The Chrysler Pacifica is one of a growing number of what the industry calls crossover vehicles that combine attributes of sport utilities, wagons and minivans. Chrysler calls the Pacifica a sports tourer, suggesting sport-utility DNA, although it doesn't really look like an SUV crossover. However you see it, and whatever you call it, we think the Pacifica is a terrific family vehicle.
Pacifica is available with two or three rows of seating, for five or six passengers. The five-passenger base model has two bucket seats in front with a split folding bench in the second row that seats up to three. Six-passenger models swap the middle-row bench for two flat-folding bucket seats, and add a 50/50 split bench in the rear, for six-passenger capacity. Most models are configured to seat six and offer 79.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity with all the seats folded, which is more than a Jeep Grand Cherokee is rated to carry.
Pacifica has four sedan-like doors on its sides but a liftgate in back similar to what you'd expect on an SUV or minivan. Inside it's roomy and comfortable, whether upholstered in fabric or leather. Getting in and out is easy.
In its mechanical layout, Pacifica more resembles a minivan than anything else, except that it's been enhanced throughout with Mercedes-Benz engineering, including a complete rear suspension borrowed from the Mercedes E-Class sedan.
On the road, Pacifica is smooth and quiet. All-wheel drive is available, making it a good choice for the snow country. The ride is smooth and supple, and the four-wheel antilock (ABS) disc brakes do a good job of bringing Pacifica to a smooth stop. Pacifica is rated to tow up to 3500 pounds.
Pacifica excels in safety, with five-star front and side-impact ratings and a four-star rollover rating from the federal government's NHTSA, and best pick from the insurance industry's IIHS. Side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection are optional, and we recommend ordering them.
Pacifica was introduced as a totally new vehicle for 2004. For 2005, Chrysler expanded the lineup to include an entry-level, five-seat version. For 2006, all models come with the more powerful 3.5-liter overhead-cam V6. (The old pushrod 3.8-liter engine is gone.) The 2006 Pacifica lineup also gets new Signature Series models that combine popular options with a unique look, at a discounted price.
Chrysler Pacifica FWD ($25,165); AWD ($27,825); Touring FWD ($28,365); Touring AWD ($31,165); Touring Signature FWD ($34,055); Touring Signature AWD ($36,585); Limited ($36,685)
The Chrysler Pacifica doesn't look like anything else on the road, and we think it's a home run. Its design is less radical than that of the Nissan Murano and Infiniti FX45 crossovers, and its glass-to-steel proportions are new and different. Yet the Pacifica looks unmistakably like a Chrysler, a result of its grille and other design cues traceable to the Town & Country minivan.
Pacifica doesn't look that big from the outside, yet it's as much as 18 inches longer and 6 inches wider than some of its crossover competitors. At the same time, the Pacifica is almost 3 inches lower to the ground than a typical minivan, and that makes it easier to climb inside. The expanse of sheet metal aft of the rear side doors adds visual mass that looks ungainly, but this isn't reflected in the handling.
Pacifica is loaded with Mercedes-Benz parts and technologies, including a complete rear suspension system borrowed from the Mercedes E-Class sedan. Indeed, the vice-president on the Pacifica program worked for almost three years in Stuttgart and Berlin on the Mercedes-Benz R-Class before being reassigned to the United States.
Climbing into the Pacifica is easy because it sits relatively low to the ground. Once ensconced, our first impression was one of spaciousness. The cloth upholstery in the five-passenger base model is nice and looks more expensive than we expected. Appointments become more luxurious at each level, as you step up to the Touring and Limited models. Wood, brushed aluminum and quality soft-touch materials create an attractive ambiance.
The bucket seats are thick, deep and supportive; and fit even a 6-foot, 4-inch adult like the proverbial glove. On the other hand, the enormous side bolsters may not be comfortable for wider frames. Between the seats is a center console trimmed in a soft-touch material that gives it a quality feel. There's a pair of cup holders conveniently located immediately aft of the shifter, and they work well. All four doors feature map pockets and cup holders. The high-waist design means the window sills are too high for comfortable arm resting, but enhance the secure feeling.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel is thick and chunky and has a relatively small diameter. It gives the impression that you're directing the movement of something substantial. Redundant controls for the cruise control and sound system are conveniently integrated into the steering-wheel spokes.
