Not your average minivan

by Haney Louka . Dec 09 2016
Photos by Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press

Photos by Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press

The first things my kids noticed about Chrysler’s new-for-2017 Pacifica van were the trick displays that flip up from the front seatbacks. Having a rear entertainment system is nothing new, especially for vans. And lately, I’ve been writing such expensive options off, since a lot of young ’uns have their own devices with them in the car.

But the Pacifica’s is different. It sports Fiat-Chrysler’s new Uconnect Theater system, and it looks to be a big step forward in keeping the offspring entertained during long drives. And it may just make the new Pacifica the ultimate road trip machine.

Each touchscreen measures 10.1 inches and provides great connectivity with mobile devices and gaming systems (Apple devices excluded). In addition to touch functionality, each one has a remote control, Bluetooth headphones, and HDMI inputs for completely independent operation. But they also play nicely together: one-on-one battles can be had with tic-tac-toe, bingo and six other games.

And to address the inevitable “are we there yet?” from back-seat drivers, an onboard app answers the question before they can ask it, provided the driver has entered his or her destination into the navigation system.

Fast forward a few years to when the back-seat drivers graduate to the front-left seating position. The Pacifica is equipped with “KeySense,” which is similar in concept to Ford’s MyKey that has been on the market for several years now. In the Pacifica, it allows parents to configure maximum vehicle speed and audio volume, and to ensure that safety systems are not deactivated when a specific key fob is used to operate the vehicle.

Lest one think that adults have been neglected in the pursuit of ultimate on-board entertainment and safety, rest assured that the Pacifica is a genuinely premium-feeling ride. As it should be, considering our tester’s $60,000 price tag. That’s right: 60 grand for this minivan.

Even the Pacifica’s $43,995 starting price is dear; that’s about $10,000 higher than the cost of entry at either Toyota or Honda. Major standard kit on this Touring-L includes LED taillights, three-zone climate control, power sliding doors and liftgate, leather upholstery, built-in window shades and remote start.

The Touring-L Plus adds $3,000 to the price and a rocking 506-watt audio system to the entertainment package. Blind-spot monitoring, heated second-row seats and steering wheel and an 8.4-inch touchscreen come along for the ride as well.

Our Limited tester started life at $52,995 and added 18-inch wheels, chrome and lighting upgrades, hands-free operation of power doors, a power-folding third-row seat, ventilated seats, a built-in vacuum, panoramic sunroof, an upgraded touring suspension and a few other goodies.

But wait, there’s more: chief among our tester’s many options is the trick Uconnect Theater system, with a not-insignificant ask of $3,495. Twenty speakers and 760 watts will tend to do that.

Twenty-inch wheels add a further $795, while a $1,995 safety group adds lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, surround-view cameras, automatic parking and rain-sensing wipers.

Nobody will argue that the content is there, but it doesn’t make sense to compare the Pacifica to the Sienna or Odyssey. It’s just too expensive. Think of it more as a premium crossover alternative, and it starts to add up. There are $60K Acura MDXs, Volvo XC90s and Infiniti QX60s out there. The trouble is, they all have all-wheel drive, and this is Canada. Even the Toyota Sienna can be configured to send power to all four wheels. But alas, the Pacifica is still a front-drive minivan.

While the Pacifica is now also available in a plug-in hybrid version, our tester was motivated by the more conventional 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 (good for 287 horsepower) paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Power delivery is smooth and refined, and the touring suspension kept the Pacifica composed on our city streets. The rotary gear selector is welcome here, taking up only a small area on the dashboard and freeing up console space for more important storage functions.

The luxury angle is well played inside. “Deep mocha” is the description of the interior colour, on both the two-tone dash and the seats (which also boast contrasting grey piping). Considering the high-tech features incorporated into this model, the dash layout is simple and intuitive, and the voice-recognition system is one of the best in the biz.

I’ve always liked how Chrysler steering wheels have audio controls on the back of the wheel. It’s an easy system to learn and it keeps the front of the wheel from getting too cluttered. And one thing that should be adopted on every vehicle with adaptive cruise — like, right now — is the ability to activate cruise control in a conventional mode, without using the radar. In the Pacifica, the driver has the choice, so if it’s messy out, dirty sensors won’t render the system useless. That just happened to me while piloting a Mercedes E 300 on the highway. And it’s mighty annoying.

While the base Pacifica gets active noise cancellation, the Plus and Limited models benefit from added insulation and acoustic glass to make for a quiet ride indeed. I had my gripes with the comfort level of the last Toyota Sienna I drove, and I can say that there were no such quibbles after driving the Pacifica.

I had a couple of issues with the power-operated components on the Pacifica. The passenger-side sliding door didn’t want to work every time, and sometimes stubbornly stayed half open. And the power-folding third-row seats operated at a snail’s pace. When the typical third row can be easily manipulated by grabbing a handle or pulling a strap, it seems an unnecessary complication here.

The new Pacifica may be a pricey proposition, but it elevates the lowly minivan by introducing a level of desirability to what is normally a very functional purchase. Whether it has the goods to back up its price tag will only be determined by sales numbers. And I can’t help but think deep discounts are in store to keep these vans moving off dealer lots.

Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press

Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press