Ever since its introduction as a 2017 model, the Chrysler Pacifica has been one of our favorite minivans. It offers stylish looks inside and out, traditional minivan practicality, excellent infotainment and some of the most compelling powertrain options. For its 2021 model year refresh, the Pacifica smartly expands on all the things we already enjoyed and avoids ruining any inherent goodness, as evidenced by our test van, a new-for-'21 Pinnacle trim level.
The Pacifica’s changes start on the outside with redesigned front and rear fascias. These changes are probably the least successful, by which we mean, they’re not bad, just different. The modest grille and simple bumper design have given way to a deeper main grille and large lower openings, plus a pronounced air dam. It gives the van a wider, lower and meaner look. We don’t dislike it, but it seems different rather than better. We do like the revamped tail with its full-width taillights. And if for some reason you prefer the previous design, the entry-level Chrysler Voyager is just a decontented Pacifica with the old styling.
Under the skin, the biggest change is the addition of all-wheel drive, something not shared with the Voyager. The feature has been absent from the Chrysler van lineup for several years, since Chrysler couldn’t fit a driveshaft between the underfloor wells for the Stow ‘n Go second-row seats. That issue has been solved, and now you can have AWD without sacrificing any interior seating flexibility. The AWD system can send all power to the rear wheels as needed, and it also can disconnect the rear driveshaft to increase fuel economy. Our test Pacifica was equipped with all-wheel drive, and it was certainly effective in some of metro Detroit’s snowy conditions, offering a bit more launch traction and some assistance powering out of slow corners. But in the dry, it doesn’t change the driving experience at all. Also, despite the ability to disengage the rear driveshaft, fuel economy still takes a hit compared to the front-drive model, dropping from 19 mpg in town and 28 on the highway, to 17 in the city and 25 on the highway. That's a difference of 2 mpg combined, which works out to be $150 per year in annual fuel costs, according to the EPA.
The all-wheel-drive system is also only available with the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and nine-speed automatic, both carryovers from last year, since there isn’t room to package both the AWD system and the plug-in-hybrid equipment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The V6 is rated at a stout 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, and feels like it. Keep your foot in it and it even feels zippy. The engine is very smooth and is well isolated from the cabin, though full throttle will elicit a mild snarl from the intake. The transmission is also refined and goes unnoticed most of the time. It’s a bit slow on shifts, though, and it can take a moment to kick down in response to requests for more acceleration.
Besides the carryover V6, the plug-in hybrid with 260 horsepower continues to be available. Range and fuel economy remain the same with 32 miles of electric range and 30 mpg in combined driving when the battery is depleted. We had a long-term Pacifica Hybrid a couple years ago and were pleased with the powertrain’s refinement and efficiency.
The Pacifica's ride quality continues to be one of its highlights. It’s supple and smooth without feeling disconnected and floaty. The cabin is solid and doesn’t creak or vibrate. And there’s only small amounts of wind and tire noise. It’s a calm, relaxing machine that’s great for long hauls or your daily commute. With that being said, it’s not particularly playful. Steering is a bit slow and very numb, and there’s a fair bit of body roll. It does feel stable and composed. But hey, the Pacifica isn’t a sports car, nor does it need to be.
A raft of formerly optional driver-assist features moves to the standard-equipment list for 2021. That includes Forward Collision Warning Plus (now with pedestrian detection), lane departure warning and lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, automatic high-beams, and rain-sensing wipers. A new Safety Sphere Package is optional and bundles a 360-degree-view camera, automated parking, and front parking sensors.
With the styling and mechanical bits out of the way, we come to the Pacifica’s interior. The changes here are subtle, but represent worthy improvements. Most significant is the bigger, standard 10.1-inch infotainment display running FCA’s newest Uconnect 5 operating system. It has faster processing, revamped graphics, Amazon Alexa integration, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the ability to connect two phones via Bluetooth, user profiles and more customizable application pages. More importantly, it’s as easy to use as ever, and will be familiar to anyone used to the older version. It’s just prettier, quicker and on a bigger screen. It’s also backed up by plenty of physical buttons and knobs for commonly used functions such as climate control, volume and tuning. New USB-C ports and available wireless charging help keep everyone’s devices fully juiced.
In addition to the new infotainment system, the Pacifica has an available center console for the front row of seats that gives it a more carlike feel, not unlike what you’ll find in the new Toyota Sienna. A new FamCam with a zoom feature allows the driver to keep an eye on passengers in the rear seats (including those in rear-facing car seats). There’s also the new high-end Pinnacle trim that adds wonderful quilted brown Nappa leather and a suede headliner. The back seats even get throw pillows for decoration and extra-comfort. They’re gimmicky, but also oddly charming.
At first glance, the Pacifica's main weak point is the price. The base model starts at $36,540, making it the most expensive in the segment, topping the Sienna by about $1,000, the Odyssey by $3,000 and the unfairly forgotten Kia Sedona by $4,500. The Pacifica continues to be pricey right up to the ritzy Pinnacle that starts at $52,290. But the Pacifica is the only minivan to offer a plug-in hybrid model and the only one with second-row seats that fold into the floor. The Pacifica and the Sienna are the only two minivans available with all-wheel drive. And don't forget Chrysler's real entry point into the segment, the Voyager. It's the cheapest minivan by a considerable margin, undercutting even the Sedona by a couple thousand dollars. It's the same basic van as the Pacifica, but without most of the goodies.
So, the Pacifica is better than ever, and offers some seriously compelling features, many of which are unique to Chrysler. It’s a must-see for anyone considering a minivan.