First Drive: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica

Although minivans are gradually becoming an endangered species, the few remaining offerings in North America are the most resilient survivors, and this latest evolution from Chrysler quickly makes a case for best of breed.

This latest evolution from Chrysler quickly makes a case for best of breed.

Despite the shrinking number of minivan models available, the minivan market has been fairly constant for the top players in the segment, with rising sales for the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey over the past few years, even with the Kia rejoining the fray with the Sedona carving out a nice little chunk of the pie chart. While its competitors have been coming on strong, Chrysler and Dodge had a rough 2015, selling 85,000 fewer minivans than 2014 as the aging Town & Country and Grand Caravan were eclipsed by better, newer offerings from Toyota, Honda and Kia.  But a New Hope was on the way, and now it has arrived, with a new name to go along with its new platform and new everything. Well, everything except Stow n’ Go; that’s not new, and it remains awesome and is even improved.

After many long years on the market, Chrysler truly started from scratch with an architecture that might again have to serve another long product cycle. With that in mind, Chrysler pulled out all the stops, creating the lightest, stiffest platform in its class through the extensive use of lightweight, high-strength materials in targeted areas. Aluminum for the hood, doors and control arms, innovative cast magnesium inner liftgate with aluminum shell, magnesium instrument panel beam, and Stow n’ Go tubs made of steel, which now form an integral part of the vehicle’s ‘backbone’ structure. Throughout the vehicle, Chrysler used 22 percent more high-strength steel, and almost half that an advanced alloy of high-strength steel. Overall, the Pacifica weighs in at 1,964 kg for the gasoline models, 113 kg lighter and still powered by a satisfying V6.

In fact, Chrysler’s Pentastar V6 is another star of the show for the Pacifica and all the Fiat Chrysler brands, seeing service in vehicles as eclectic as minivans, family sedans and pickup trucks.  The 3.6L Pentastar V6 and its 287 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque are paired with a nine-speed automatic. Acceleration is more than adequate in all conditions, and the nine-speed transmission helps the Pacifica achieve 8.4 L/100 km highway and 12.9 in the city. Also helping on the efficiency front is that sleek exterior boasting a 0.30 coefficient of drag, so it’s not just a pretty shape.

We’ve appreciated the Pentastar in pretty much everything we’ve ever tried, and it continues to impress, but the nine-speed transmission still tends to swap gears just a little too much and isn’t entirely seamless about the process; we can’t help but wonder what issues are going to crop up with this transmission over time after numerous other problems with Chrysler’s nine-speed transmission.

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However, the Pentastar V6 and nine-speed is not the only powertrain combo for the new Pacifica. The Pacifica will also soon feature a new plug-in hybrid option, pairing the same 3.6L V6 – at a lower 248 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque – with what Chrysler calls a “Single Input - Electrically Variable Transmission (SI-EVT)” (catchy, right?). This innovative transmission incorporates two electric motors directly into the transmission, either of which can drive the wheels. The electric power source is a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery, giving the Pacifica Hybrid about 48 km of engine-off electric cruising if fully charged, and contribute to an efficiency rating of 2.9 Le/100 km, NRCan’s measuring scale for mixed electric and gas vehicles (combined electricity cost and gasoline consumption equivalent to the amount of gasoline consumed per 100 km).

Conceivably, if your daily circuit is under 50 km and you equip your home with a Stage 2 charger for consistently full charges overnight, you’d be filling up at the pumps far less frequently, possibly as little as once or twice a month instead of every week. While pricing has not yet been announced, BC provides a $5,000 rebate for vehicles equipped with batteries over 15-kWh, while $8,000 is on the table in Quebec and in Ontario up to $13,000 depending on how official pricing shakes down, possibly undercutting the price of equivalent gasoline trims in those markets with Canada’s largest urban centres. We’ll have a full report on the Pacifica Hybrid closer to its launch later this year.

