2021 Chrysler Pacifica AWD Review: First Drive

If you’re willing to squint at the lines dividing automotive genres, one might consider the first Chrysler minivan the original crossover.

Think about it. Don’t think about it too hard, because yours truly could also make an argument for AMC’s lovely “wood”-sided Eagle wagon. But Chrysler took an incredibly popular family sedan and gave it more utility by changing some dimensions, creating the modern minivan segment in 1984. Later generations came with more space, more luxury, more power, and more utility—for a while, all-wheel drive was a popular option for family haulers in snowy lands.

What we call the modern crossover marginalized the minivan market, much as the minivan decimated the old family station wagon. Thus the option for AWD disappeared from the Chrysler van, as all-weather traction could be found in more popular, more profitable family haulers. There’s no question that I’m a van fanatic. I’m a current owner of a 2012 Chrysler Town & Country, and have owned two other vans prior to this one. The utility combo of sliding doors and plenty of covered cargo space in the rear are godsends to harried parents like myself. But there are few options, especially should I want to confidently visit the family in Northern Wisconsin next winter.

I now have more options—now that the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica AWD arrives in showrooms in December. The refreshed styling you see here is striking, but the marketing language used is rather telling about the state of van affairs. Throughout the press release, Chrysler refers to the new design as “UV-inspired.” I’m a bit sad, as I’d likely buy a van specifically because it didn’t look like a utility vehicle. But if it gets more people into a proper minivan, I can live with the new style.

(Disclosure: Chrysler flew journalists to Charlotte, North Carolina to sample several vehicles, including this Pacifica AWD. Meals and hotel stays were provided.)

Updated exterior looks

When it comes to the styling, the big change is on the grille. Gone is the subtle gash and squinting eyes of the old facia, replaced with a more prominent snout and larger headlamps – now standard LED lamps across the Pacifica lineup. To my eyes, the bigger grille visually raises the hood a bit – yes, making it appear more like a crossover.

Out back, the taillamps have been redesigned with a wide, cross-tailgate connection that makes the entire rear feel wider.

Few people buy minivans—or, for that matter, crossovers—because they are paragons of exterior styling. The minivan is all about utility inside, and the latest Pacifica shines here. Notably, the addition of the optional all-wheel drive system has no affect on the ever-popular Stow ‘N Go system that allows both second and third row seats to be folded down, creating a flat load floor for cargo. Or maybe an air mattress should you want to become a nomad and experience hashtag vanlife. You do you.

When using the middle row seats as intended, those wells in the floor where the seats would be stored are covered, secure storage areas that are wonderful for carrying a bit of extra stuff. When the third row is up, the rear load area is quite tall, allowing for convenient, flexible storage for tall cargo.

The pinnacle of people-moving

Chrysler was proud to show off their latest trim package – the Pacifica Pinnacle. Available in both the standard gas engine model (with AWD) and in the front-drive only Pacifica Hybrid, the Pacifica Pinnacle adds another layer of plush amenities to the standard minivan. Quilted Nappa leather seating—in a lovely caramel hue—lines all three rows of seating, as well as one side of the removable lumbar pillows for the second-row seats. The backside of the pillow is finished in suede, which matches the suede headliner.

The Pinnacle model is also fitted with a new “Ultra” console that gives a good bit more covered storage than before: 13.65 liters. This gives more space to keep bags and electronics away from prying eyes. The Ultra console now has an armrest on top, rather than relying on armrests mounted to the front seats.

One more interior note that stands out from the press release: Chrysler tells us that “the Pinnacle model offers best-in-class total storage of 227.6 liters – enough to store 60 gallons of milk.”

Let that sink in a moment.

It’s an unusually interesting point to make—Chrysler is clearly taking specifications of this Windsor-built van and making it understandable to us non-metric, milk-doesn’t-come-in-a-bag people south of the border. That, or they’re making a play for the lucrative home cheesemaking market. After all, my late uncle was a Wisconsin cheese maker. He drove an old Dodge full-sized van for his pickups and deliveries. I can only imagine the looks on the dairy farmer’s faces had he rolled up in an ultra-plush Pacifica Pinnacle.

