- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

When Chrysler’s 2004 Pacifica crossover vehicle made its debut, the company publicists trumpeted it as a “segment buster.” In automotive hype, the term refers to a vehicle that is so new, different and exciting that it will create its own niche in the market.

Chrysler introduced one of those a few years ago — the retro-styled PT Cruiser, which joined the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Mazda Miata as a vehicle with a “wow” factor that genuinely stirred the affections of buyers across the demographic spectrum.

But there was no such reaction to the Pacifica, a six-passenger crossover vehicle — a designation that means it’s neither a car nor a sport utility vehicle. It was barely in the showrooms when the company started offering discounts. Some critics sniffed and said it was little more than the return of the station wagon with a forward-facing third seat.

It is that. There are two pairs of comfortable, variably adjustable bucket seats divided by consoles in the first and second rows, and a third pair of flip-down seats in the third row. That gives the Pacifica genuine accommodations for six passengers, though the third-row seats are more suitable for children or adults of small stature.

However, the Pacifica belies the station-wagon description because it has all the styling cues of a sport utility vehicle. It sits high off the pavement, though not as high as some SUVs, it has rugged good looks and it’s available with all-wheel drive.

Like other car-based cross- over vehicles, the basic setup uses front-wheel drive, at less cost, for those who don’t need to have all four wheels churning.

Moreover, the Pacifica comes with a lot of nifty standard features that make it easy to like. Both the second and third rows of seats fold flat in a matter of seconds, opening up a cargo area of 80 cubic feet. With all the seats up, there’s 13 cubic feet of space behind the third seat.

The design makes for a great deal of flexibility for handling cargo and passengers. Although the console between the second-row seats prevents passengers from sliding across, it makes sense because middle passengers in second-row seats on other vehicles usually suffer on uncomfortable perches anyway.

Accessibility is very good. The Pacifica’s floor is about 17 inches from the pavement, which means it is not quite as much of a stretch to get in as, say, the Mercedes-Benz ML350, which has a floor about 20 inches off the ground. The second-row bucket seats have two levers that flip the seats forward and out of the way for access to the third-row seat.

Standard equipment includes antilock brakes and traction control, side air bags and an air bag for the driver’s knees, power-adjustable pedals, tire-pressure monitoring, automatic load-leveling and height control, dual-zone climate control, an audio system with CD player and remote steering-wheel controls, a manual-shift mode for the automatic transmission, remote locking, fog lights, an alarm system and 17-inch aluminum wheels.

The tested front-drive model had a suggested sticker price of $31,230. Options, including leather upholstery, a motorized rear hatch and a navigation system, brought the price up to $35,985. All-wheel drive adds $1,750. One of the cool wrinkles in the Pacifica’s design is the navigation system’s display, which is in the instrument cluster in front of the driver, surrounded by the speedometer with a needle that seems to float over the numbers.

Though it looks to be about the size of a midsize SUV, the Pacifica is a big vehicle. At 16 feet 7 inches, it’s less than 2 inches shorter than a Chrysler Town & Country minivan.

It is longer than most competitors that offer up to seven-passenger seating, including the Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot and Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Only the stretched GMC Envoy XL and Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT are longer. The Hummer H2 is 14 inches shorter than Pacifica.

However, the Pacifica doesn’t feel ponderous in everyday driving. For so large a vehicle, handling is fairly nimble and controlled, and the suspension system offers a good compromise between ride and handling.

Power comes from Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine — the same one that moves the hot 300M sports sedan. However, the Pacifica weighs almost 4,700 pounds, so the 250 horsepower comes across as adequate, not something that will win too many drag races. The engine is linked to a four-speed automatic transmission with Chrysler’s intuitive AutoStick manual shift mode, which is one of the best setups available.

The four-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but it doesn’t offer the bragging rights that come with most of the Pacifica’s competitors, which have five-speed automatics.

The biggest drawback to the Pacifica is its lack of outward visibility and claustrophobic feel inside. Like a lot of newer cars, it’s designed with a high belt line, which means that the side and rear windows are vertically challenged.

With that disability, combined with a dark tint to the glass, the back window has almost a porthole look, and it is flanked by fat pillars on both sides, called D-pillars in the trade. The combination severely limits visibility to the rear, especially the rear quarters.

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