But for now, the good ol’ V6 will lead the charge, split into Touring-L, Touring-L Plus and Limited Trim, with a handful of standalone options and packages. The standard features list is immense, so we’ll skip to the highlights, a five-inch version of Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system for audio, with a one-year subscription to satellite radio included, Bluetooth connectivity (and later in the year Apple CarPlay Android Auto), power driver’s seat, heated front seats, power sliding doors and windows, window shades, Keyless Enter ’n Go with proximity entry and push-button start, remote start, back-up camera and, of course, Stow n’ Go.

Chrysler really wants us to start seeing Chrysler as more of an upscale brand so they are positioning the Pacifica as a premium vehicle in Canada (it has a couple more lower trims in the States), starting at a very high level of feature content, while Dodge will continue to sell the current Grand Caravan as a value-conscious offering for families and the practically minded. Essentially, the Grand Caravan will serve those shopping in the $20-40K price range, while the Pacifica will duke it out with the Siennas and Odysseys in the 40s and 50s. A tall order? Perhaps it is for people to accept those price tags with that brand, long the whipping boy of car snobs and reliability-ratings fiends and trailing Europeans and Japanese and recently Korean brands for quality, but the Pacifica builds on the progress we’ve seen in recent redesigns of the 300 and 200.

The Pacifica is a very nice car, inside and out, with fine materials that eclipse anything in the class, which we have sampled very recently in a closely fought comparison test. The Pacifica is simply nicer. Materials are a generation ahead (as they should be, with a best-in-class user interface in the cabin, excellent seat comfort, and a few choice features that are practically minded rather than flash and hype. Exhibit A: Stow ‘n Go. Every minivan has third-row fold-in-floor seats, but the Pacifica offers second-row fold-in-floor seats with in-floor storage. It even has Stow ’n Go Assist driver’s seat, in which the driver’s seat slides and tilts forward to make way for the second row seats to tumble into their storage wells. The third row easily drops into the deep cargo well with a simple tug on the strap, and it takes little more effort to raise each side back up.

Exhibit B: Second-row seats can be tilted and flipped forward even with a child seat installed, allowing older siblings or even adults to sneak by into the generous third row that is, in fact, reasonable for adult to sit. Nissan was first to market with this feature on their Pathfinder, followed by Honda in their Odyssey, but the Pacifica embraces it and executes it as well as anyone.

Of course, the advantage of the minivan over pretty much any SUV or crossover is the generous cargo space with the seats in place or stowed. With three rows of seating in place, the Pacifica offers 915 litres in a deep trunk, with enough space for bulky items and a pretty serious Costco run. If you only need two rows for passengers, 2,478 litres are available for cargo, with a maximum of 3,979 litres for moving day, and the exact interior dimensions to accommodate 4x8 sheets of plywood or drywall for that basement project you keep meaning to do.

Another convenience that messy families will appreciate is the built-in Stow ’n Vac (on Limited trim models) integrated vacuum powered by Ridgid, with a bagless canister. It’s mounted just aft of the side door opening, so it’s easier to reach the most used and messiest real estate – the second row seats. Chrysler will also offer a hands-free power liftgate and dual sliding doors shortly after launch, and a 360-degree parking monitor will also be available the Limited trim’s arsenal of conveniences.

As with any recent launch, active safety joins the arsenal of selling features, and the Pacifica now offers Forward Collision Warning with Active Braking, Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist, while Parallel and Perpendicular Park Assist and adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go are at the forefront of modern driving conveniences. While we did not have the opportunity to test the self-parking tech, the adaptive cruise worked well in stop-and-go LA traffic. Also look for blind-spot monitoring to keep you safe during lane changes and Park-Sense rear park assist with active braking and rear cross-path detection make parking safely a less worrisome affair.

Beyond the three basic trims (whose feature content I’ve listed after the pricing), Chrysler also offers a few standalone packages and options, like eight-passenger seating, 8.4-inch Uconnect screen and triple sunroof on lower trims, audio upgrades, those advanced driver safety features, and Uconnect Theatre, dual 10-inch headrest-mounted touchscreens for second-row passengers. Uconnect Theatre can play DVDs or hook up to game consoles, and even has its own array of games and activities. I think the cleverest one was “Are We There Yet?” – a navigation extension that provides pesky little brats with reports on your progress to the destination entered in the route guidance. We found the headrest-mounted screen was too much of a reach for little ones between 2-5, so a tablet hooked up to the available onboard wifi might still be the best tool to quiet restless kids on long (and sometimes not-so-long) trips.

