Future Curbside Classic: 2004-08 Chrysler Pacifica – No Chernobyl, Not Even A Three Mile Island

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Chrysler is one of the few brands today that doesn’t offer a crossover, a fact made all the more mystifying by CEO Sergio Marchionne’s plan to make the Chrysler division FCA’s mainstream marque in North America. Their lineup at present consists merely of two sedans and a minivan, but there was once a Chrysler crossover. The defunct Pacifica actually beat Dodge, Ford and GMC to the crossover market, but was axed without replacement during the throes of America’s rapidly growing obsession with crossovers. The real question is: why did the Pacifica not earn a replacement? Was it something it did?

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It seems to be popular opinion that the Pacifica sold poorly, but that isn’t the case. Yes, Chrysler projected annual sales of 100,000 units, a figure that proved to be overly optimistic, but throughout its run the Pacifica generally sold in excess of 70,000 units after a somewhat slow start. Compare and contrast that with the runs of other crossovers with vaguely premium aspirations, like the GMC Acadia, Buick Rendezvous and Enclave and Ford Flex, and you’ll see the Pacifica often sold consistently higher, despite low gas prices ensuring the popularity of traditional body-on-frame SUVs and also despite Chrysler having a minivan in the showroom. In fact, Town & Country sales were not at all dented by the arrival of the Pacifica, which meant the latter was actually bringing in entirely new buyers to Chrysler showrooms. The Pacifica also outsold another early crossover, the Nissan Murano, for three consecutive years.

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Only when you compare Pacifica sales with that of the golden child of the crossover market, the Lexus RX, do they start to look disappointing. Lexus was exceeding 100k annual units with its hot-selling crossover that arguably pioneered the modern crossover format, and it was selling RXs at an MSRP of around $35k in 2004, the Pacifica’s first year on the market. The Pacifica, in contrast, sold from $29-32k initially but had the notable handicap of a much less prestigious badge.

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It was that very lack of prestige that caused Chrysler to rapidly change tactics just a year into the Pacifica’s run. They had launched their first crossover as a “luxury sports tourer”. Although based on the minivan platform, the Pacifica traded the Town & Country’s boxy styling, roomy cabin and Stow ‘n’ Go versatility for a sleeker silhouette and a less practical interior. Four conventional doors opened to a cabin featuring three-row seating for six in a 2-2-2 format, but those seats could still fold flat to provide a sizeable cargo area. With all three rows up, though, cargo space was a mediocre 13 cubic feet. The Pacifica’s Goldilocks ride height allowed for easy ingress and egress, being neither too tall nor too short.

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The sole powertrain was Chrysler’s 250-horsepower, 250 ft-lb 3.5 V6 with a four-speed AutoStick transmission. All-wheel-drive was optional, and the extra weight of the system blunted performance: total curb weight was around 4700lbs. The Pacifica’s weight also resulted in so-so gas mileage, with 17mpg city and 23mpg highway (22 with the AWD). Overall, though, critics praised the Pacifica’s dynamic ability: while it wasn’t sporty, it offered a poised ride and competent handling that bested any minivan or conventional SUV. Some of the credit can go to the multi-link rear suspension, which was purportedly derived from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class’ suspension.

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Although the “merger of equals” between Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler was a disaster, the Pacifica was the beneficiary of other unique additions beyond the rear suspension. Inside, the Pacifica had a cabin that was almost entirely different from other contemporary Chryslers. Modern, high-gloss wood trim swept across the dash, satin metal trim highlights were employed tastefully and Pacificas with satellite navigation equipped actually had the display situated in the gauge cluster. Overall, the interior was a class act, although overall cabin space was lower than a minivan.

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Outside, the Pacifica was generally perceived to be quite elegant in appearance, although some believed the horizontal feature lines and rakish D-pillar failed to conceal the Pacifica’s bulk. And the Pacifica was indeed a big ‘un: measuring 198.5 inches long, with a 116.3 inch wheelbase, the crossover was 12.7 inches longer and 0.4 inches taller than a Lexus RX. Of course, the RX lacked a third-row, but the Pacifica was still 9.7 inches longer than a short-wheelbase Mopar minivan. Its detailing was tasteful, and designers resisted the temptation to make the car look too blocky or truck-like. Perhaps that turned off buyers who wanted something more “butch”, but the overall style was none too garish: big, yes, but not overly bold.

