Chrysler introduces new 2004 Pacifica

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The unique and stylish Chrysler Pacifica was introduced earlier this year just as the domestic automobile market went into a deeper funk causing what could be called a soft launch. And it didn’t help that Pacifica came in at a rather lofty starting price of $32,980 for the all-wheel drive model, the only version available initially.

How else can you explain the Pacifica’s weak sales during its initial sales period since it reached dealer showrooms?

The Pacifica’s slow start is a shame because Chrysler has gotten this one just about right and we discovered, somewhat to our delight, that the Pacifica is a unique product that has a lot to offer a lot of people.

It deserves, at the very least, a test drive if you’re shopping for a vehicle that can haul six passengers and their possessions in comfort and solitude and style. It is one of the coolest Chrysler offerings in several years, the funky PT Cruiser not withstanding.

Like the Cruiser, the Pacifica is a vehicle that doesn’t quite fit any of the current categorizations. Is it a station wagon, minivan or a sport utility? You will have to come up with your own interpretation.

Chrysler calls it a sports tourer. But that rather nebulous tag doesn’t really clear up the categorization issue. We think of it as the modern version of the big American station wagon, which was phased out in the early ‘90s with the growing popularity of the minivan and SUV.

But this is not a typical wagon as you may remember it. This is a more adult version, kind of a PG-13 variety, still capable of hauling the family including three or four kids.

A key feature and one of the things that set the Pacifica apart from the wagons of yore is its four seating positions in the first two rows. Four large and very comfortable captain’s chairs with a center console fore and aft give the interior the feel of a first-class airline cabin. No second-row bench seat is available.

A third-row seat, suitable for two children or two small adults, folds up and out of the floor near the back hatch. The fold and tumble second-row chair makes reaching the third row fairly easy. But legroom and headroom are at a bit of a premium in back.
What you have, particularly for empty nesters, is an interstate cruiser that offers comfortable accommodations for four adults and their luggage and added stuff.

The Pacifica would provide a wonderful environment for a coast-to-coast journey regardless of which of the four chairs you select. It has a slightly elevated driving position much like a crossover sport utility, but with an almost car-like step-in height. And the all-wheel drive capability makes it a confident companion on all kinds of roads and in most any kind of weather.

The Pacifica is handsome from all angles. Its wheels are pushed out to the corners and the extremely short front overhang – think BMW – gives the Chrysler a solid, well-planted sporting stance.

A character line runs over the front wheel well, through the door handles and to the rear of the car tying the design elements together. The roof slopes slightly back, falling off at the rear hatch affording an aerodynamic look.
The Pacifica is a big vehicle that looks smaller than its size. It sports a long 116-inch wheelbase and a near-full-size length of 199 inches. Its size falls just short of a long-wheelbase Dodge Grand Caravan. But it looks smaller and drives smaller. We found it easy to navigate everything from crowded parking lots to weaving in and out of in-town traffic.

A Mercedes influence can be seen in the interior with the Mercedes-style power seat controls on the doors, ample seats upholstered in soft leather and a tasteful combination of wood and metallic trim pieces.

The dashboard layout is attractive. It includes a round analog clock, clear gauges and a dash-mounted ignition switch.

One of the neatest and most innovative features is the optional navigation screen housed inside the oval speedometer. This allows the driver to view the screen without taking his or her eyes off the road.

The backlit white on black gauges with red markers suit our eyes better than any color we’ve come across lately. They are easy to read night or day even with sunglasses on.

Two power points at the bottom of the center stack together with a deep storage pocket make it convenient for cell phone and radar detector users.

In addition to the comfortable chairs, extraordinary legroom makes the Pacifica best in class. Second-row occupants can slide their seats fore and aft to gain wonderful space. The seats can also be reclined.

Rear air vents, a power point in the center console, drink holders, reading lights, storage pockets in the front seatbacks and rear windows that power all the way into the door make second-row passengers feel as if they have purchased a first-class ticket.

Yes, there are some downsides. The high beltline and a large D pillar make visibility to the rear and sides less than we like. There are some blind spots that make serious concentration while backing and merging a must.

Also, the vast array of buttons that make up the stereo and climate controls can be overwhelming while trying to keep eyes on the road.

But perhaps the weakest link in this otherwise well-thought-out vehicle is the engine. All Pacifica’s are powered by the same 3.5-liter 250-horsepower V6 that propels the Chrysler 300M. The difference is that in the Pacifica, the V6 is assigned to lug around
near 4,800 pounds.

While performance is acceptable, it will be considered sluggish by people who view the Pacifica, as Chrysler wants them to view it, as an entry-level luxury vehicle. A major automotive magazine recorded a 0 to 60 time of 9.3 seconds, about a second slower than most comparable products already considered slow.

Get the big guy out on the sweeps and the Mercedes influence shines through. There is no rock and roll on the corners as you might expect from a Chrysler minivan or big sedan. The Pacifica is well planted and steering feel is right on center.

Our test vehicle was an all-wheel drive model with a base price of $32,980. The two-wheel drive version starts at a still rather pricey $31,230.

Options were premium leather and an upgraded Infinity sound system with eight speakers and a subwoofer. That brought the bottom line to $34,570.

Chrysler has announced a goal of 100,000 sales a year. Based on sales from March through May, Chrysler may have to wait until calendar year 2004 to achieve its goal although June sales seem to have put Pacifica back on track.

Chrysler will also introduce a slightly de-contented version this summer that will sell for less than $30,000 that should spark additional interest.

Regardless of price, the 2004 Pacifica is well worth a look. It has much going for it including a lot of Mercedes influence.