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The Chrysler Pacifica is not the first blend of minivan and SUV, but it is the best executed. The styling draws admiration from SUV and minivan owners alike, while the interior is comfortable and attractive. Handling and ride are both good, with the main drawbacks being price and gas mileage - better than full size SUVs, but not as good as minivans.
While the Pacifica rides on the basic minivan platform, the only outer indication is unusually good handling. The exterior boasts a long hood and a low-looking profile, which makes it look slim and sleek. We've now tested all three models - base, touring, and Limited - and they all have the same basic personality and look, the main difference being options rather than styling or powertrain.
The long hood, chrome accents, and car-style doors dispel minivan styling. Inside, the interior is more Mercedes than Chrysler, with a modern luxury-car instrument panel, door-mounted seat controls (helpfully shown in the shape of the seat itself), and a center-mounted AutoStick gearshift instead of a column shift. Even the engine is different, a 250 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 which propels the Chrysler 300M and 300 Limited.
While many vehicles reserve wood-grain trim for the higher levels - even in the Cadillac line - the Pacifica provided the same nice interior in all trim lines, at least in its first year; later years restricted the wood-grain trim to non-Base models (and the Base eventually ended up with a 3.8 liter engine that provides good low-end torque but less horsepower). Those who think they need leather for luxury will be surprised to find that the cloth interior looks just as good. We prefer the cloth, in fact, since it grips better than leather and is not as nasty in extremes of weather. Indeed, our Touring Edition's hard leather seats were not especially supportive for the driver.
The analog clock and soothing green backlighting are somewhat inconsistent with the bright white on black instrument panel, but provide a link to other Chrysler vehicles and a greater sense of traditional luxury at night. Woodgrain trim (simulated) on both sets of doors and above the glove compartment combine with well-chosen colors and chromed trim to provide a luxury feel. The modern instrument panel is offset by the elegant clock, which is marred only by the use of stubby hands instead of the 300M's tapered pointers.
The suspension is well tuned, providing handling that is actually better than quite a few cars, with a comfortable ride that soaks up major bumps and road problems without sacrificing much road feel. The combination of ride, handling, and overall feel are hard to beat in SUVs and minivans; though it hardly has the nicely balanced, light feel of the 300/Magnum, it does stick to the road very well, especially given its bulk, and doesn't protest around turns. We were surprised by the lack of wind noise in both the base and touring editions. The general air of luxury is quite nice.
The engine provides good off-the-line and highway acceleration, though it doesn't seem especially fast. You can fault the 160-mph speedometer and gentle transmission for that. The speedometer is a particularly questionable decision. Pressing a single button moves it between miles and kilometers per hour, which is very handy for making a single model sold in both the US and, well, everywhere else, and also for those who cross the border; but it also means that the car barely seems to be accelerating when set to miles per hour, with 80 mph (the fastest most people ever travel) exactly halfway along the scale. We suspect they could have reduced the top speed shown to 130 kpm (80 mph) without hurting export sales too badly. Switching to kilometers per hour greatly increased perceptions of strong acceleration as the pointer swung up rapidly - as rapidly as it would have if the speedometer had gone up to a reasonable 100 mph. The Pacifica is no slouch, especially when you need a sudden burst of acceleration on the highway: the 3.5 keeps most of its power up in the higher revs.
Another factor in seemingly average pickup is the transmission, which adapts itself to the driver. A slow driver, or someone who shares the car with a slow driver, will find that when they really want to go fast, the transmission shifts too quickly and the engine never reaches its power peak.
Gas mileage was between SUVs and minivans, at about 19 mpg combined city and highway, but 89 octane is recommended (it will take 87 in a pinch). We found city mileage to be around 17 mpg.
