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The Chrysler Pacifica is one of a growing number of what the industry calls crossover vehicles that combine attributes of sport utilities, wagons and minivans. Chrysler calls the Pacifica a sports tourer, suggesting sport-utility DNA, although it doesn't really look like an SUV crossover. However you see it, and whatever you call it, we think the Pacifica is a terrific family vehicle.
Pacifica is available with two or three rows of seating, for five or six passengers. The five-passenger base model has two bucket seats in front with a split folding bench in the second row that seats up to three. Six-passenger models swap the middle-row bench for two flat-folding bucket seats, and add a 50/50 split bench in the rear, for six-passenger capacity. Most models are configured to seat six and offer 79.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity with all the seats folded, which is more than a Jeep Grand Cherokee is rated to carry.
Pacifica has four sedan-like doors on its sides but a liftgate in back similar to what you'd expect on an SUV or minivan. Inside it's roomy and comfortable, whether upholstered in fabric or leather. Getting in and out is easy.
In its mechanical layout, Pacifica more resembles a minivan than anything else, except that it's been enhanced throughout with Mercedes-Benz engineering, including a complete rear suspension borrowed from the Mercedes E-Class sedan.
On the road, Pacifica is smooth and quiet. All-wheel drive is available, making it a good choice for the snow country. The ride is smooth and supple, and the four-wheel antilock (ABS) disc brakes do a good job of bringing Pacifica to a smooth stop. Pacifica is rated to tow up to 3500 pounds.
Pacifica excels in safety, with five-star front and side-impact ratings and a four-star rollover rating from the federal government's NHTSA, and "best pick" from the insurance industry's IIHS. Side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection are optional, and we recommend ordering them.
Pacifica was introduced as a totally new vehicle for 2004. For 2005, Chrysler expanded the lineup to include an entry-level, five-seat version. For 2006, all models come with the more powerful 3.5-liter overhead-cam V6. (The old pushrod 3.8-liter engine is gone.) The 2006 Pacifica lineup also gets new Signature Series models that combine popular options with a unique look, at a discounted price.
The Chrysler Pacifica handles more like a car than a sport utility. We were impressed with its handling in Northern California, where the paving is excellent, the roads are twisty and interesting, and the traffic is relatively light. Pacifica also impressed us as a daily driver, hauling friends around and out on the town, and making routine trips to the grocery store.
The 3.5-liter V6 that comes on all 2006 Pacifica models is powerful and has lots of torque. The four-speed automatic is smooth and quiet in operation, though we wish it was a five-speed. We enjoyed using the AutoStick feature for manual shifting: Pull it back to select the manual mode, then left to downshift, right to upshift.
The all-wheel drive, on models so equipped, works transparently and helps the Pacifica sail through corners like a sports sedan, rain or shine. Under normal conditions, the all-wheel-drive system sends all of the power to the front wheels. But it can transfer up to 90 percent of the power to the rear wheels whenever the front wheels lose grip, under hard acceleration or in slippery conditions, for example. The AWD models use a viscous coupling in the center differential and an open differential at the rear. We found the all-wheel drive worked well in the dry weather of California's wine country and northern Central Valley, and our experience with all-wheel drive in other Chrysler products leaves us confident it'll not disappoint in a blinding rainstorm or in 12 inches of snow.
While the Pacifica's steering is not racecar communicative or direct, it's better than many, and the steering wheel feels good in the hands. We found the suspension a willing partner in the vehicle's performance: smooth and supple while controlling lean and wallow. The isolated front and rear subframes, the long wheelbase and wide stance really help to deliver a quality ride. As a bonus, the interior is very quiet at cruising speeds.
Four-wheel-disc brakes and Michelin Pilot all-weather tires easily overcame the substantial weight of the Pacifica, providing safe and sure stops. The brakes got a workout from us, and they responded every time without fade or smell or any sign of distress. ABS comes standard, allowing the driver to maintain steering control under panic braking.
The Chrysler Pacifica is a versatile vehicle. It accelerates quickly with its powerful 3.5-liter V6 and it corners reasonably well, which makes it enjoyable to drive. Upper-level models are luxurious and practical, while the more basic five-passenger model offers a good value.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.