Proof positive that the minivan ain’t dead
If you thought the minivan had one foot in the grave, think again. Chrysler, or more specifically, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has 2 billion reasons that say otherwise, as that’s precisely the amount of money FCA invested in the new Pacifica, the van it believes can put segment leaders such as the Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, and Toyota Sienna clearly in its rearview. Those three competitors alone sold more than 310,000 units in 2015, so, as Chrysler points out, the minivan segment is a mere sliver of SUV sales, but it’s nothing to scoff at, either. In fact, when factoring in FCA’s nameplates—the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan—as well as the Nissan Quest, 2015 calendar year minivan sales topped 512,000. That’s more than a million sliding doors. Whoa. And with the Pacifica, Chrysler is looking to capture at least a quarter of the market.
To do so, the Pacifica will need to be not only class-competitive but also class-leading, both in price and performance. Let’s first examine price. The base LX starts at $29,590 USD and includes a power driver seat, active noise cancellation, six-speaker audio, 17-inch alloy wheels, a backup camera, auto up/down power windows (in the first row), and Chrysler’s trademark Stow ‘n Go second-row seats. And lest we forget, a 287-horsepower V-6 and a nine-speed automatic come standard, too. For context, an Odyssey LX opens at $30,300 USD, a Sedona L at $27,295 USD, and a Sienna L at $29,750 USD. And you guessed it: None quite matches the equipment level of the Pacifica. Like all base trims, though, the Pacifica LX is projected to be a small slice of the pie (around 8 percent), with the three Touring trims ($31,490 USD Touring, $35,490 USD Touring-L, and $38,890 USD Touring-L Plus) accounting for the bulk of sales (roughly 72 percent), thanks to such additional equipment as satellite radio, power sliding doors, 18-inch wheels, auto headlights (Touring); leather seats, remote start, three-zone auto climate control, foglights, a power liftgate, rear park assist with stop, blind-spot monitor, rear cross path detection (Touring-L); heated steering wheel and second-row seats, power passenger seat, 13-speaker Alpine audio, 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen, and Uconnect Theater rear seat entertainment (Touring-L Plus). The top-dog $43,490 USD Limited (around 20 percent of the mix) adds such niceties as Nappa leather seats, a power third row, ventilated front seats, 3-D navigation, HID headlights, LED foglights, power folding mirrors, hands-free sliding doors and liftgate, a tri-pane panoramic sunroof, 20-inch wheels, the Stow ‘n Vac vacuum, and an optional 20-speaker Harman Kardon audio system (also available on Touring-L Plus). If more than $40,000 USD sounds like a lot, well, that’s the going rate for a loaded minivan—an Odyssey Touring Elite retails for $45,775 USD, a Sedona SXL for $40,795 USD, and a Sienna Limited Premium for $46,170 USD.
On a two-day drive event in Southern California, during which we sampled a Touring-L Plus and a Limited, the Pacifica thoroughly impressed with its performance and functionality. Riding on an all-new platform with 22 percent more high-strength steel and close to 130 meters of structural adhesives—thus boasting a 68 percent increase in stiffness—the Pacifica proved as solid as it did quiet. No squeaks or rattles and minimal wind and road noise. An eight-passenger vault, if you will. The lack of noise is thanks in part to best-in-class aerodynamics—a welcome bonus to the elegantly, painstakingly penned sheetmetal—as well as triple door seals, an acoustic headliner, and use of “quiet steel” in the rear Stow ‘n Go tub. The 3.6-liter, 287-horse Pentastar V-6 and TorqueFlite nine-speed automatic, good for 18/28 mpg (13/8.4 L/100km) city/highway, moved the Pacifica along with authority, delivering seamless operation and quick response. This is FCA’s best execution of the nine-speed thus far. Our sole gripe is the lack of shift paddles; the only way to manually drop gears is to turn the rotary shift knob to L and let a computer do the work.
At an estimated 4,300 pounds (1,950 kg), the Pacifica is about 250 pounds (113 kg) lighter than the old Town & Country. Credit the weight loss to the bump in high-strength steel, not to mention the introduction of aluminum sliding doors and an aluminum-magnesium liftgate. New, too, is an independent rear suspension (so long, torsion beam) that in conjunction with the mass reduction provides a refined and sporty ride and handling balance. Nicely calibrated electric power steering, larger four-wheel disc brakes, and available 245/50R20 tires helped make short work of what twisty roads we encountered. And should you need to haul a boat or camper, the Pacifica comes with a 3,600-pound (1,633 kg) tow rating.
Inside, the Pacifica offers 197.3 cubic feet of interior volume, which is best in the minivan segment. Cavernous seems an inadequate descriptor. The third row folds flat into the rear cargo well (one-touch power operation on the Limited), and the Stow ‘n Go second row disappears into the floor following a painless and quick five-step process. And if you think Stow ‘n Go is cool, wait till you try your hand at Stow ‘n Vac. Located in the C-pillar for easy access to the first and second rows (where research showed the most dirt, sand, and crumbs to collect), Stow ‘n Vac offers nearly 23 feet of hose, multiple adapters, and a washable filter.
In addition to being highly functional, the Pacifica’s cabin is unexpectedly elegant. Interior color accents include Mineral Shiitake, Cranberry Wine, Deep Mocha, and Liquid Titanium. Sound like a minivan to you? From the stitching to the piping to the gauges to the vents, the contrast and attention to detail are exquisite. Further, the 8.4-inch interface is the first Uconnect screen with an all-flush appearance, and the dual 10.1-inch screens of the Uconnect Theater, ready to play DVDs, Blu-rays, and a host of apps (solitaire, tic-tac-toe, etc.), fold neatly away into the front seat backs. Even the remote control is hefty and handsome, like it belongs in a fancy home theater.
Given that safety and minivan have become synonymous, Chrysler expects the Pacifica to achieve the highest scores from NHTSA and IIHS, what with its full array of passive (eight airbags) and active (360-degree surround view camera, blind-spot monitor, hill start assist, parallel/perpendicular park assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning plus, lane departure warning plus) safety technology.
Slapping aggressive price tags on a minivan is one thing. Backing it up with best-in-class performance and functionality is another. With Pacifica, Chrysler has successfully managed to do both. And it has sculpted what is for all intents and purposes a box into a sleek, sexy benchmark of style. Oh, did we mention that an 80-MPGe plug-in Hybrid with 30-mile (48-km) all-electric range is coming later in the year, too? The only question for the competition is how high has Pacifica raised the bar.