COAL: 2006 Chrysler Pacifica – Crossing Over

After being in an accident which totalled our 2003 Accord in December of 2005, my wife Kristen needed wheels fast.

For years, Kristen and I held out against the rising tide of one and two-box vehicles. We were one of the few families in our neighborhood with two sedans – almost everyone else had at least one SUV or minivan. Trips to the boys’ preschool were surreal: Ours was the lone sedan lost in a sea of minivans and SUVs. The era of the “family car” was truly well and done.

Having two kids ages 6 and 3 means transporting lots of car seats, strollers, wagons, and other gear. And a third row makes it easy to split up the kids on a long trip, or bring along the inevitable passengers.

So we decided to get a three-row family truckster. Kristen refused to consider a minivan or wagon (she still had standards). She also didn’t want to drive a truck, so a truck-based SUV like the Explorer or Trailblazer was also out. This thrust us into the nascent crossover market.

It may be difficult to recall now, but once there was once a time when crossover SUVs were rare. The segment was basically created by Japanese makers looking to cash in on the US SUV boom. Lacking any suitable truck platforms, these makers lifted and butched up their cars to have something to sell to SUV crazy Americans.

While these crossovers may not have been true trucks like their American counterparts, few SUV owners actually took their vehicles off-road, as we all now know. The ride, fuel economy and space utilization benefits of crossovers quickly won over buyers’ concerns over the lack of true truck cred.

In 2006, there were not a lot of choices for a 3-row crossover. Kristen and I looked at the first-generation Toyota Highlander, but unlike its modern namesake, it was relatively small. The third row was tiny, although adequate for the small kids who would mostly be riding back there. Unfortunately, with the Highlander’s rear seat raised, there was literally no cargo space in back, making the third row pretty much unusable for long trips.

We strolled next door to the Chrysler dealership to look at the 2006 Pacifica.

The Pacifica was an interesting car for Chrysler, somewhat ahead of its time. Chrysler never marketed it as a crossover, however that is exactly what it was, by virtue of not truck-based. Unlike other crossovers, the Pacifica was not built on a jacked-up car platform. It was built on a bespoke platform, not shared with any other vehicle that I know of. This lack of platform sharing is likely why the Pacifica wasn’t more successful: The dedicated platform dictated uncompetitively high pricing, and low profit margins. Well Chrysler’s loss was our gain.

Kristen approved of the Pacifica: It met our functional requirements, and was decidedly un-trucky and un-minivany. Heck, it even had a modicum of style to it. She wanted ours in red, which made it seem a bit more sporty (a trick I would employ on future purchases).

I must confess to being a little nervous about buying an American car, having exclusively owned imports for the past 15 years. And not just an American car, but a Chrysler. I consoled myself with the fact that Chrysler was actually owned by Daimler Benz at the time, and hoped that there were at least a few Mercedes bits in there somewhere as I signed the paperwork.

Our model was the Touring model, which was the middle model of the lineup. It was still well equipped, and included some interesting bits like power-adjustable pedals, rear heated seats, power lift gate, and chrome wheels. One option I decided not to get was All Wheel Drive. Gas was relatively expensive in 2006, and I didn’t think that the added weight and fuel economy penalty of AWD was worth it, despite my previous positive experience with AWD in my Audi A4. But as it turns out, I was right this time.

The 2006 Pacifica came with a 3.5L V6. The 250 hp and 250 ft. lb. of torque sound impressive, but coupled to the 4-speed automatic and pulling 4,500 lbs., the performance could charitably be described as adequate. Chrysler recognized this problem, and bored out the V6 to 4.0 liters for the 2007 model year and increased the number of gears in the transmission to six, but it was too late to help me. Worse, it was very thirsty, averaging about 15 mpg in daily use, and returning no better than about 18 on the road. And this was with front-wheel drive – I shudder to think of what the mileage would have been had I opted for AWD.

Unlike virtually every other SUV which has a bench seat in the middle row, the Pacifica had captains chair with a center console in the middle. While the center console provided a nice “toy box” for the kids, it also meant that even the shortest trip with an extra passenger meant having to rearrange the back, and pop up a rear seat. It also limited the maximum seating capacity to six people, which is rather low for a vehicle of this heft.

Speaking of seating, the Pacifica, like virtually all three-row SUVs, suffered from a lack of what we in IT world refer to as “random access.” This means that you have to plan ahead as to how you are going to load and unload your passengers. Passengers in the way-back seat have to enter before middle row passengers. And the middle row passengers have to get out before for the third-row passengers can disembark. This admittedly is a first world problem, but it is one reason why I can understand the appeal of minivans, which generally allow true random access seating.

In the end, the Pacifica was a victim of showing up the crossover game a bit too early, before the market had decided exactly what a crossover was supposed to be. From the second row, it was clear they were aiming more for luxury car than family hauler, with the heated captains chairs, reclining rear seats, and separate climate controls. Ironically, my kids never got to enjoy any of these goodies, as they were riding in booster seats the entire time we owned it, which pretty clearly illustrates how far they missed the mark.

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