Part of the reason for the Pacifica's middling gas mileage and acceleration is the weight, some of which was a tradeoff for safety - the Pacifica was designed to excel in all crash situations. Indeed, it is the only vehicle to currently protect all three rows of seats with optional side curtain airbags. Four wheel antilock disc brakes are included, along with a driver's knee airbag, rear defroster, and rear wiper-washer. Optional safety features include traction control, the aforementioned side airbags, automatic headlights, a tire monitoring system integrated with the message center, and adjustable pedals (hooked into the memory system). Still, those who are used to the 3.5 liter engine in cars will be rather disappointed; the weight takes its toll.
Luxury features are also included, such as power seats, AutoStick, SentryKey, and an alarm whose controls are on the key itself, a load leveling suspension with height control built in, air filtering, dual-zone air conditioning, Infinity stereo, one-touch power windows (on all four, so you can zoom all the windows down very quickly), front and rear consoles, and cruise control. Optional luxury features of note include a vehicle information center with compass, gas mileage, and other displays and a universal garage door opener (which sits in an overhead row of three buttons between the front dome lights, by the optional hatch opener button). Our base model was equipped with the $1705 package including more adjustable power seats (10-way driver, 4-way passenger), traction control, the information center, side airbags, automatic headlights, fog lights, auto dim rear mirror and heated, auto dimming side mirrors, seat/stereo/pedal memory, tire pressure monitoring, the garage door opener, and adjustable pedals. Our touring edition came with the same features - some as options, some standard.
The tire pressure monitor is designed to grab your attention and hold it without making it impossible to concentrate on the road. It sounds a chime and lights a red light when the car is started, then blinks the message center repeatedly, while still allowing you to temporarily use the compass and other features. The system is not a replacement for checking tire pressure, since it only measures underinflation under 25 psi and overinflation over 45 psi. It will tell you how many tires need to be checked.
The key/remote is a nice idea, but we found that we sometimes accidentally pressed the buttons when turning or handling the key. We like having the ignition in the dash, where the Pacifica has it, rather than in the steering column, partly because it's easier to find, and partly because it means that if we ever need a new lock, we don't have to worry about the airbag.
With all those standard features you might expect to the Pacifica to be rather expensive, and you'd be right. It lists at over $28,000, which is rather low compared to a Suburban (downright cheap compared with an Escalade or Navigator) but high compared to a Grand Caravan. Options can quickly raise the price - all wheel drive is available, and our first test car had leather seats ($850), heated front and second-row seats ($500), surround sound with a CD changer and subwoofer ($700), navigation system ($1,600), power liftgate ($400), and the UConnect hands-free cell phone system with auto-dimming mirror ($275), bringing our four-wheel-drive test car to $36,000 and our two-wheel-drive test car (with a single combo package) to $31,230. At publication time, Chrysler was offering the $1,600 navigation system for free, and rebates had already been placed on the hood, which is a sad commentary on the value of the Chrysler name, since this vehicle would move like hotcakes if branded as a Lexus, Lincoln, or Mercedes. Our 2005 Touring AWD model had a $31,000 sticker, including antilock disk brakes, trip computer, load leveling and height control, dual-zone air, 200-watt Infinity sound system, and other rather nice features; our particular model ran $33,480 with package 26U (heated front and second-row seats, power heated mirrors, left dimming mirror, driver memory, power liftgate, adjustable pedals, and more).
The navigation system deserves a few words, partly because it is the first to be right in the instrument panel, under the speedometer. The system has a full sized display, and is controlled by real buttons instead of an annoying touch screen. The stereo is completely separate, avoiding the annoyance and safety issues of interacting with an overly complex system to change radio stations. On the down side, only the driver can really use this system. On the up side, it's easy to monitor the map without losing sight of the road.
