Cargo trucks, vans, and small buses were great utilitarian vehicles but they also beget a new type of vehicle: The minivan. First introduced in 1983, the Dodge Caravan (and its sibling the Plymouth Voyager) launched the segment, a category of vehicle that was destined to be a craze for many years. From its peak of almost 7% of all vehicle sales in the mid-2000’s, the minivan has subsequently lost market share year after year to its nemesis, the Sport Utility Vehicle. By 2019, minivans only accounted for 2.6% of the market, a drop of almost 70% in fifteen years.
If you can get past the “soccer mom” stigma, however, minivans are just as roomy, flexible, and comfortable as they’ve always been. We purchased our first minivan back in 1996, a grey Chrysler Town & Country. I can still remember us reveling in minivan life. The convenience and interior space – particular with a middle seat yanked out – was a game changer! Our second van was a Toyota Sienna, following which we too succumbed to the siren song of the SUV, moving to a Toyota Highlander, a Volvo XC90, and similar.
When Chrysler offer me the chance to drive the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Limited AWD “S Appearance” minivan, I was definitely curious to see how things had changed in the intervening years. Originally, the Pacifica was launched (in 2002) as the upscale, luxury Town & Country, but in 2017 Chrysler realized that it was inefficient to have two different versions of the same vehicle and dropped the Town & Country line. Consequentially, I like to think that at this point the Pacifica is an evolutionary descendant of our mid-90’s Town & Country.
The vehicle that Chrysler dropped off featured an eye-popping Ocean Blue metallic exterior:
You can see in this first photo that there’s still a hint of its utilitarian ancestry in the design with the Pacifica’s completely black wheels. Still, the vehicle features all the mod-cons, as they say, and the remote fob lets you open the sliding doors, the back hatch, remote start the vehicle, and even lock it. Like all major manufacturers, Chrysler is also focused on drive safety too, and the Pacifica features a great lineup of features, including adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, ParkSense, lane departure warnings, forward-collision warnings, pedestrian emergency braking, a backup camera, and even rain-sensitive windshield wipers.
But while we’re talking about the vehicle’s safety features, Chrysler has an odd habit of including both standard (e.g., traffic unaware) cruise control along with its “smart” adaptive cruise control, as you can see if you study this steering wheel photo:
The button centered on the right side between CANC(el), RES(ume), SET+ and SET- is the non-adaptive cruise control button. I realized this when I got really, really close to a vehicle in front of me on the highway. Adaptive cruise control is below that control quad, adjacent to the adaptive distance adjustment buttons. Why have both? It’s a puzzle, and I can only imagine some cranky old guy complaining “I don’t need no newfangled ‘adaptive’ nuthin, just gimme regular cruise control”. But do those old-school drivers actually purchase minivans?
Since we’ve moved into the vehicle, let’s look at the front dashboard layout:
It’s a simple, straightforward layout familiar to anyone who’s driven a Chrysler, Dodge, or similar vehicle in the last decade. The gearshift is the big control knob on the center console, adjacent to the climate controls. A closer look at that:
Maybe I’m becoming that crotchety old guy but seems like every vehicle I get into nowadays has a different way to change gears. Is this necessary? Are we at an inflection point with car gear design and are now all guinea pigs for different gear shift designs? This one’s not too bad but I kinda miss that push-button pull-down-to-desired-gear gearshift on the center console.
The climate controls are easy to use, at least, though I never did figure out how to have the passenger temperature match the driver’s settings. Perhaps that’s not an option? As with most of the current generation of vehicles, you can also enable or disable most of those great Chrysler safety features too, though it’s unclear to me why you would ever choose to do that.
Finally, notice the radio volume knob. Standard, simple, and in an expected location. This is duplicated by the buttons tucked behind the steering wheel controls, but I hate those because I never know if I’m going to switch tracks (a disaster with an audiobook) or change volume.
The “S Appearance” package (a relatively modest $295 optional set of design features) helps the Pacifica look a bit more swanky, but even without, that main gauge display is pretty darn sci-fi:
One area where the Pacifica really shines is in power plugs. There are a crazy number of USB ports on the front portion of the Pacifica dashboard:
That’s three USB-3.0, two USB-C and a Qi wireless charging pad on the lower right. Not enough? There’s another USB-3, USB-C and even a classic 12V “cigarette lighter” plug under the armrest in the center console. If you can’t power up all your gear, you probably need to rethink your digital lifestyle! I’m tempted to say that it’s overkill, but with radar detectors, dashcams, phone chargers, tablets, and who-knows-what-else, I imagine that there are scenarios when all of these will be utilized.
And if that’s still not enough, the second row passengers get their own entertainment screens and systems too, as you can see:
Wonderfully for parents, this includes a headphones jack, HDMI in, and yet another USB-3.0 port. It also has built-in games, but I’ve never found any particularly engaging games on any built-in vehicle entertainment system.
Speaking of which, the main infotainment screen on the front dashboard has a nice integration of Uconnect and Apple CarPlay Wireless, as you can see:
The central portion is from my iPhone (and would be where Android Auto would show up if you’re an Android’er), while the top and bottom rows of touch buttons are from the Chrysler UConnect system. I really like CarPlay as a long-time iPhone owner, but sometimes it can be difficult to figure out how to access non-CarPlay features. Some manufacturers solve this with physical buttons along the side, but this dedicated area of the screen works just fine too.
Being a minivan also means that it has a lot of room, and you can see from this rear view with the middle seat folded down and the back seat stowed (into the well designed for the purpose), there’s a lot of room in this Pacifica for cargo, sports gear, a bicycle, or lots of building materials from the hardware store:
There’s a lot to like about the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica LTD, including its reasonably responsive drive powered by a big 3.6L V6 with 9-speed automatic, though it’s not going to win any fuel efficiency competitions. I averaged 18.3 mpg across a few hundred miles of mixed city and highway driving.
And so it’s a trade-off. Minivans don’t tend to be in the running for style and design, though the Pacifica isn’t too bad in that department. It’s really all about cargo space and capacity, however, and that’s where this vehicle really shines:
If you have a lot of gear to transport, a big or growing family, or just love the idea of being able to open up the central portion of the vehicle for sleeping dogs or sprawling children on long, safe, boring portions of your road trip, then you really should give the minivan another look. And the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Limited AWD is a solid contender in the category.
CONFIGURATION: 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Limited AWD S Appearance minivan, in Ocean Blue exterior and Black (S Appearance) interior, powered by a 3.6L V6 24V VVT Engine and 9-speed automatic transmission. MSRP: $48,390. OPTIONS: The S Appearance Package. AS DRIVEN: $50,180.
Disclosure: Chrysler loaned me the Pacifica for a week of driving in return for this writeup. Thanks, Chrysler!