Chrysler Pacifica (2004)

"It's a minivan-like vehicle that's not supposed to look like a minivan."
Good: spacious, smooth, all-wheel drive.
Bad: third row seats, engine strain.

Here's the problem. Chrysler, now DaimlerChrysler, has dominated the minivan market for nearly two decades now. Hard to believe it's been that long, isn't it? But the trend has to be unsettling. Not only have minivan sales probably peaked, but also other manufacturers are now successfully horning in on Chrysler's action. Minivans are increasingly seen as vehicles not unlike the old family station wagon; your only real choice if you have two or more kids, but as soon as the kids go, the frumpy car goes, too.

One option for people has been a huge SUV. But as many have come to realize, they suck for a variety of reasons. So Chrysler is addressing this dilemma with the Pacifica. It's a minivan-like vehicle that's not supposed to look like a minivan. Opinions about its success in disguising itself are mixed here at Car Talk Plaza. Ray (a multiple, former Chrysler minivan owner) thinks it looks like something completely different. Tom (never a minivan owner) thinks it's clearly a slightly squashed minivan.

In any case, it certainly provides much of the utility of a minivan, including spacious seating for six (rather than seven), a low loading floor for easy access, all-wheel drive, car-like ride and handling, and good cargo room. What's different? Well, no sliding doors, a longer hood giving it a more "station wagon-like" shape, better handling, better ride, and a new name.

The all-wheel-drive Chrysler Pacifica's base price is $32,300 (the two-wheel drive version starts at $28,845). The model we drove, which was fully tricked-out, had a suggested base price approaching $36,615.

The Pacifica drives very nicely, comparable to their most luxurious minivan, the Town and Country. The ride is smooth on the highway and perfectly comfortable around town. Another nice asset: It handles better than a minivan. Does it handle like a BMW X5 or a Volvo XC-90? No. But it's certainly feels like a step up from a standard minivan. We weren't afraid to take turns at a decent speed. Like the Chrysler minivans, however, we noted that the Pacifica has that same sort of slightly slappy, insufficiently damped suspension on the bumps, especially in the rear.

The Pacifica comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine, which has more than enough power. The model we drove came with optional all-wheel drive. With a vehicle curb weight approaching 5,000 pounds, we did find that the engine strained just a very little bit when you needed to really step on the gas on the highway, but who cares? That's what engines are supposed to do at their limits, right? In our opinion, it beats hauling around a much larger and heavier engine-the full capabilities of which you might only rarely use.

The Pacifica we drove had optional Xenon headlights. The low beams give great illumination, so much so that Ray was waiting for oncoming drivers to start flashing their lights at him, convinced that the high beams were on.

The Pacifica is a very wide vehicle, with even more width than a minivan. That gives it a very spacious, luxurious feel. There's seating for six, with three rows of two seats each. Chrysler certainly could have squeezed in more seating, but they intentionally made the Pacifica more of a vehicle for adults, with generous, comfortable seats, than a vehicle for carting around narrow-butted, little offspring. The downside, compared to a traditional minivan, is that the third seats are very difficult to access because there are four regular doors instead of a minivan's sliding door and a lower ceiling. You want to get in the back seats? Good luck. Prepare to contort a bit.

One of the positive features is that the navigation display is right on the dashboard in front of the driver, on a screen within the speedometer. That makes it easier for the driver to glance at, without taking his or her eyes off the road for very long. Traditional nav screens are in the center console, where the driver has to look down and over.

The only downside of this arrangement is that one of our optically challenged (reading-glasses-wearing) testers found the instrument cluster-based screen a little small. We say, time for progressive lenses, Raymond.

Roughly speaking, the Pacifica is the same size and shape as a minivan (it's longer and slightly wider). But, the styling is modified enough to leave one wondering-depending on your angle of approach. In person, it's tall, like a minivan, but the hood makes a more wagon-like impression. There are wagon-like cues, like the four doors, and car-like center console. Chrysler is hoping that most people will see it and not say "minivan." We were divided on the issue. Have a look for yourself.

Based on our previous experience with Chrysler, we would expect the Pacifica to be about average in terms of reliability. This is a relatively new engine for Chrysler, however, and we have no real-world data. We'll be interested to see how it fares over the years. Also, the minivan, on which the Pacifica is based, has been known for its incessant squeaks and rattles. We hope that at least some of that has been solved in the pricier, more upscale Pacifica.

The overhead cam engine in the Pacifica is tightly shoehorned into its compartment-meaning, it's going to be a bit of a challenge to service. Beyond that, however, everything else is fairly straightforward. You'd be perfectly safe bringing the Pacifica to your local independent garage.

The Pacifica is a vehicle for someone who absolutely refuses to own a minivan... but needs many of the qualities of one. It's a shrewd move by Chrysler, in our opinion, to offer a minivan for the minivan-refusniks.

Who would buy the Pacifica? Well, maybe you've owned minivans in the past, and have come to like their versatility, but the kids are older and you're tired of the frump? Maybe you want a nice, comfortable car, but you've got grandkids, customers, or friends you occasionally want to haul around in comfort? Maybe you do a lot of long-distance traveling and just want something with flexibility that's not a minivan? Of course, a minivan works in all of those situations, too. But if styling is important to you, this is a nice minivan-like vehicle without, the dreaded minivan stigma. It may not be a runaway hit, but we're guessing that Chrysler is filling a niche here.

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