segment.
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