Curbside Curmudgeon Rental Car Review: 2021 Chrysler Pacifica: A Mini(?) Van For the Masses? Or Let’s Just Try to Get Along

On a recent business trip, I reserved a car rental in advance.  A car, not a minivan.  However, a shortage of inventory led the cross-country all-state wizard rentacar company to only have minivans available.  So a 2021 Chrysler Pacifica it was.

I am not presetting the tone of this review, but I do have several criticisms.  I am not prejudging  the final result of this as to it will be a positive or negative outcome in terms of overall rating.  I will say that I liked this (mini?) van, albeit with all its shortcomings.  One word of note, this is not a review of how many they made of these, the price, what kind of brakes it has, or who is the competition.  This just focuses on the driving experience of having one for four days during some nice sunny spring weather.

Perhaps having been surprised by the type of vehicle that I was about to be driving being a van, at the end of a ten hour travel period over multiple (two) flight connections, this took a few minutes to get used to.  The windshield was dirty, inside and out.  There was no windshield washer fluid in the reservoir, as I was going to find out a couple of miles down the road.  I couldn’t find the remote button to open the back hatch, but the sliding side door was nice.  Just pop the handle and the door slid open at my behest.  The middle row seat behind the driver’s seat was folded down and resisted attempts to restore it to upright, but it eventually surrendered.

Once engaged into Drive, the van was a bit ponderous, a little lagging or hesitant in the accelerator response if you will.  Are we really moving sir?  OK If you insist.  I believe it had the 3.8 six engine (ED: Pentastar 3.6 V6).  I believe I have read about that engine previously.  Whether it was right or not for this van is debatable, it seemed to need a bit more bite to it (ED: published tests average 0-60 in 7.3 sec.)

Some time early in my journey I realized this vehicle had 37,000 miles on it, and that it was last year’s model.  I don’t think I have ever rented a vehicle that elderly on a business trip.  I did rent a severely used Gremlin back in the day from Rent a Wreck, so this van comes in second place ever as the most used rental vehicle I have ever experienced firsthand, moving trucks aside.  Not that a year old is that old, but I imagine the inventory crisis has hit the rental people hard.

Depending on where this van was first deployed, it was as much as 1000 miles away from that spot.  It must have covered five to ten states in its lifecycle to date.  I have had the opportunity to have visited 31 US States, and Puerto Rico.  I have covered geography in the southwest (California, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona), the eastern seaboard down to Florida, and midwestern States from Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and down to Louisiana.  Like many of us, I have had multiple rental cars in each of those locations.  I was glad the weather was good when I was on this visit; the weather turned nasty a week or two later.

There was no obvious sign of any brand name marking anywhere on this van except the prominent Pacifica name on the rear hatch, and the Chrysler wings on the steering wheel, rear hatch, and the grille.  Is Stellantis trying to de-emphasize the Chrysler name brand?  Perhaps. (ED: Mercedes and several other brands don’t have their names on their cars)

Mistakenly, I had believed I would find the control centre head unit would operate similarly as on my own 300.  There have been advances, changes if you prefer, in the functionality, some not all for the better. An endorsement first of all, that the control screen is contained within the dash, not sticking up as if it was an afterthought.  It did not have a navigation system as an option in this van however.  Seriously, you put out a van with leather seats, A/C, PS, PB, a multi function sound system, power seats, lane assist warning, a power sliding side door, cruise speed control, and you don’t put a friggin navigation system on board?  No heated seats maybe I understand, I was not in the Great White North, so probably not generally needed or called for by consumers.  In any event, the rental place probably would have wanted money for Nav to be enabled. (ED: navigation is available at extra charge on most rental cars).   Apologies for the lighting in some of these photos.

So I pulled out my GPS device.  I still use a portable GPS, as opposed to my phone.  I have gotten used to it, I like it, and it gets me where I need to go.  To that point, on board GPS systems in cars require updating, which appears to be an involved process, one that I have never attempted in my own car.  I need something that I can download to a USB, plug it in to the car and hit go.  I don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time being my own IT help desk to upload and configure files.

Back to my GPS; I neglected to bring my power cable.  Dang! So I tried my USB cable, but it only provided the device with recharging power, and it was not able to power the device to run.  So I ran it on battery power, expecting to get me 30-60 minutes of running time.  To my great surprise and delight, this NUVI ran for the whole two hour drive each way on my trip through the Midwestern US.  Kudos to Garmin.  This unit I have is almost ten years old as well.  It still accepts updates for North America and Canada, with a memory chip installed.  Those updates are done on my home computer, where I can leave it running for however long it takes.

