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No, minivans aren't cool, but the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is close

Hang around me for long enough and you may hear the words "minivans are cool" slip from my lips when defending them against the onslaught of massive SUVs that has diminished this class. Minivans aren't really cool, but what they are is ridiculously useful. No other class of vehicle can match the blend of people-moving potential and cargo holding flexibility that the capacious, boxy minivan does. No SUV can truly match the kid-friendliness of a minivan's low step-in height and sliding doors. No crossover is more ready for a Home Depot run than a minivan with its seats folded flat or removed.

For the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited, the automaker refines everything that I like about minivans with an attention to detail similar to how most marques would refine a premium sedan. And why shouldn't it? Chrysler claims that it invented the modern minivan back in 1983 with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, so its reputation is on the line with this launch.

The sliding doors are motorized and slide open with the touch of a button. A hands-free open feature will allow them to be opened with a wiggle of a foot beneath the side sill when the key fob is present, though the preproduction model I was able to test had the feature disabled. The rear liftgate is likewise powered with a similar hands-free foot waggle feature.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Beyond the sliding doors are the Stow-N-Go seats of the second row. With the lift of a panel and a tug of a strap, these buckets disappear into the floor in seconds, leaving a totally flat loading area. This Limited model also featured power retractable third-row seats that likewise fold flat at the touch of a button. Totally opened up, you could stack full sheets of plywood flat on the floor.

Surrounding the sliding doors and power liftgate, however, is a design that makes this people mover actually look like something you might want to drive. Gone is the upright boxy look in favor of a windswept silhouette with rounded edges, sharp details and a strong front wheel arch that makes the van look sporty. The profile hides a lot of the minivan's bulk, making it look smaller than it is, and the design hints at aerodynamics beneath.

It also looks like a spaceship mated with a Ninja Turtle when viewed from straight on. This kind of funky, kind of cool look adds to the Pacifica's curb appeal, I think.

But what I love most about the Pacifica is its unabashed van-ness in a world where everything is a crossover, "wagon" is a four-letter word and telling your friends that you're considering a minivan is tantamount to announcing that you've given up on life. It warms my heart to see there's still innovation and competition to be found in this shrinking class and that the form and function can work together.

Cabin tech and features

Speaking of functions, one feature new to Chrysler's minivan has consistently been a crowd pleaser since its Detroit debut earlier this year: the Ridgid Stow 'n' Vac system. On the third row, tucked into the wall behind the driver's side sliding door is a small panel that slides up to reveal the onboard vacuum cleaner's hose, power button and attachments. The 10-foot hose is long enough to reach crumbs and dirt throughout the entire interior and empties into a washable bin with a replaceable filter in the rear storage area. Near the rear bin is another 10-foot extension that allows the Stow 'n' Vac system to also vacuum clean another vehicle.

I'm not sure exactly how this is better than just having a shop vacuum in your garage, but it's certainly cool. And, just in case you were worrying about little ones on the third row activating the Stow 'n' Vac, it's disabled while the vehicle is in gear.

The Stow 'n' Vac may be the crowd pleaser, but the Uconnect Theater is a kid pleaser. The rear seat entertainment system features two 10-inch HD touchscreens for rear-seat passengers' enjoyment and is loaded up with apps designed to entertain kids, such as Are We There Yet?, The License Plate Game, Roadtrip Bingo and Checkers. The twin displays fold up from seatbacks, which also have powered USB ports for media storage and device charging and an HDMI port for connecting portable media devices (and not-so-portable devices such as gaming consoles).

Up front, there's a Blu-ray optical disc drive that can feed video to the Uconnect Theater system in back or audio to the Uconnect infotainment stack up front. The dashboard infotainment system features a new flush-mounted 8.4-inch touchscreen, 3G connectivity with a Wi-Fi hotspot function (subscription required) and a new digital interface design that's simpler and flatter. This generation of Uconnect also features its own array of apps, including Aha by Harman, iHeart Radio, Slacker, Pandora and Yelp. Sadly, neither Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay integration will be found in the Pacifica's dashboard for the 2017 model year.

The optional 20-speaker Harman Kardon audio system sounds pretty all right, filling the cabin with sound and contributing to the reasonably low levels of road and wind noise at highway speeds with standard active noise cancellation tech.

Ahead of the driver is an instrument cluster with a pair of large gauges for road and engine speed. Between them is a full-color screen that can be toggled between a variety of information displays for safety, fuel economy, hands-free calling, navigation, audio source and more with buttons on the steering wheel.

Just below the Uconnect system, the lower dashboard tier is home to controls for the available driver aid features (which I'll return to momentarily), the multizone automatic climate controls and knob shifter for gearbox that intrudes into the front passenger space much less than a conventional knob. This shift-by-wire system also frees up space below the dashboard where shifter linkages would typically be hidden for stowage room for a purse or small bag.

On the road

The nine-speed automatic transmission on the other end of that shift-by-wire system lacks any sort of sporting ambition. With so many ratios to choose from and eco-friendly programming, the gearbox seems well suited for optimizing economy, but there are perhaps too many gears for optimizing performance. The transmission can seem indecisive and hesitant to downshift on a twisty road and, without a sport or manual program, I was just sort of stuck dealing with it.

Then again, a minivan is just about the furthest thing from a sports car on the automotive spectrum and I think that families will see more value in mpgs than mphs. When taking it easy around town -- the way a parent with a van full of tiny humans would -- the nine-speed's shifts proved smooth and the engine's speed was kept in the quietest portion of the tachometer's swing.