If your kids are a bit older and have their learner’s permits or licenses, Pacifica has a nifty feature I like to call the ‘teenager key’ (my term, not Chrysler’s). It is a programmable fob that lets you limit speed and audio volume, make certain features un-turn-off-able (like Forward Collision Warning and Rear Park Assist), plus you can limit selection of SiriusXM satellite radio channels.

While not the core mission of any minivan, the Pacifica drives well enough to almost make you forget you're driving a minivan, without compromising on the required comfort for a family vehicle.  Let’s not kid ourselves, a minivan is not the tool you choose to carve up a canyon road, but if that’s all you got, that is the car you’re taking on the long road trip that might take you through fun curvy roads. The Pacifica generally stays out of its own way and stays composed without any sort of rough ride. The steering is light but steady, so you feel in control as the vehicle responds promptly and precisely, without feeling like your piloting a small school bus or moving truck. Most importantly, the ride is always comfortable, the Pacifica absorbing bumps easily, and the chairs are supportive and accommodating, with better cushioning and support on the second row Stow ‘n Go seats. Even the third row is spacious and manageable for adult passengers.

The new Chrysler minivan is packed with the kind of technology you can see and use, but it also wisely uses the latest engineering to deliver unexpected driving competence along with safety and efficiency gains that make it a leader in the segment. It also sheds some dowdy styling for a sleek new look that embraces the long, low and wide shape that a minivan requires to accomplish its function, with novel touches like the wraparound rear window cutout and hidden rails for the sliding doors to give it a streamlined shape.

While improving the breed and the brand in pretty much every way it remains to be seen if the Pacifica can regain lost market share in North America and revive the image of the minivan from practical last resort to a smart and stylish alternative to the trending SUV that better serves more of a family’s needs.

Pricing: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Base Price (Touring-L): $43,995
Base Price (Touring-L Plus): $46,995
Base Price (Limited): $52,995

Standard features: 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, roof rails, leather seating with heated driver and front passenger seats, 12-way power driver’s seat, rear power sliding doors and power liftgate, power windows and locks, tri-zone automatic temperature control, Active Noise Cancellation, leather-wrapped steering wheel with mounted audio and cruise controls, cupholders, trays and cubbies galore, Sunscreen glass with second- and third-row window shades, capless fuel filler, Uconnect 5.0 with five-inch touchscreen and six speakers, SiriusXM satellite radio with one-year subscription, Bluetooth phone and audio, USB charging port and two 12-volt auxiliary power outlets, overhead ambient and courtesy lighting, spy mirror, universal garage door opener, Keyless Enter ’n Go with proximity entry and push-button start, remote start, back-up camera, tire pressure monitoring and Stow n’ Go.

Touring-L Plus: Blind-spot monitoring, Park-Sense rear park assist with active braking and rear cross-path detection; power 12-way adjustable front passenger seat with Stow ’n Go Assist (which is standard on the driver’s seat), heated steering wheel and second-row seats; “Deluxe Insulation Group” with acoustic windshield and Active Noise Control; 506-watt stereo; 13 speakers; Uconnect 8.4 (8.4-inch touchscreen); customizable 7-inch full-colour in-cluster display in gauges; second- and third-row USB charging ports.

Limited: Ventilated, perforated Nappa leather seats; power-folding third-row seat, two-tone steering wheel; premium dash materials, navigation for UConnect, HID headlights with LED fog lamps and DRLs, 18-inch alloys with a driver’s memory system for exterior mirrors, seat and radio presets and a triple pane sunroof.

Although minivans are gradually becoming an endangered species, the few remaining offerings in North America are the most resilient... 5/18/2016 11:02:28 AM