There must be something in the air. Maybe it’s the beginning of wedding season, or Mother’s Day, but we’ve been deluged with family cars at Autos Cheat Sheet lately — not necessarily the hottest crossovers on the market, but good, old-fashioned minivans. This month alone, my colleague Micah Wright spent a week in Toyota’s one-off performance-focused (yes, you read that right) Sienna SE+, while I spent time tooling around New York City in Kia’s plush Sedona SXL. While millennial families seem to avoid the segment at all costs, minivans have gotten pretty great; but while today’s purpose-built tanks have been designed from the ground up for hardcore family duty, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Enter the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.
Fiat Chrysler spent over $2 billion developing its next-generation minivan, and why not? It invented the segment back in 1984, when the Dodge Caravan appeared and revolutionized suburban life for the next two decades. In recent years, the segment has lost serious ground to crossovers and SUVs, but that isn’t just because young parents don’t want to drive what their parents did. Minivans have stayed boxy and utilitarian while crossovers have become more family-friendly and car-like. The market has shifted a lot in 32 years, and Chrysler has finally, thankfully, brought the minivan into the 21st century.
On paper, the Pacifica wows based on superlatives alone. It has 37 segment firsts. Its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 makes 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful in its segment. With all that torque, it can tow up up to 3,600 pounds, another industry-leader. It returns an average 28 miles per gallon, tying with the current Honda Odyssey, but considering the horsepower advantage, it’s a pretty impressive feat.
Its independent rear suspension makes it handle like anything but a minivan, it’s all-new platform makes it 250 pounds lighter than the outgoing Town & Country while being twice as rigid, all but eliminating the squeaks, rattles, and shimmies that most minivan drivers know all too well. Chrysler thinks it’s enough to give the van a (relatively) blank slate; the venerable T&C and Dodge Caravan nameplates — and all their baggage — are gone. The Pacifica is all-new, and it certainly feels it.
The reinvention of the minivan carries on with the Pacifica’s exterior styling. While competitors like the Odyssey and Sedona still wear the blank, slab-sided look pioneered by the ’80s-era Caravan, the Pacifica is aggressively sculpted, eliminating segment hallmarks like a blunt front end, and obvious rear door rails. Chrysler has done an excellent job integrating design language from the handsome but doomed 200 sedan, and it works surprisingly well on this large application. Big 18-inch wheels come standard, but if you want to fill the wheel wells, Chrysler also offers 20-inch wheels — another exclusive in the segment.
Inside is a mix of the familiar and the unexpected. Up front, the cabin is reminiscent of the 300C, an interior we absolutely loved. But the Pacifica also benefits from Chrysler’s next-generation “disassociated” 8.4-inch touchscreen in the dash. Seamlessly integrated into the center console, it no longer has an awkward plastic bezel around it, and gives the dash a clean, sophisticated look. Being the family hauler it is however, below dash there’s a bin sized to fit a purse, a compartment big enough to hold an iPad, and the Blu-ray player for the rear screens.
Chrysler’s popular Stow ‘N Go flat-fold seats return in the Pacifica, but they’ve been thoroughly redesigned, with the second-row collapsing easier, and with its hardware relocated to increase third-row legroom. As a result, the van can transform from a seven-seat (there is an option for an extra second-row throne) family car to work van in minutes, with 140.5 cubic feet opening up behind the front seats (with 167.7 cubic feet total, the Pacifica’s interior has a 4.2 cubic foot advantage over the outgoing T&C).
And since the Pacifica isn’t just competing with other minivans, it arguably offers more family-friendly amenities than any other car on the market. It has an optional vacuum like the Honda Odyssey, but Chrysler tapped Rigid (of wet-vac fame) to design the Pacifica’s, so it should be able to handle the worst messes your kids can concoct. To keep them pacified (no pun intended), the optional UConnect Theater package offers a pair of 10.1-inch hi-def touchscreens with a suite of built-in video games. It includes sets of noise-cancelling headphones, touch-sensitive remote controls, and the ability to control volume from the front seats — or mute an individual pair should one of the kids fall asleep.
Of course, safety is the most important aspect in a family car, and the Pacifica doesn’t disappoint. A rear backup camera comes standard, and adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and blind spot monitoring are available as well. It has an available 360-degree surround view camera (a feature I loved on the Kia Sedona) for parallel parking, knee airbags up front, and next-generation side curtains for everybody else. And if you can’t stop in time, the available Forward Collision Warning Plus is designed to make up the difference and hard-stop. All of these safety features may have been on my mind when I took a Pacifica Limited around midtown Manhattan recently.
Midtown west is a massive construction site; in five years, it’ll look completely unrecognizable. On my way to the Pacifica event, I had to traverse two jackhammer crews, the water company, gridlock, and a number of potholes deep enough to break an ankle in. As soon as I shut the door to my test Pacifica Limited however, it all went away. The latest-generation sound insulation and active noise cancellation makes this thing incredibly quiet in the chaos of a Manhattan afternoon, and the amenities inside reminded me more of the loaded 300C Limited I reviewed a few months ago than the Dodge Caravans I grew up in as a kid.
While I loved the fit and finish on the Kia Sedona I just tested, the Limited’s interior was notably better. The craftsmanship was top-notch, with soft-touch materials and leather everywhere. But unlike the Kia, which had an almost delicate quality to it, Chrysler’s van feels luxurious and rugged; I can’t imagine the Pacifica not being able to handle the daily grind of the average family. But while the base Pacifica LX starts at $28,585 — $1,400 cheaper than the outgoing Town & Country — the Limited is expensive enough to give you sticker shock. It starts at $42,495, and my loaded tester rang up at a hefty $47,480.
In my brief time at the wheel, the van performed nobly, handling the stop-and-go, potholes, and general mayhem of the city with ease. The suite of safety features seamlessly picked up where my mirrors and windows left off, and the big V6 moved the 4,350-pound van well enough to not leave me wanting for anything when accelerating for lane changes and stop lights. Overall, the quiet ride, forgiving but responsive suspension, and power made its performance in New York City not just good for a minivan, but good for any car.
I may have a certain nostalgia for minivans (hey, I came of age in the ’90s), but I was unexpectedly wowed by the Pacifica. It’s certainly the best minivan I’ve driven, but it might be better than a number of popular crossovers too. If I had a growing family and was given the choice between a new Honda Pilot (which we tested earlier this year) and the Pacifica, I’d probably take the Pacifica. It looks better than most bloated crossovers, the interior is great, it can tow, carry, and haul virtually anything you throw at it, and it handles like a car. If Chrysler plays its cards right, this thing could set off a one-model minivan revival. It’s just that good.