Chrysler Pacific bridges gap between minivan and SUV

Friday, August 29, 2003

srobertson

Chrysler Pacific bridges the gap between minivan and SUV

A friend who lives up the street was asking me for car advice the other day. It became obvious to me that the only vehicles under consideration were in the trendy SUV category.

"Why does everyone want an SUV?" I wondered. Not being a sport utility vehicle owner myself, I have a hard time grasping the fascination with them.

The SUV category is the hottest, fastest growing segment in the auto industry. From the entry-level Honda Element to the gazillion-dollar Hummer H2, SUVs seem to be in every driveway and in front of you at every stoplight.

Who would have thought that the most popular stolen vehicle would be a Cadillac SUV! All you Escalade owners should keep your full-coverage insurance in place until the bad guys rediscover SPCs (Sporty Performance Cars) are a lot more fun to drive.

Which is why I was so tickled to get my hands on this week's test vehicle, the Chrysler Pacifica, which is trying hard to define a whole new category -- the Sport Tourer. To paraphrase a Wall Street saying, if past achievement is any indication of future performance, Chrysler will be successful. After all, Chrysler invented the minivan craze, pretty much dominated the muscle car era, and got everyone scratching his or her heads trying to come up with a catchy name for the "PT Cruiser era."

What is the Pacifica exactly? That's hard to say. You can't tell by looking at the photos, but the sporty-looking Pacifica is a large, heavy vehicle. It weighs a portly 4,700 pounds. Would you be surprised if I told you that the biggest, heaviest American luxury car on the road, the Lincoln Town Car, weighs 200 pounds less than a Pacifica? What's even more interesting is that if you held a drag race between the luxurious Town Car and the "sporting" Pacifica, it would be a very close race! The Pacifica's V6 has a more ponies that the Town Car, but the Town Car's big V8 puts out vastly more torque, and that, combined with its weight advantage, would probably cause some embarrassment to the new sporty guy on the block.

Why is the Pacifica not an SUV? For one thing, there's a lack of ground clearance. Even the tamest SUV we've reviewed in these pages, the Rendezvous, stands 7 inches above the snow and ice, and requires its occupants to climb up into their seats. The Pacifica sits an inch and a half closer to the ground, and you don't have to say "climb aboard" to your passengers, as you do if you drive an SUV from Ford, GM or Jeep. Even though the Pacifica is offered in all-wheel drive guise, it is not offered with low-range gears or locking differentials.

Is the Pacifica just a minivan in SUV clothing? Perhaps. It comes out of the Chrysler plant where the company's biggest minivan, the Town and Country, is produced, and compared to that vehicle, it is 1.7 inches shorter, and rides on a wheelbase that is 3 inches shorter. The roofline is 2.4 inches lower, and the front track is 3 inches wider. Compared to SUVs the Pacifica looks lower, wider, and more stable. I like to think of it as a Pontiac Grand Prix station wagon on steroids ... which is pretty exciting when you think about it!

Lest you think I don't like the Pacifica, let me set you straight: everyone who rode and drove the new Chrysler, including my friend Paul who helped me change the right rear tire at night, in the dirt, slapping misquotes, had nothing but nice things to say. That's right, we had a flat! And on a Friday, evening, after supper, with our dates on board! Bummer. But I can tell you that the Pacifica comes with a real spare tire, thoughtfully mounted under the floor. You simply turn a bolt with the jack handle and the spare lowers to the ground.

I'll also tell you that before the tire mysteriously went flat a "low tire pressure" warning light illuminated, giving us ample time to find a safe place to pull over. And prior to that, the Pacifica handled superbly, giving us a pleasant, quiet ride. "Best rear seats I've ever sat in," friend Ken stated earlier in the day. "Prettiest interior design yet," wife Mary said. But when Bob drove through a 90-degree hairpin turn at 40 miles per hour outside Marble Hill, nobody said anything for a long time! "Come on guys, they call it a sport/tourer," Bob said with a child-like grin.

Yes, the Pacifica's wide, low stance, and Mercedes-engineered suspension gives the car excellent handling capabilities and a nice ride. And the chair-height, nicely contoured bucket seats kept everyone in the front and middle row of seats very happy. The third row seating can accommodate two adults, but a lack of headroom makes it suitable only for shorter folks. Middle seats flip forward to allow passage to the third row, and also fold flat to accommodate cargo. The third row seats also fold flat, reminiscent of my old LaSabre nine-passenger station wagon which carried everything from rowdy Cub Scouts to sheets of paneling.

I'm betting Chrysler will sell every Pacifica they can produce, because it's good looking, fun to drive and comfortable. It can pull a 3,500-pound ski boat up a slippery launching ramp, and it can also take you to the country club in grand style. What more could you ask for?

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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