The better team on paper doesn’t always win the game
This semifinal brings us the most interesting matchup of the entire series. Conceptually, little separates the minivan from the three-row crossover, but functionality and image play massive roles. After all, both classes offer seating for seven or eight passengers, available all-wheel drive (Toyota Sienna, all three-row crossovers), hybrid powertrains (Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Highlander), the ability to tow, and the space to take it all with you. Still, even good-looking minivans like the 2019 Chrysler Pacifica are too often seen as frumpy mom-mobiles, and rugged-looking crossovers like the 2019 Subaru Ascent earn style points on their way to the gym. But should they?
MotorTrend’s March Mayhem is here! As part of our quest to find the best family car, we invited eight vehicles to compete in a winner-take-all bracket. After defeating their direct competitors in the first round, the 2019 Chrysler Pacifica S Limited minivan will face off against the 2019 Subaru Ascent Touring AWD three-row crossover in the semifinals.
Let’s first get one thing out of the way. If your lifestyle regularly involves towing heavier loads and going deeper into the woods than a dirt road, just get the crossover. If, like most people, you don’t do either of those things, this test is for you.
Whether it’s ground clearance and trailer weight or acceleration and cargo capacity, turning to the test numbers for guidance is tempting. In this case, though, they’re not as helpful as they seem.
Take performance as an example. The instrumented test results tell us the Ascent pulls greater average lateral g around a skidpad and goes around our figure-eight test more quickly. On a winding road, however, the Pacifica feels more confident and planted than the tippy Subaru. More critically, in emergency lane changes, the Pacifica is far more stable and controlled. Despite weighing less, posting greater handling numbers, and boasting better weight distribution, the Ascent required much more stability control and brake intervention to counteract oversteer and mitigate roll. There’s no question which would feel more secure with a vehicle full of kids in a real emergency. We should note, of course, both vehicles offer a full suite of active driver aids and safety systems, and Subaru makes them standard on all models.
Now, break out the measuring tape. Second-row head-, shoulder-, and legroom are all within an inch or two of each other, and the step-in height is identical. The numbers don’t tell you the Pacifica’s sliding doors make loading a child seat and/or child significantly easier thanks to the larger door opening or that the Pacifica’s child seat anchors are easier to access. They don’t tell you the minivan’s second-row seats are just as comfortable despite being designed to fold into the floor, or that ordering the removable second-row center seat doesn’t impede your ability to stow the second-row seats. Nor do the numbers tell you the Ascent’s second-row seats slide forward and back and recline while the Pacifica’s only recline. The tape measure will tell you, though, that you won’t have to lift your kid’s sports gear as high to get it into the Pacifica’s trunk.
The numbers also don’t mention that any child who can reach the door handle can let themselves in and out of the Pacifica or that the parents can open the sliding doors and rear hatch with buttons inside and out, from a key fob from 50 feet away, or with a kicking motion. And they don’t tell you about the awkward conversations you’ll avoid because your kid can’t ding the adjacent car’s door.
Then there are things like ride quality. We can measure this, but the numbers won’t necessarily tell you the Ascent feels softer in every way. It’s a boon over bumps, but it comes at the cost of more roll in corners and a generally floaty disposition compared to the Pacifica’s buttoned-down, purposeful, and equally comfortable demeanor. It’s a toss-up for who wins the race for the last parking spot; just know the family will appreciate being tossed around less in the Pacifica.
However, the Ascent’s smoother continuously variable transmission makes the drive just a little more pleasant for passengers than the sometimes stiff-shifting nine-speed automatic in the Pacifica.
When it comes down to it, though, the minivan’s advantage is in its clarity of purpose. Although the three-row crossover can be made family friendly, the Pacifica, like the rest of its segment, is designed for families, period.
It’s not just the big things like the second-row seats and doors or the optional vacuum cleaner. It’s not just the rear-seat entertainment system, which many crossovers don’t offer. (Subaru will sell you a pair of iPads connected to in-vehicle Wi-Fi, which the Chrysler also has.) It’s not just the Pacifica’s plethora of storage compartments and cubbies and bins and clever features like a tray for your wet umbrella. It’s all of them together, and Chrysler’s reassurance that this minivan was researched, designed, tested, and focus-grouped with families from the start—not adapted to meet their needs while still trying to be other things to other groups, as well.
The Subaru Ascent is a great three-row crossover that works wonderfully for families with kids in the booster-seat to teenage range. The Chrysler Pacifica has that extra bandwidth to serve all families from cradle to college. That makes it a better family vehicle—and the winner of a trip to the finals.
|2019 Chrysler Pacifica S Limited||2019 Subaru Ascent Touring AWD|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$52,605||$45,670|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 7-pass, 4-door van||Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.6L/287-hp/262-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6||2.4L/260-hp/277-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4,609 lb (56/44%)||4,566 lb (54/46%)|
|WHEELBASE||121.6 in||113.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||203.8 x 79.6 x 69.9 in||196.8 x 76.0 x 71.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.6 sec||7.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.9 sec @ 89.9 mph||15.6 sec @ 91.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||124 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.78 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.2 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)||27.2 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||19/28/22 mpg||20/26/22 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||177/120 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.87 lb/mile||0.87 lb/mile|