The navigation system is very powerful, able to find locations by category, phone number, address, intersection, or name. All United States locations are on a single DVD, so most drivers will not have to switch discs (as in some competing systems). It can give step by step instructions by voice, and has a variety of options including different views. The system is easy to learn and use, and does not get in the way of driving (indeed, some control functions are shut down while under way for safety's sake, and automatically become available when the car is stopped - say, at a traffic light). In short, this is the best nav system we have ever seen, though it does have shortcomings - mainly, it is somewhat sluggish when adjusting to route changes, and sometimes gets confused on the car's exact location. These are shortfalls of every system we've used, to be fair. When the navigation system is off (and on cars without one), there is a rather large gap under the arch of the speedometer, only the end of the speedometer needle shows.
The trip computer includes a menu button which can be used to set preferences related to door locking, auto headlights, and other features which people have varying opinions on. We always find this handy, because the default is to have the doors automatically lock, but not automatically unlock - and when you have a toddler, this gets old very quickly. (There is also only one physical lock on the entire car, so you'd better make sure it gets maintained or that you have a spare remote). With the control center, it took less than one minute to change the preferences so the headlights went off after 30 seconds (instead of 90), the horn did not sound on locking, a single remote click unlocked all doors, and the doors all unlocked when shifting into Park. We left the automatic seat backup on park off.
Underneath the gas and temperature gauge is a message center, which can provide helpful notes (PARK BRAKE ENGAGED, HATCH OPEN, etc) and which also provides readouts on gas mileage, distance to empty, compass directions, etc. We liked the way it went from DOOR OPEN to DOORS OPEN and back again. On the right, underneath the tachometer, is the PRNDL, which now cleverly tells you what gear you are in when using the AutoStick. Normally, only P, R, N, and D are visible, but when going into AutoStick mode, a box with the gear number (1 through 4) lights up as well. It's a nice convenience. Again, though, both the message center and the control center are oriented towards the driver, which is good when the driver is alone, but not so good when there is a passenger who wants to operate the system.
One clever feature is having the gas and engine temperature labels turn amber when you overheat or come close to running out of gas. It's a subtle warning system but it works. (We found out by running low on gas, not by overheating). Another clever feature is being able to access stored engine fault codes yourself, without a code reader or a mechanic.
Controls generally feel high quality and are convenient and easy to use. The right hand stalk has controls for both front and rear wipers and washers, while the left stalk has lighting controls. The center stack is logically divided, with the most complicated section is the climate control, with its dual ones plus rear fan override. There are two settings for automatic use, one where the fan is not allowed to be too noisy. An infra-red sensor is used to adjust the thermostat for both front and rear passengers. There are two power outlets below the stereo, one that provides constant power, and one that only activates when the car is running.
The optional stereo has knobs for volume, balance, and fade, and sliders for bass and treble, making adjustments fast and easy. Even when the CD changer is ordered, the stereo has a CD slot for fast and easy operation on short trips. The sound with the optional Intermezzo system is excellent, and the standard Infinity system is quite good as well - though it has the more common, and more annoying, system of making you press an "Audio" button multiple times to cycle through bass, treble, balance, and fade (the optional Infinity system uses convenient bass and treble sliders; it's worth noting that stereos may change suddenly at any time). On the lighter side, it gives you a wider range than many other stereos. Both have an unusually well styled set of front tweeters, integrated into the general design - a strip of chrome and woodgrain running from the back of the front doors across the entire dashboard, encompassing the tweeters, vents, seat and door lock controls, and memory buttons (where applicable). We appreciated the CD slot on the stereo, which supplemented the changer on the "standard stereo plus CD changer."
The cruise control is on the steering wheel, close to the rim for thumb operation, with "feeler" ridges for convenience, though more texturizing would be nice. The angle makes reaching for the cruise difficult to get used to, despite the feeler ridges. On the lighter side, the status display does show both when the cruise is on and when a speed is locked in (with both indications in the same area); we wish all Chryslers had this feature, which we believe showed up first on the 2000 Neon. Stereo controls are behind the steering wheel and on the stereo itself (in all models). Window and seat-heat controls are on the doors, in conventional locations.