Despite the gearbox sucking almost all of the fun out of the drive, the Pacifica's standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is actually pretty potent and efficient. Chrysler tells me that the Pentastar has seen quite a few revisions for this generation and now outputs 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That's an amount of power that won't win any drag races in a vehicle of this size (don't even bother timing your 0-60 runs), but it's enough to make the minivan feel competent around town and on the highway and just peppy enough.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

I averaged about 21 mpg during my roughly 100-mile road trip from Irvine, California to Escondido, which was completed with the navigation in the "Avoid Highways" mode, which lead me along a nice and twisty scenic route. That put me fairly close to the EPA's estimated 22 combined mpg (18 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway).

Along that route, I found the Pacifica's handling to be significantly better than I expected. The suspension is comfortable and pliable over bumps, yet the steering felt nice and precise. Chrysler tells me that this is thanks to what it calls the "ComfortLink" bushing system, which separates the suspension and steering bushings and allows the automaker's engineers to tune the materials independently; pliable for the former and stiff for the latter. Chrysler also tells me that the van's body is about twice as stiff as the outgoing Town and Country thanks to a new architecture that uses the Stow-N-Go seats' wells as a stiff backbone for the vehicle and more use of high-strength steel in the construction. Standard aluminum hood and sliding doors and a lighter stiffer body mean that this Pacifica is also nearly 250 pounds lighter than a similarly equipped Town and Country.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The result is a vehicle that is surprisingly nimble for a minivan and not unpleasant to drive on the snaking mountain and canyon roads. The Pacifica's steering is responsive, the turn-in quite good and the van feels stable when cornering at reasonably-quick-but-not-law-breaking speeds. The assist of the electric power steering weights up nicely at speed, lending a nice precise feel to my inputs. However, neither the steering nor the chassis offer very good feedback to go along with their responsiveness, no doubt the isolating nature of that ComfortLink setup.

Nothing in this class is a sports car, but I haven't had this much fun in a minivan since Mazda killed off the Mazda5. The Pacifica inspires a similar feeling of confidence in its abilities during off ramp hustles or emergency evasions, even if its isolating nature keeps it from ever approaching the same level of driving joy as Mazda's late, little people mover.

Driver aid tech

Speaking of emergency evasions, this modern minivan is available with a host of modern driver aid features, most of which are tied to the upper trim levels and optional packages. In English, the highlights of the alphabet soup of ADAS (advanced driver aid systems) are optional adaptive cruise control, forward pre-collision warning with auto-braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert when reversing, rear and 360-degree camera systems and active lane departure prevention.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

I got the most use during my day-long trip out of adaptive cruise and lane departure prevention systems. The former maintains a preset speed on the highway, but can automatically slow the van to maintain a safe following distance as I approached a lead vehicle. It works all the way down to a complete stop, which means that it can be used in slow traffic. The latter system uses forward looking cameras to detect lane markers and the van's electric power steering system to aid in steering the vehicle back in line, should the driver approach or cross these markers without signaling.

Both systems have three levels of sensitivity that allows the driver choose their level of intrusiveness. Both will take a bit of getting used to, but are worth it for the safety net they provide with a car full of potential distractions children. And both are easily activated and deactivated with the touch of a button.

The Pacifica's biggest party trick for drivers unfamiliar with modern luxury vehicles is its optional semi-autonomous parking system. With the touch of a button, the sensors that provide blind spot monitoring do double duty, measuring for open spaces that the van can fit into as you, the driver, creep along the road. When a space is found, the system prompts the driver to stop and place the transmission into reverse, then it takes over the electric power steering, maneuvering the bulk of the van automatically into the space while the driver retains control over the accelerator and brakes. The system can recognize parallel and perpendicular spaces, but it must first be toggled between the two modes by tapping the Auto Park Assist button.

Sometimes, parents need to lend their van to a young driver, so the Pacifica is also available with an optional KeySense feature. Similar to Ford's MyKey, KeySense allows the owner to associate a unique profile to each smart key fob. So the teen driver's key fob can, for example, trigger a speed limiter that the vehicle can't exceed, set audio volume limits and activate advanced safety features (such as forward collision mitigation) and prevent them from being deactivated.

Pricing, packaging, availability

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica positions itself as a premium minivan, both in the class and within Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' lineup, with a $28,595 starting price for the LX model.

As tested, at the top trim with KeySense, Advanced SafetyTec group, 20-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio and Uconnect Theater -- basically fully loaded -- the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited rolls out at $42,495 (or $49,450, when you include the destination charges).

While the Pacifica replaces the Chrysler Town and Country, it doesn't replace the historically identical Dodge Caravan. This divergence is an interesting one. The 2016 model year Caravan will persist unchanged for another model year, filling in the lower $22K to $31K price range below the Pacifica, but FCA has stated that it won't just slap a Dodge badge on the Pacifica once the older vehicle has run its course. Representatives state that Dodge and Chrysler vehicles are often sold on the same floors and FCA has no desire to compete with itself.

Upcoming Pacifica PHEV

Shortly after the Pacifica's launch, the model will become the ever plug-in minivan when the Pacifica Hybrid joins the lineup in second half of 2016. It's surprising that it took so long for hybridization to come to the class, but I can understand how the early failures of hybrid SUVs and the shrinking of the minivan market could conspire to prevent automakers from taking many chances.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The plug-in hybrid will feature unique wheel and grille designs and will be offered in a unique interior and exterior color scheme. Of course, the charging port's door on the front driver's fender is one of the biggest distinguishers of the electrified model.

Plugging into that charging port juices the hybrid's 16kWh li-ion battery pack, which unfortunately fills the underfloor wells that the Stow-N-Go seats would normally fold into. The hybrid then loses the collapsible second row buckets in favor of larger removable seats.

For the trouble, the plug-in returns up to 30 miles fully-electric range from each full charge with an efficiency of 80 mpge when operating in this silent running mode, which could save families quite a bit of money on short trips. Further details about the hybrid model will be revealed closer to its launch.

Editors' note: CNET accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

 

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