Chrysler Design Shifts Gears (3/2/2003)
Automaker adopts cab-rearward theme on big sedans.
Is this the shape of the future? The new Pacifica very well may be for those in search of an alternative to the oft-maligned minivan.
The upcoming debut of the new Chrysler “people carrier” coincides with the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models. Those two Chrysler products were the ultimate in form defining function, offering plenty of seating and storage space, redefining the way U.S. families drive.
Complicating matters is the fact that while the minivan may be functionally best-in-class, it is a choice many customers make while holding their noses. The familiar “one-box” design has lost its cachet and become something of a joke, even for some of its most loyal customers. And many of those who can opt for an alternative, such as the SUV, are jumping at the chance. That’s where the Pacifica comes along.
The basic shape is familiar, but it’s not a case, as Yogi Berra might say, of “déjà vu all over again.” The ’04 Pacifica sits lower and wider. It’s got a bit of the sport-ute in its broad-shouldered stance and hood. There’s some machismo in this design, which is meant to provide an antidote to the minivan’s derided soccer mom image.
Names and segments really shouldn’t matter when it comes to a product that does so much — and so well.
The exterior is handsome and solid. The look is more muscular than a minivan, but not as truck-like as a typical ute. The large grille, stretched Chrysler winged badge and sparkling headlamps are designed to suggest the stylish 300M sedan. A modicum of chrome, notably the bright bumper caps, are tasteful but imply an upscale elegance. One significant difference from a minivan is that the Pacifica does away with the segment’s standard sliding doors. The new Chrysler does, however, offer an optional, powered tailgate for easy access to its yawning cargo compartment.
As already noted, the Pacifica is wide: nearly 80 inches, to be precise, giving it as much as six inches of added shoulder room over a broad array of potential competitors from the minivan, sport-ute and crossover segments. At 198.9 inches in length, it’s also got nearly a foot over such alternative as the Audi allroad and Volvo XC90. Sitting at 66.5 inches height, it’s lower than a minivan, so you lose that walk-through ability, but there’s still plenty of headroom.
But it’s the interior that will likely win you over. Like a minivan, the Pacifica offers three-row seating for six. The back row is functional, though most likely to be used for kids. The middle seats, however, prove that “just because you’re in the second row, doesn’t mean you’re a second-class citizen,” says designer Joe Dehner. They’re as comfortable as those up front and also come up with “butt warmers” with the optional Winter Package, along with a standard rear heating control.
Each of the second and third row seats, by the way, fold flat, providing a cavernous cargo compartment. There are even fold-away covers for the seat backs to prevent them from being scratched up.
There’s a great sound system in that center stack, the base audio package boasting a seven-speaker, 200-watt Infinity AM/FM/CD player. There’s an optional surround sound upgrade, as well as a top-line DVD package, with a seven-inch rear-mounted LCD screen and two wireless headsets. That’s designed to let the kids watch Sponge Bob while the adults up front have their own audio entertainment.
Another neat and unique feature is the optional navigation system, the first to place its video monitor right in the instrument panel. It’s neatly merged in with the speedometer. The position is perfect for giving a quick glance down at the map or turn-by-turn directions without getting distracted from what’s happening on the road. And programming the optional system is reasonably easy.
There are relatively few options available on Pacifica. But one coming by summer has been dubbed uConnect. It allows you to carry your own Bluetooth-equipped cellphone onboard then access the built-in, hands-free speaker and microphone system. (Bluetooth is a new standard for a short-range radio system that can link a myriad of high-tech hardware, including cellphones, computers, and PDAs.)
Slip behind the wheel and you immediately get the sense this is going to be more fun than driving a minivan. The standard fare is a ten-way power seat for the driver, along with adjustable pedals.
During a long day of driving through the countryside east of San Diego, we discovered that the Pacifica largely lives up to its promise. Its 3.5-liter V-6 has reasonable pulling power, though it did gasp for breath a bit on steep climbs at higher altitudes. Indeed, if we had one area to complain about with the Pacifica, it was the vehicle’s powertrain. Under hard acceleration, the engine was raspy and surprisingly loud, all the more surprising in a vehicle that is otherwise noteworthy for the quietness of its cabin.
We’ll hope for an optional engine upgrade and we’d definitely prefer a five-speed automatic, quickly becoming a norm for a vehicle of this type, rather than the four-speed offered.
Chrysler will provide two packages, meanwhile, a front-drive version and one with all-wheel drive, the latter expected to dominate demand. Both seem sure-footed, and the front-driver gets standard traction control to enhance its grip. Company planners opted against offering a stability enhancement system, but are revisiting that decision. We hope it will be added, at least as an option, in the not-too-distant future. It provides yet another level of safety and control for a vehicle designed to haul that most precious of cargo – your family.
The Pacifica’s long, low and wide package gives it a solid grip on the road. The suspension soaks up the road bumps, yet the driver maintains a clear sense of road feel. It helps that the rear suspension has been lifted, all-but-whole, from the highly-regarded new Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. Up front, the Pacifica utilizes a MacPherson strut design with an isolated subframe. We expect little issue with rollovers. Nonetheless, Chrysler has quietly equipped the Pacifica with standard, three-row head air curtains that stay inflated to provide protection just in case the vehicle does tip over.
Company officials stressed their intent to make the Pacifica the most comfortable, reliable and highest-quality vehicle in its segment. We’ll have to wait to see what the Pacifica is like when it starts rolling off the line in sizable volume. But initial indications suggest they’re living up to their promise.
The simple fact is, this car moves Chrysler a sizable step ahead. It boasts a new level of refinement, a solid drive and surprising comfort, along with near-minivan levels of room. We do have a few gripes, but they’re more than offset by the Pacifica’s other attributes. We expect this vehicle to be a solid hit when it rolls into showrooms this spring, and will unquestionably place it on our own list of recommended vehicles.