More family-friendly tech inside

I’ve long been a fan Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system. It’s typically been one of the most intuitive touchscreen control systems I’ve encountered. For 2021, the Pacifica has a new Uconnect 5 system that builds upon the previous systems while adding more features and resolution. The screen now measures 10.1 inches and looks incredibly clear. It’s much more responsive to touch inputs, too: there is no noticeable lag between button pushes and reaction from the screen.

One Uconnect feature that will be popular in families with multiple drivers is the ability to select up to five customizable driver profiles—plus a valet mode. While there’s absolutely no way I’m valeting a car in these times, my bride and I will often trade off our vehicles. She’s always annoyed at my choice of music, and I in hers. Further, the home screen can be customized to show multiple screens of data all at once. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto look forward to a not-too-distant future where phonemakers, much like they did with headphone jacks, ditch all ways to plug ANYTHING into a mobile device. While I will rue that day, I’m thrilled with how seamlessly Android Auto works.

Two phones can be paired with Bluetooth simultaneously—which would be great for people who are forced to carry both a personal and work phone. It’s great for couples as well—or for myself and my teenager, who will beg me to play HER playlist when we go for a drive. I’ll normally humor her for a little bit, but the ability to pair a pair of phones would keep me from having to download her weird choices of music onto my device.

When my kids were little, I’d have loved the new feature with a cringeworthy name—the FamCAM. It allows driver and front passenger to look down upon the passengers in the middle and third rows. It’s meant for parents to watch infants in rear-facing child seats. I can, however, see a good use as a parent of teen girls – should we ever escape lockdowns and I find myself chauffeuring a daughter on a date, I can keep a close eye on her suitor whilst driving.

Comfy cruiser

Since we were in North Carolina, a locale not known for severe winter weather—especially not in November—I didn’t get a chance to properly thrash the new all-wheel drive system. It’s a smarter system than the last Chrysler van (in 2004) to drive all four: the driveshaft to the rear is inactive in most situations, except when conditions warrant. Rapid steering movements, abrupt throttle application, sensing of wheel slip, and even cold ambient temperatures can cause the Pacifica AWD to engage the rear wheels.

Normally, all-wheel drive hardware affects the fuel economy figures due both to the extra weight and the parasitic drag on the driveline. Here, the disconnect of the rear drive helps mitigate those losses – the EPA estimates the Pacifica AWD to manage 20 mpg combined, while the standard front-drive Pacifica is estimated at 22 mpg combined. Natural Resources Canada unfortunately does not have corresponding figures at press time.

There’s little to distinguish the AWD in normal situations to the driver. A tailgate badge and 20 mm body lift are the only external clues—there are no controls or anything for the driver to worry about. And in driving, the Pacifica AWD drives just like the front-drive van—and pretty darned well, I might add. It’s no corner carver, but it turns in beautifully on the twisty roads east of Charlotte where I was let loose. Interstate drives are a breeze, as one would expect. Chrysler has added additional sound insulation to minimize wind and road noises—effectively. It’s plenty quiet, with little noise filtering through from the tires or the engine.

Verdict: 2021 Chrysler Pacifica AWD First Drive Review

Pricing for the standard Pacifica hasn’t changed greatly from last year. The Limited trim—the one shown in the exterior photos here—used to be the top of the line, and when fitted with AWD, would retail for $48,390 US, while a base-model Touring would start at $35,045 US ($44,795 CAN) for front-drive, $38,040 US ($48,295 CAN) for all-wheel drive.

The Pacifica Pinnacle inches above the magical $50k mark in the US – starting at $50,845 for a standard, hybrid front-drive model, and reaching to $53,390 for the gas-engined Pinnacle AWD. That’s a big ask, certainly, but considering the combination of utility and luxury it’s tough to find anything else comparable.

Indeed, the utility of any van is incomparable. Chrysler has managed to shoehorn a proper Fifties-era luxury car interior into a workhorse that can haul either seven souls or a load of plywood through the nastiest weather imaginable.

[Exterior images © 2020 Chris Tonn, interior images courtesy FCA]

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