Space is generous, with room for a stack of CDs in the glove compartment next to the manual, map pockets on all four doors, an overhead sunglass holder, a deep and well-designed (easily opened and sturdy) center console with an easy to use coin holder and CD holders, a small covered compartment in front of the gear shift, and another large compartment between the middle seats. The cup holders are not as clever as the ratcheting minivan type, but they do have rubber inserts that grab cups. Both front and middle row cupholders have covers for a cleaner look.
All four front seats have built in, swing-down armrests. The middle seats fold and tilt easily, allowing more interior space for cargo or making it easier to reach the rear two seats. They also come out easily and are light enough that removal is an option for most owners. Unlike many competing vehicles, the middle seats also slide back and forth. Middle-row passengers will find that the seat heaters (where equipped) and rear fan control are both well within reach - even if they're kids - and that their storage bin is useful, and their cupholders sensibly sized.
The rear seats fold forward, creating a flat surface for cargo (the front seats can also simply fold forward for that flat surface). Seat manipulation is easy and intuitive, with numbered levers and the ability for rear passengers to flip the middle seats without help. However, the rear seats on the all wheel drive model are uncomfortable for normal-sized adults, who will find that the roof lowers right where their head is; consider the rear seats to be either for kids or for emergencies (the front drive models seem to have fully usable rear seats). To get to them, since the doors are conventional and not minivan-style, you have to flip one of the seats down or step over the rear console, unless you want to flip a seat down and go in through the rear.
Cargo space with all six passengers is limited, but reasonable; with four passengers, it's generous. The interior is well lighted in all positions, with simple, clever press-to-switch lights.
The optional power rear liftgate is a clever idea which can be handy when you have hands full of boxes, or friends to impress. It beeps first, then slowly opens (or closes), controlled by a button up front or by the remote control. It stops immediately when the button is pressed again, or when it hits an obstacle, making it safe.
Visibility is somewhat constricted in the rear by excessively large roof supports and a high back window, but the rear wipers help in the rain, and the front wipers are highly effective, with a powerful misted washer and good coverage of the windshield. The front side windows de-mist quickly, and the headlights are powerful and well focused, and have an automatic control option. The interior is also well lit, including the rear seat / cargo area. We thought we detected a subtle electrical defroster in the rear passenger window, a la Subaru Outback, but it was just the radio antenna (thanks to Jason A. Ongankul and "DSMLVR" for pointing that out).
The Chrysler Pacifica is an interesting entry. Compared with minivans, it is expensive and inefficient, but compared with truck-based SUVs, it is sporty, comfortable, efficient, and inexpensive. We think it's very competitive, and that the styling will be attractive to many SUV buyers who would normally turn up their noses at a practical, efficient minivan. The reasonable height, which makes getting in and out easy - and which also makes getting children in and out easy - should be a great relief to parents who settled for a Suburban or Expedition, and the extra gas mileage should offset the expense of midgrade fuel. Using the AutoStick will keep the Pacifica responsive until the transmission learns how you drive - and for most people, the defaults will be more than fast enough. The Pacifica is no slouch, and it's mostly auto journalists who regularly put the pedal to the metal. That said, the gas mileage is a concern, and driving the 3.5 hard has a big impact.
We suggest that you give a Grand Caravan or Town & Country a chance, since they offer a better value with few drawbacks other than being perhaps out of fashion. Minivan gas mileage is better than any comparably sized vehicles, and most big-SUV buyers would be shocked at minivan handling, acceleration, and comfort.
The Pacifica's comfort and convenience features eclipse some more-expensive SUVs, while the space and the ease of using the space come close to oversized SUVs. Despite the comparative lack of power, off-road capability, and cornering, we'd even rate it well against the Touareg, which has lovely features and a great drivetrain and suspension, but a third-rate user interface. We'd like to have the five-speed automatic from the Durango, better gas mileage (which might come from the five-speed), and a backup alarm system, but for the moment, the Chrysler Pacifica still stacks up well against the plentiful competition.
Click here for our main Chrysler Pacifica information page.
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