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The Pacifica may have looked elegant and upscale inside and out, but years of PT Cruisers and low-rent Sebrings had left Chrysler’s premium image in disrepair. Many early Pacificas on dealer lots were fully-loaded with satellite-navigation, rear DVD players, heated leather seats and power liftgates, not to mention list prices nearing $40k, and they were staying on those dealer lots for longer than Chrysler wanted. If Chrysler wanted the Pacifica to sell in Lexus RX volumes, it had to sell at prices much lower than that of the RX.

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As quickly as it had begun, Chrysler’s planned repositioning as a premium brand – including a three-year contract with Celine Dion for “classier” television advertisements – was ended. The Pacifica range started its sophomore year a good $4k cheaper with a front-wheel-drive, five-seat LX trim opening the range. The LX ditched certain luxury features like leather trim, and featured a second-row bench seat. It also had an entirely different engine, a 3.8 V6 shared with the minivans. Power output was 200hp with 235 ft-lbs, and the 3.8 was generally regarded as being a solid performer in lower rev ranges but a little breathless the harder you pushed it. Gas mileage was scarcely better than the 3.5, with EPA estimated mileage of 16/23mpg. For 2006, the 3.8 would be dropped, only to return for 2007 and still only in price-leader FWD LX trim.

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The Pacifica’s penultimate year, 2007, would also see the replacement of the 3.5 V6. A bigger 4.0 V6 arrived and despite having only 3 more horsepower, it had a solid 12 extra pound-feet of torque. Most crucially, it was mated to an all-new six-speed automatic. While gas mileage wasn’t improved, the Pacifica was now appreciably more responsive with a 2 second quicker 0-60 time by some reports. There was also revised front-end styling, bearing a closer resemblance to the new and challenging-looking Sebring. New to the options list was a backup camera that projected the footage in the gauge cluster, as well as backup sensors. Side curtain airbags and stability control were also made standard across the range. Overall, it seemed the Pacifica had got itself into a nice groove.

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Perhaps it was the tumultuous turn of events at Chrysler Corporation to blame, but Pacifica sales dropped considerably during its final year. Suddenly, the Pacifica was on life support as Chrysler’s new overlords, Cerberus, looked to simplify the Mopar product range and cut slow-selling products. In the space of just three years, Cerberus axed the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Crossfire and Aspen, as well as the Dodge Magnum, Durango and Dakota. The Pacifica would not survive, either: model year 2008 would be its last.

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The most critical threat to the Pacifica’s reputation was not its confused positioning or under-quota sales. Rather, it was the Pacifica’s reliability record which was less than stellar, with electrical gremlins plaguing some models. There were some reports of early models suffering from subpar build quality, and certain media outlets reporting overall reliability to be below average although there didn’t seem to be one particular reliability Achille’s Heel.

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Warranty claims likely wouldn’t have helped the Pacifica’s profitability, nor would the crossover’s unique componentry and interior fittings. Pacifica owners, though, were lucky to avoid the generally quite rotten Mopar interiors of the time. Some trim changes made during the Pacifica’s run may have been questionable (although cloth-equipped models did receive stain-resistant fabric for ’07), but the car’s cabin was never dragged down to the lowly quality depths of the Dodge Nitro and Chrysler Aspen.

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The Pacifica, owing to its DaimlerChrysler heritage, often seems to be lumped in together with the Mercedes-Benz R-Class in people’s minds. That is much more of a compliment to the Pacifica than anything, but it has little basis in fact. Although both were “sports tourers” (the R-Class was a “grand sports tourer”), they rode on entirely different platforms and sold at entirely different price points. If the Pacifica is deemed a failure by some, then the R-Class would have to be classified as an unmitigated disaster. Annual sales never exceeded 20,000 units and only topped 10k units twice, probably because of its daft positioning, showroom competition from the more desirable ML/GL, and its floppy styling.

2009 Dodge Journey

Although the Chrysler marque has yet to field another crossover entry, the Pacifica’s demise was quickly followed by the introduction of Dodge’s first crossover. The Journey, a cheaper and smaller vehicle, has proved to be a relative success, especially in global markets.

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Pacifica obituaries and retrospectives often paint a negative picture of a car that was poorly executed and a sales disappointment. While sales didn’t meet Chrysler’s projections, the Pacifica was still a moderate success and was quite well-received by critics upon launch. Rather than being left to wither on the vine, the car also received noteworthy improvements during its short run. We may not know why Chrysler didn’t replace it, but it’s not because the Pacifica was some Aztekian failure. On the contrary, the Pacifica was one of the first entrants in a segment that continues to boom to this day, and beyond some minor issues, it was a solid entrant.

 

Related Reading:

Future Curbside Classic: Chrysler Aspen

Future Curbside Classic: Ford Flex