The instrument panel is shaped as one continuous enclosure that swoops from the back of the left front door across the center and around to the back of the right front door. Under that sweeping hood there's an interesting-looking set of instruments and controls.
When the optional navigation system is ordered, the display is positioned right in the center of the speedometer, exactly where it should be for safest use. The GPS navigation system is programmed and run by a circular switch panel to the right of the steering wheel.
Heating and air conditioning controls seemed fussy at first, but we loved having the Auto Hi and Auto Lo switches for those times when we didn't want the climate control fan blasting away at full speed but didn't want to shut it off completely. There's a nice analog clock on all but the base model for quickly telling time. All power windows can be lowered at once by pressing one button. And you can program convenience functions such as auto locking, lock notification (horn, lights, nothing), lighting when doors are opened and so on to tailor the car to the exact way you want it to operate. Some vehicles require a trip to the dealer to reprogram these settings and some don't allow reprogramming at all.
The second-row seats in Touring and Limited models are as handsome as the front seats. They're not quite as cushy, but we found them roomy and comfortable. Between them is a center console, similarly elegant to the one in front, and equipped with practical cup holders. Controls for the fan and vents, a power plug, and a tray for a purse or day pack are provided for back-seat passengers. Each seat can be folded flat individually, to handle lengthy cargo and a third occupant at the same time.
The five-passenger model uses a bench seat in the second row that seats two or three. It's split 65/35. The seatbacks can be folded down, then the seats can be tumbled forward for cargo space. We found this easy to do the first time we tried; the release levers are numbered in sequence. The only downside of the design is that it does not provide an absolutely flat load floor. The second-row bucket seats that come on six-passenger models operate similarly, but the bucket seats leave a gap in the middle. The five-seat model offers more cargo space than the six-seater, with 92.7 cubic feet of space versus the six-passenger's 79.5 cubic feet.
The third-row seats in Touring and Limited fold down 50/50 and disappear to create a flat floor for large cargoes. That's the best configuration because the third row is not a comfortable place to sit, particularly for adults. Access to the
The Chrysler Pacifica handles more like a car than a sport utility. We were impressed with its handling in Northern California, where the paving is excellent, the roads are twisty and interesting, and the traffic is relatively light. Pacifica also impressed us as a daily driver, hauling friends around and out on the town, and making routine trips to the grocery store.
The 3.5-liter V6 that comes on all 2006 Pacifica models is powerful and has lots of torque. The four-speed automatic is smooth and quiet in operation, though we wish it was a five-speed. We enjoyed using the AutoStick feature for manual shifting: Pull it back to select the manual mode, then left to downshift, right to upshift.
The all-wheel drive, on models so equipped, works transparently and helps the Pacifica sail through corners like a sports sedan, rain or shine. Under normal conditions, the all-wheel-drive system sends all of the power to the front wheels. But it can transfer up to 90 percent of the power to the rear wheels whenever the front wheels lose grip, under hard acceleration or in slippery conditions, for example. The AWD models use a viscous coupling in the center differential and an open differential at the rear. We found the all-wheel drive worked well in the dry weather of California's wine country and northern Central Valley, and our experience with all-wheel drive in other Chrysler products leaves us confident it'll not disappoint in a blinding rainstorm or in 12 inches of snow.
While the Pacifica's steering is not racecar communicative or direct, it's better than many, and the steering wheel feels good in the hands. We found the suspension a willing partner in the vehicle's performance: smooth and supple while controlling lean and wallow. The isolated front and rear subframes, the long wheelbase and wide stance really help to deliver a quality ride. As a bonus, the interior is very quiet at cruising speeds.
Four-wheel-disc brakes and Michelin Pilot all-weather tires easily overcame the substantial weight of the Pacifica, providing safe and sure stops. The brakes got a workout from us, and they responded every time without fade or smell or any sign of distress. ABS comes standard, allowing the driver to maintain steering control under panic braking.
The Chrysler Pacifica is a versatile vehicle. It accelerates quickly with its powerful 3.5-liter V6 and it corners reasonably well, which makes it enjoyable to drive. Upper-level models are luxurious and practical, while the more basic five-passenger model offers a good value.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.