Paul Borden review: A minivan wins North American Utility Vehicle of the Year

By Paul Borden

(January 25, 2017) MIAMI — In case you missed it, the North American International Auto Show, more commonly called the Detroit auto show, announced its selections for vehicles of the year earlier this month. The new Chevy Bolt EV received Car of the Year honors. Not surprising, considering the media's infatuation with electric vehicles.

Truck of the Year went to the Honda Ridgeline. Last September some visiting journalists scoffed when our media group, the Southern Automotive Media Association (SAMA), chose the Ridgeline as the Truck of the Show at the Miami International Auto Show. Wonder what they think now? Some people apparently can’t get over a Ford or Chevy not winning. Autoblog called the selection a “surprise winner.”

And Utility Vehicle of the Year, a new category for Detroit, went to the Chrysler Pacifica.

Frankly, I kind of had my doubts about that one, not because the Pacifica isn’t a fine vehicle but more because a minivan isn’t what comes to my mind when I hear the term “utility vehicle.” I think more of SUVs or Crossovers. Maybe I need to think out of the box more.

The Pacifica fits as a “utility vehicle” just fine, though. It certainly is utile. It beat out a pair of SUVs, the Jaguar F-Pace and Mazda CX-9, which presumably would have been put in Truck of the Year categories in the past since Volvo’s XC90 SUV won NAIAS Truck of the Year honors in 2016.

But unlike in its previous incarnation, the 2017 Pacifica is most definitely a minivan. In its first go-around from 2004-07,
the Pacifica had a bit of the appearance of one of the new crossovers that were beginning to come into vogue around that time.

One of the questions my boss asked me after I had driven it on a trip from South Florida to St. Louis was whether I thought
it handled like a minivan or an SUV.

“A minivan,” I replied.

That Pacifica may have resembled an SUV/Crossover, but that’s not the case with the new one. With its power sliding rear doors (on both sides) and open floor instead of a full center console between the front seats, there’s no doubt about the Pacifica’s character now. It’s definitely a minivan. In fact, the Pacifica effectively replaces the successful and trend-setting Town & Country minivan in the Chrysler lineup.

When it comes to a vehicle for family transportation, especially families of two-plus children, the minivan is hard to beat. Chrysler has provided the Pacifica with a generous room for storage behind the third row, 32.3 cubic feet, and those third-row seats fold at the push of a button to boost that capacity to 87.5 cubic feet. It comfortably seats seven in what Chrysler touts as the largest interior in the segment with passenger volume of 165 cubic feet.

It comes in five trims with even the base or LX trim coming with features like Stow-’N-Go seating, an 8-way power adjust driver’s seat, rearview camera, Bluetooth, a voice-command system, and active noise cancellation for a quieter ride as standard.

My top-of-the-line Limited model also had as standard leather seating, hands-free rear liftgate and sliding side doors, a panoramic sunroof, blind spot and cross traffic detection, rear park assist, keyless and remote start, UConnect infotainment system with an 8.4-inch screen for navigation, HID headlights, and 18-inch wheels.

All that was included in the $42,495 MSRP. Options, including a safety package that included a 360-degree surround view camera and adaptive cruise control and a theater package that featured seat-back screens for videos, plus the $995 destination and delivery charge ran the total price tag to $48,475. That’s almost $20,000 over the MSRP for the base LX model.

All trims come with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine that puts out 287 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 262 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Mated with a 9-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy is rated at 18 miles-per-gallon city, 28 highway, and 22 combined, about average for the segment.

There is also a hybrid version that can be recharged via a plug-in that Chrysler says will go up to 30 miles on electric power while offering an 80 MPGe rating overall.

Throttle response is pretty good for the class, and despite its capacity for hauling passengers and cargo, it doesn’t have the feel of being an overly large vehicle like you get with some full-size SUVs. There’s even a certain amount of agility about it, though I wouldn’t approach it like a performance car when in traffic. Or not in traffic, for that matter.

The interior has an upscale feel about it. Despite a wealth of technological features, the dash has an uncluttered look even with a few knobs to duplicate some of the basic functions (radio, climate control) that can be operated off the touchscreen. Response to voice commands was quick as well with no unnecessary delay from a repeat of the command from the system.

About the only negative I could find probably was peculiar to this particular vehicle, not common throughout the production run. The front passenger door must have been sprung by some previous user and the bottom half would not line up flush with the sliding rear door when closed. That’s not likely to be the case on other Pacificas.

What I liked about the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica: Operating the many infotainment features on the UConnect system is a breeze, especially when compared to how many makers of more expensive cars complicate them up. No need to delve into the operating manual to learn how to change a radio station or adjust the map for the navigation scale! And you can lower the windows for the second-row seats.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica: There’s little not to like about it, unless you just don’t like minivans.

Would I buy the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica: Not at this stage of my life, no. But if I were younger (OK, much younger) and faced traveling with a bevy of energy-packed kids, I definitely would give it a look.