2021 Chrysler Pacifica AWD First Test Review: An SUV Disguised as a Minivan?

2021-chrysler-pacifica-awd-first-test-review:-an-suv-disguised-as-a-minivan?

Here is a secret Chrysler won’t tell you: For 2021, it’s added an SUV to its tiny lineup—sort of. The brand’s last SUV was the unloved Aspen, which briefly lumbered around circa 2007. And so, after a long hiatus, a high-riding, three-row, all-wheel-drive-equipped family hauler returns to the Chrysler range. It’s called the Pacifica.

OK, obviously the Pacifica is first and foremost a minivan. But for 2021, a new all-wheel-drive (AWD) system becomes available, intended to make the updated Pacifica more competitive against today’s crop of three-row SUVs, which have taken over in America’s hive mind as go-to family haulers, despite minivans’ superior packaging and flexibility. In any case, an AWD-equipped Pacifica could the van an ideal, um, crossover for drivers who seek SUV capability but recognize the fact that minivans remain the ultimate family vehicle.

How Does the 2021 Pacifica AWD Drive?

In addition to the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica’s revised styling, AWD sure makes the minivan seem more SUV-ish. Ride height increases by 0.8 inch over the standard front-wheel-drive model, which sounds minor until you see the van in the metal. There’s a larger gap between the tires and the wheel arches, and at 70.7 inches its roof is actually a bit higher than the 70.6-inch-tall Honda Pilot’s lid. Ground clearance is only 5.4 inches due to the driveshaft forcing the exhaust system a bit lower, but this Pacifica has presence. Climb into the driver’s seat, and you’ll notice that increase, too. It raises your eye line for a commanding, confident view of the surroundings.

Behind the restyled grille is a carryover 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 287 hp and 262 lb-ft routed through a nine-speed automatic transmission. The AWD system doesn’t deploy that output any more effectively on a dry dragstrip—in fact, an 8.3-second 0–60 mph time is a full second slower than the front-wheel-drive 2018 Pacifica we kept for a year in our long-term test fleet. Not surprising considering it’s 347 pounds heavier thanks in part to that AWD system. It also trails many comparable three-row SUVs. What’s more, the engine is coarse and saddled by a transmission that’s eager to upshift and reluctant to downshift. The front-wheel-drive-only Pacifica plug-in hybrid’s electrified powertrain feels smoother.

Even though the AWD Pacifica is fitted with slightly larger brake rotors, it stops from 60 mph in 130 feet, not as good as the 119 feet posted by our lighter Pacifica long-termer. That distance isn’t short, but it’s within a wheelbase length of common crossovers. In normal use, the brake pedal provides an easy, linear buildup of stopping power that isn’t grabby.

Chrysler’s official media for the 2021 AWD Pacifica shows the van executing graceful power slides on a snow-covered handling course—not quite the same as our arid Los Angeles testing grounds. Whatever ostensible increase in grip AWD should provide doesn’t show up on a (dry) track, where the van posts a 28.1-second, 0.58-g lap on the figure eight and holds on at 0.77 g on the skidpad. That’s less than the 27.4-second, 0.63-g figure eight and 0.82 g skidpad result our FWD long-term Pacifica posted. Again, though, it’s comparable to three-row SUVs like the Hyundai Palisade, which did a 28.3-second, 0.63-g figure eight and 0.74-g skidpad laps.

The Pacifica’s AWD system engages only when certain parameters are met, and it could be quicker about it. There were times when, zipping away from a stop, a front tire would scratch the pavement before the system sent power rearward. Nonetheless, that rear-axle propulsion helped in around-town driving, tightening up corners slightly when accelerating through them. That said, it’s not as if the Pacifica is nimble; the steering wheel diameter feels big, and its ratio is slow but consistent. There’s body roll, and the van keels over as it rounds gradual bends—this thing is tall and lifted, after all.

With the AWD model’s specific suspension setup comes a slight reduction in ride quality. It’s mostly comfortable, but even on smooth surfaces it picks up undulations that jiggle occupants around. On cracked pavement it avoids feeling brittle, although it smacks over potholes and larger imperfections. However, Chrysler hit its goal of improving quietness in the 2021 Pacifica. Wind and road noise are unobtrusive, but those in the front row might need to speak up to chat with third-row riders as Chrysler did not include a feature to talk to the distant third row occupants through the rear speakers like some competitors offer.

Is the Pacifica a Good Family Car?

At least you’ll be able to see your second- and third-row passengers from up front with the FamCam option. Using a camera mounted in the headliner, it displays a live video of the second and third rows on the infotainment screen, providing a bird’s-eye view of whatever shenanigans are going on back there. Simply tap the icon for one of the seats, and FamCam instantly zooms in on it for a closer look. That’s part of the 2021 Pacifica’s upgraded infotainment suite, which now runs Chrysler’s Uconnect 5 user interface on a standard 10.1-inch touchscreen. It’s easy to navigate but doesn’t respond as quickly as your smartphone. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, as are up to 12 USB ports between the three rows.







Indeed, the Pacifica offers a ton of family-friendly amenities. Limited trim models like our test car get a redesigned center console with a large pull-out drawer and pass-through compartment, adding to the storage spaces around the cabin. The optional power-folding third row could prove particularly useful, as it raises or lowers on its own so you can juggle people and things. Spills are no match for the built-in vacuum cleaner. Impressively, Chrysler made the Pacifica’s AWD system compatible with the Stow n’ Go second-row seats, which fold into the floor and were a favorite feature in our recent Pacifica long-term test vehicle. However, those seats, like the third row, feel sized more for kids than adults. Stow n’ Go aids versatility, but some competitors—like the Honda Odyssey with Magic Slide, Toyota Sienna with Super Long Slide, or any SUV that offers captain’s chairs—have more comfortable second rows.

It seems that Chrysler put lots of thought into designing the Pacifica but could have done more in building it—perceived quality isn’t very high. The front row is treated to soft-touch surfaces, but in the second and third nearly every panel is hard plastic. Yes, family-oriented vehicles have to be ready to withstand years of abuse, but this test car’s build quality seemed lower than that of its competitors. Buttons, vents, and the center console feel chintzy. Nappa leather sounds nice, but here it’s thin and rubbery. Memories linger of our long-term Pacifica’s reliability issues.

Is the Pacifica a Van or SUV?

Either way, there’s no doubt the Pacifica is supremely practical, and created specifically for easy use with people or cargo inside. And now, with available AWD, it’s better equipped to confidently take on inclement conditions. So equipped, it does a decent impression of an SUV while preserving excellent minivan versatility. Now, even more than before, the Pacifica is a legitimate crossover alternative, even if it definitely is a minivan.

2021 Chrysler Pacifica S Limited AWD
BASE PRICE $50,180
PRICE AS TESTED $55,265
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door van
ENGINE 3.6L/287-hp/262-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,927 lb (56/44%)
WHEELBASE 121.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 204.3 x 79.6 x 70.7 in
0-60 MPH 8.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.3 sec @ 86.4 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 130 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.77 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.1 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 17/25/20 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 198/135 kWh/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.98 lb/mile

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