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Payne: Chrysler Pacifica minivan makeover

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Outside an elementary school in Pasadena, California, my 6-year-old nephew and four of his buddies crawled all the all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica’s interior. Call them Minivan Minions: They gleefully performed the stow ’n’ go trick of making the second- and third-row seats disappear into the Pacifica’s floor. After a flurry of pressed buttons, pulled levers and collapsed furniture, they stood triumphantly in the cavernous trunk.

“Whoa! This car is better than my Dad’s Tesla!” exclaimed one.

Who says minivans aren’t cool? An older friend breaks out in smiles at the mention of “Town and Country” because her rock band toured the country in one. What else will easily fit the neck of a bass guitar? A motorhead pal swears by his Dodge Caravan, which he fills with car parts from junkyard sales. Heck, even your 6-foot-5 scribe finds a Chrysler hauler the best mobile office in town. Climb in the spacious third row, flatten the middle seat — instant ottoman! — and I can work on my laptop for hours.

No, that infamous minivan stigma comes from you moms out there. You know who you are. Ahem, Mrs. Payne.

My better half represents a sizable demographic who swore they would never set foot in a breadbox on wheels. No sooner had minivans replaced the dreaded station wagon than the SUV came along and replaced the dreaded minivan. Soccer moms embraced high-riding utes, and minivan sales plummeted from 1.4 million in 1990 to some 513,000 last year.

So for ’17, Chrysler brought in heavy artillery to advance its next-generation van: a soccer-mom designer and a new name.

“I didn’t have a minivan stigma when I started this project,” says Pacifica exterior designer Irena Zavatski. “But I was determined that no one else would have one either.”

So the Russian emigre and mother of two set about making a curvaceous minivan that didn’t look like a minivan. Oooh, it’s pretty. Beginning with a Chrysler 200-esque front grille, the Pacifica’s lines swoop and dive and tumble like waves on, well ... the Pacific(a) Ocean.

Two signature details deserve attention: The lower front grille is tied off at the ends like a Brach’s candy wrapper. And the body’s character line extends from the front fender before wrapping around the rear wheel well.

You can almost trace the lines of Zavatski’s brush as the chrome highlights flow thick to thin across her vehicle canvas. With the C-pillar blacked out, the side windows add proportion. It reminded me of the lovely VW Passat wagon I drove in France last summer. Or — more familiar to U.S. eyes — the Mercedes R-Class wagon.

That’s right, I’m comparing a Chrysler minivan to a Mercedes. Zavatski and her team worked with engineers on an entirely new minivan platform that pushes the wheels to the car’s perimeter, creating a more planted, athletic stance than the traditional breadbox. Replace the R-class wagon’s four doors with sliders and you’d swear Mercedes and Chrysler had never divorced.

Indeed, the first vehicle Mercedes and Chrysler collaborated on after their ill-fated marriage was the segment-busting, first-ever crossover: the 2004 Pacifica.

Built on the minivan platform, the original five-door Pacifica was curvy and sculpted. It was the anti-minivan for the minivan-shy mom. Sound familiar?

If it weren’t for marketing and quality mishaps, that cutting-edge crossover might still be with us today looking very much like the current van. Alas, it was discontinued in 2008.

But not before Mrs. Payne and I bought one. We raised our two boys in the Pacifica’s second-row captain’s chairs. My wife, then, should be in the demographic bulls-eye of Chrysler’s new product initiative.

Would she give a Pacifica minivan a look? You bet, though she stumbled over the absence of all-wheel drive.

It’s a rare oversight in the superb new product. But Chrysler has other priorities at the moment — like a plug-in hybrid to wow California soccer moms and meet that state’s onerous EV quotas. With its batteries in the basement, the first-ever battery-powered minivan will sacrifice its stow ’n’ go middle seats. But it will gain a low center of gravity and 30 miles of electric-only range. Check this space when the minivan-with-a-plug debuts this fall.

All-wheel drive will come. In the meantime, this front-wheel boat won’t make you seasick. Credit a stiffer chassis and a superb, weighted helm — er, steering wheel — that instills instant confidence. South of Los Angeles I dared to take the Pacifica where few minivans dare tread — on the switchbacks high over Lake Elsinore. It’s no sports car, but it competently navigated the mountain.

Happily, my inner boy-racer is distracted in the minivan because Chrysler’s interior is the best thing on wheels.

Like Honda’s class-bestselling Odyssey, Chrysler wisely chooses an open console so women can deposit their purses on the floor. The center island is unchanged from the Town and Country, but the front console turns into a digital bureau with the best-in-class UConnect infotainment system and a sliding drawer for iPods, socks whatever.

Echoing the exterior, the dash is beautifully sculpted with horizontal strokes that complement the exterior’s widened stance. If it weren’t for the faux-leather stitched material (you tell the difference?) it would be right at home in pricier, luxury chariots. Of particular note are the dash’s modular elements, shaped (appropriately) like an artist palette. Unlike Honda and Toyota, which leave blank buttons for vehicle options, no space in Pacifica is wasted. With new options come added buttons — or they are stashed just a touch away in UConnect’s screen.

The attention to detail is everywhere. And every detail is where it should be: Vacuum cleaner behind the left middle seat. The three-prong plug behind the right one (where I charged my laptop). Third-row moonroof with passenger-operated shade. Buttons on the inside of each B-pillar to close the doors — or to move the front seats forward to begin the stow ’n’ go procedure.

Quality-challenged Chrysler has been top-of-class in JD Power Initial Quality ratings for minivans. That must continue with a new platform.

Only the balky navigation system disappoints, as it does in nearly every vehicle compared to a smartphone’s Google Maps. Wait for the 2018 (AWD?) model which gets Apple Car Play and Android Auto.

The Pacifica makes minivans cool again. Put one in the garage next to your Tesla — and see which one your Minions prefer.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Reach him at Or Twitter: @HenryEPayne

2017 Chrysler Pacifica


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front wheel drive, seven- or eight-passenger minivan

Price: $29,590 base ($47,480 Limited as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6

Power: 287 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (NA); 3,600-pound towing capacity

Weight: 4,330 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Artful styling; best-in-class interior versatility

Lows: Limited version gets pricey; all-wheel drive, please


Grading scale

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