On the highway, the van deported itself well.  It didn’t ride at all like a car, like my 1987 Voyager minivan (or my 2001 Caravan) had, but it was no truck either.  It rode pretty smoothly albeit heavily along the road.  Certainly the wheelbase was longer and I could tell.  One nit I had with the headlights, was that there were some dark stretches along a curvy road that I could have used high beams to help navigate.  It turned out that the high beam setting only allowed for short bursts from pulling the turn signal lever forward, pressing it forward did not permit switched on high beams.  The dash gave me a message that that function was disabled.  I think I would like to decide, not the car, when I need high beams.  There was probably a setting buried deep in the control screen that I could have used to reset that function, but at 70 MPH at night I was not so inclined to do that searching. (ED: If the automatic high beams are activated, the pushing the lever forward will cause them to turn on automatically when appropriate above 16 mph. If automatic high beams are not activated (via UConnect) then pushing the lever forward will turn on the high beams)

The sound system offered an option to use a USB stick for music.  Great!  Just what I was hoping for.  In goes the stick, and I went searching for the voice response button like on my Uconnect system at home.  Not there.  The VR button that was there, that I thought was the voice response system, only told me it could not pair a phone while in motion.  Dang again, over to the screen.  We had radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth radio, and the USB stick.  I could have used my phone, I suppose, but I have not mastered, or tried to gain expertise in using a music service, setting up my playlists, or any of that.  I left it on a local radio station for a time.

Stopped for a bite to eat, and now emboldened, with the stick still in the slot, and I again hit the USB button. And again, and again.  Nope, not working.  Tried the other USB slot, no dice.  Perhaps fortunately, there was a bump in the road just when I tried one final time before deferring to the radio, and I hit the USB button twice, completely by accident.  Boom, on comes the music from the stick.  I thought it was from pressing the button harder at first, only later did I realize what the intended action was.  Unfortunately the system didn’t give me the whole playlist on the stick, it just picked twenty or so songs.  I think it would have needed to index the files first before I hit play.

So after hitting nineteen buttons to get my music going, adjusting the equalizer up and down, all this action allowable while in motion was OK?  Hmm, for safety, it might be more advisable to put all those functions on gearshift in Park only mode.  However I guess consumers don’t want that, so marketing gets them to keep it on the permissible list.

The gearshift was a round knob, close to the right hand of the driver.  It is larger with toothed edges for a different tactile feel than the radio volume button, or the climate control button.  Also the radio station tuner button – is the same as the radio control, but I had not even noticed that control until well into my trip.  Once I got used to the round gearshift, I could go from R to D and back fairly easily and without looking.

I did like the climate control system.  Without the control screen on (with the sound system off, the screen goes black), one can press the button continuously to toggle from heating vents top, bottom, or both, defrost, etc.  The selection appears as a little symbol on the screen.  Temperature adjustments accomplished with big depressible buttons for hot and cold, variable for each side driver and passenger.  Settings are on the control screen as well as on the panel.

I see parking brakes are just a button now.  Something worth remembering.

The wizard rentacar company had given me a full tank of gas which is always appreciated.

Side mirrors are power adjustable, I always move mine out almost all the way out they will go away from my vehicle.  That reduces or mostly eliminates blind spots, as approaching cars can be seen moving from the centre rear view mirror, to the side mirror, to peripheral vision, and then into sight.  Head turning for lane changes can still be done for safety, but I have found this side mirroring method to be quite effective.  External visibility was good, and the rearview camera performed well when reversing.  The audible warning system of impending disaster-  danger when backing up was entirely unnecessary and uncalled for.

Some other people I met at my business meeting and I went out for dinner and I offered to drive.  A few of them had great difficulty with the power sliding side door, pulling and thrashing on the handle to get the door to open or close.  I tried to demonstrate the simple pull technique, but it seemed too hard for others to master.

The driver’s door, and the front passenger, has an integrated button that when the key fob is in the region nearby the outside of the van, allows for door locking. Similarly, with the door locked, a hand inserted into the door handle unlocks the doors with key fob in hand.

Driving along on an open road, with no music playing, the sound I liked was the sound of the drivetrain.  It brought to mind the sound of smooth rotating machinery whirring along as if on board an airplane, although much quieter.  It gave me a feeling of confidence.  It reminded me of the sound of a turbine.  Linguistic note, to me, the word ‘turbine’ is pronounced as it rhymes with “pine”, “thine”, or “mine”.

