At the Chicago Auto Show, one of our favorite family haulers gets mildly SUV-like styling, all-wheel drive and a raft of new safety and tech gear. Plus, pillows.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
After putting tens of thousands of miles on both long-term gas and Hybrid models, it's fair to say we at Roadshow know the Chrysler Pacifica well. It's also fair to say that we love this minivan -- it's one of the best of its breed. But with more and more new-car shoppers trading the segment's practical sliding doors and sensible-shoes reputation in favor of less efficient and frankly less practical SUVs, Chrysler is looking to increase its minivan's appeal by adopting some utility-vehicle hallmarks. Enter the new-look 2021 Chrysler Pacifica, which is debuting at this week's Chicago Auto Show with blockier, more SUV-like styling and -- more importantly -- available all-wheel drive.
Beyond those two major changes, there's a whole host of tech, convenience, luxury and safety updates that should be welcome news to all shoppers, be they van enthusiasts or vanophobic. On the luxury front, there's a new range-topping model that sits above the Limited, dubbed Pacifica Pinnacle. It includes quilted Nappa leather seats, satin trim and even a pair of leather-covered throw pillows, just like a Mercedes-Maybach S-Class. In terms of safety, Chrysler is claiming its new baby offers more standard security features -- 97 -- than any other vehicle in the business, sliding doors or no. All told, the 2021 Pacifica is available with up to 116 safety features.
About that new look
We've already thrown a bunch of superlatives the Pacifica's way in this story, but we're going to pump the brakes for a moment on this van's new look. An informal survey of the Roadshow editorial team reveals that we're not sure if the new, less-rounded front end is better looking than the model currently in showrooms. We appreciate the fact that the new light fixtures are all LED regardless of which model you opt for, but the enlarged grille and more traditional face don't seem to fit quite as well as the original design. The redesigned rear end, however, is markedly better, with attractive and modern-looking full-width taillamps headlining the visual changes.
2021 Chrysler Pacifica Pinnacle AWD out-luxes your minivan
It's not that the new look is a terrible development, it's just that the old one was so good-looking that it might not be clear to everyone that the 2021 model is an improvement. It's also not immediately clear that the designers' intent to give the Pacifica more SUV-like cues has translated into the sheetmetal. (For anyone with memories of GM's ghastly redesigned GMT201 minivans of the mid-2000s, this might actually be a good thing.)
Like all Pacificas since the start of the 2017 model year, the 2021 model is powered by FCA's well-liked 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, tuned in gas-only models to deliver 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque matched with a nine-speed automatic transmission.
The Pacifica's class-exclusive plug-in Hybrid model returns, utilizing a version of the same V6 tuned to run on the Atkinson cycle for better efficiency. Packing a pair of electric motors, total system horsepower is rated at 260, and the 16-kilowatt-hour battery is again expected to deliver 80 MPGe and around 30 miles of electric-only range. Unfortunately, you can't get the plug-in Hybrid model with all-wheel drive, at least not yet.
The Pacifica's new development in the drivetrain department is all-wheel drive, a nifty class option shared only with the aging Toyota Sienna. Aside from any obvious badging, you might be able to spot an AWD model on the street by slightly higher ride height (20 millimeters). The new system only engages the rear wheels when necessary, and it can route 100% of the engine's torque to the rear axle if necessary.
The American Axle-sourced hardware includes a rear-axle disconnect feature that stops the driveshaft from rotating to improve efficiency. The system will automatically activate when front-wheel slippage is detected, and it'll also preemptively engage under hard acceleration or abrupt steering inputs, or even when the temperature drops or the wipers are switched on. Most impressively, FCA's engineers have somehow managed to maintain the Pacifica's Stow n' Go seating, which requires carving out sizable wells in the floor for the second-row seats to flop and fold into.
FCA says AWD models tip the scales at 4,883 pounds, a substantial 362-pound weight increase over front-wheel-drive models. Part of that's the extra driveline componentry, but it's also due to an enlarged 18-inch brake package, self-sealing tires and unique front and rear suspension calibrations that include a new rear stabilizer bar.
2020 Chrysler Pacifica AWD?
In an unusual move, FCA will also make this new AWD system available for a limited window of time in the current-model-year 2020 Pacifica -- the pre-facelift model. In the next 60 days, FCA will open up 2020 Pacifica AWD orders to dealers, but only for a period of around 90 days. That should carry the company through to the third quarter, when the new 2021 model featured here will come online.
FCA's UConnect 5 packs OTA updates, wireless CarPlay and is 5G ready
With minivans, it's all about what's on the inside, and the Pacifica has always had one of our favorite cabins. For 2021, there are some solid quality-of-life improvements, and they aren't all just clustered around the ultra-lux Pinnacle model (although that model's exclusive Ultra Console is both swish and massive, having a third more capacity than the already generous regular unit). The big news is that the Pacifica will be among the first to get Uconnect 5, the latest generation of FCA's easy-to-use touchscreen infotainment system.
Uconnect 5 features a larger 10.1-inch touchscreen with improved resolution and processor power. The new hardware includes built-in Amazon Alexa voice assistant functionality, dual-source Bluetooth, plus available wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There's even a 4G-LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and up to a dozen USB-A and USB-C ports on offer. Finally, there's a newly personalizable home screen to highlight commonly used functions (with multiple user profiles) and an optional new FamCam interior monitor with zoom function that allows front-row passengers to keep an eye on the kids in the back -- even those in rear-facing child seats.
If it's beginning to sound like the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica might just be a shoo-in for one of the most practical and family-friendly vehicles in the world, you're reading the details of this midcycle refresh the way we are. We'll need to get full pricing and some solid wheel time to know for sure if the AWD system and the new Uconnect systems are genuinely worthwhile additions, but all signs point to one of our favorite large vehicles getting even better. Well, other than that new front-end appearance...