Some system reminder popped up on the control screen that something or other needed to be fixed or given attention.  Every Single Time I started the engine, and it had to be acknowledged by pressing a button on the control screen.  Perhaps the folks at wizard rentacar will see to that before another fifteen people drive the thing.  There was another maintenance message that came up on the speedometer screen also every time, but it went away.

Cruise control works all right; I didn’t test it to see if it was adaptive in relation to the car ahead of me or not.  However another nanny system popped up when I briefly (honest officer) accelerated to pass another car, and the system distracted me by telling me I was overriding the cruising speed set.  Really?  I found that entirely unnecessary to the point of distraction.  I’m looking at you auto manufacturers, Chrysler in this case.  I just don’t see the point of it, if you are driving, you need to be aware of your speed.

The gas cap cover was easy enough to figure out how to open, but a quick consultation with the owner’s manual took me to page 197 of over 400 pages.  Perhaps a quick start guide would be helpful from the manufacturer, especially for rental fleet customers.  Why the headlight switch is best left to the Auto position.  We know you just got in this car, and it may be your first time driving a Chrysler, VW, Honda, Nissan, etc.  Here’s what you need to know in less than two minutes.  The major functions available on the control screen.  It could be a quick video on the control screen, like the ones seen on airlines on fastening your seat belt.

As for the gas cap, after learning how to start the car, being able to put gas in it is about number two on the important to know list, not delegated to a page deep in the thick manual.  For reference, on this van it was push the gas cap cover in and it would pop out.  There was no actual gas cap, a great innovation I also enjoy at home on my cars.

My very first Magic Wagon (1987) had rear windows that I could crank open on an angle.  It made for very nice air flow through.  They operated using a simple ceiling mounted knob that rotated, and was connected to the glass via a cable hidden in the roof.  On this Pacifica, the side windows opened, but not the rears.  I believe that has been the consensus for some time now.  My previous vans always had fixed side middle windows, to the chagrin of my then young kids.  If this van had that feature, I didn’t find it.

Steering feel was good and firm, not mushy.  The van went straight down the road, and navigated highway curves well, and sharp turns in parking lots.

The crevice spaces on either side of the centre console is limited.  I dropped a pen or something between the console and the passenger seat, and it took some doing to retrieve the item.  My hand wouldn’t fit in between, so another object had to be used to push the item forward to allow its recovery.  The owner’s manual might have come in handy here if it had been needed.  Not as a reference tool, but as a book to push through the crevice.  I have the same problem on my own crossover CUV vehicle.  Drop a French fry down beside the seat, and even a good vacuum crevice tool will struggle to capture the forlorn fry.

The rear cargo area with the seats in place was certainly not cavernous, and it was irregularly shaped.  I suppose a load of groceries could go back there, but a trip to the big box store might need those back seats to fold down.  I would think eight foot wooden studs would fit inside with the hatch being able to be closed, as a guess.

As an aside, and looking at these photos, I see the roof rack consists only of lengthwise bars, with no crossbars.  I cannot imagine their usefulness, but perhaps a comment or two below might shed some light.

The button labeled “VR”, in the middle of the bottom row of buttons on the left, seemed to be the button to use to pair a phone.  When pressed when driving, when I was looking for the voice command system, it only told me I could not pair a phone while driving.  It might be the hands free button for the audio system, but I did not accomplish getting it to function as such.  However, my GPS unit dutifully responded when I asked it for voice command.

Finally, I reset the speedometer to kilometers rather than miles per hour, and did not reset that upon dropping it off.  I challenge the next driver, who is already cursing at me, to reset that when in their first few miles on the road wonder why they seem to be going slower than everyone else.

That is not an oil leak from this van.  It is an oil leak from a previous rental I would imagine.

The end result is that this Pacifica got me where I needed, enabled me to transport three additional passengers in leather covered seating greater comfort than in the vehicles they had rented, and got fairly decent gas mileage.  The speedo info centre reported 22-25 MPG in US gallons, alright for a van of this size although it may have been optimistic.  I don’t know the curb weight, but it sure felt like it had some heft to it.  It certainly had a longer wheelbase than any van I had piloted previously.  Taken as a body of work, I’ll give the van a 7 out of 10.  I’ll only give the rental folks a 3 however.  I know you are short cars, but at least please put a little effort in to clean the windows and refill the reservoir.  A car wash wouldn’t hurt that much either.

If I was in the market for a minivan, I would consider this one, but cannot say whether I would lay out the bucks for one or not.  It may be a bit too thirsty for my liking.  A seven passenger SUV may find more driveways for buyers in this market.