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When the Chrysler Pacifica first debuted, it leapt to the top of its class. Over the last few years, its competitors have whipped up some new tricks, so for 2021, Chrysler focused on revamping the Pacifica lineup to give buyers more choice, and the results keep this van in contention for top honors.
Chrysler first showed off its refreshed Pacifica at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show, and several of my colleagues were quick to pooh-pooh its new design, calling its front end too boring or anonymous or whatever. I'm in the opposite camp; I think it looks great, if only because it no longer has the same front end as a Chrysler 200. Minivans are meant to be tools more than toys, so understated looks represent their utilitarian leanings. The rear end is much sharper than before, and thanks to new running lights on both ends, its nighttime profile is far more unique than it used to be.
But when it comes to family vehicles, much like one's own existence, it's what's inside that counts. To that end, the Pacifica absolutely shines, especially in the new-for-2021 Pinnacle trim. Yes, it's almost as expensive as a BMW 5 Series, with my tester ringing in at an "oof"-inducing $54,885, including $1,495 for destination. But, at the same time, it's nearly as luxurious as the Bimmer, thanks to standard trimmings like quilted Nappa leather seats, pillows for the second-row captain's chairs and just about every modern feature one would expect in a minivan.
Yet, opting for all that luxury doesn't mean you have to compromise in other departments. The powered third row still stows effortlessly, thanks to switches mounted near the liftgate. There's still a vacuum tucked back there, too. The only real compromise is the lack of Stow-n-Go second-row seats, but they can still slide up and out of the way to make room for flat-pack furniture boxes, Christmas trees, an entire kennel's worth of dogs, you name it.
Storage has always been an important factor in minivan interior design, and the Pacifica Pinnacle goes above and beyond the base trims with what it calls the Ultra Console. This redesigned center console packs an impressive amount of storage, from a sneaky tray underneath to a cavernous cubby under the armrest. Just below the climate controls, there's a wireless charging tray sizable enough to accommodate any phone currently on the market, in addition to cup holders suitable for larger water bottles.
FCA's Uconnect is one of my favorite infotainment systems because it's straightforward and easy to learn. The latest version, Uconnect 5, makes one of its first appearances in the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica, and no surprise, I love it.
Now living on a 10.1-inch screen, Uconnect picks up a few new tricks that make living with the system even easier. A beefier processor means faster boot times and improved responsiveness, while its Bluetooth capabilities expand to allow multiple concurrent sources. Amazon Alexa capability is baked in, as are wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. My favorite bit, though, is the new home screen, which displays multiple corners of the system (e.g. audio, navigation) at once, and there's enough screen resolution to make everything appear nice and crisp. USB ports are everywhere, with the front row alone packing four USB ports, split evenly between USB-A and USB-C.
In terms of cameras, there are enough on this Pacifica to give the British CCTV panopticon a run for its money. The normal backup camera packs suitable resolution, and the surround-view camera makes parking a breeze. But the most interesting camera is actually inside the vehicle -- a new FamCam interior monitor uses a roof-mounted lens to keep an eye on rear-seat occupants from above, which is great for paranoid parents wanting to keep an eye on a little one in a rear-facing car seat.
When it comes to safety, the Pacifica Pinnacle comes standard with just about everything. Parking sensors? Check. Active parking assist? Check. Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality? Lane-keep assist? Automatic emergency braking? Pedestrian and cyclist detection? You get the idea.
I've always appreciated the way the Pacifica drives, which is more like a well-dampened car than a crossover, and thankfully FCA didn't mess with success for the 2021 model. There are, however, a couple new additions to help the automaker keep up with the Joneses.
My tester rocks the same engine the Pacifica has always utilized, the venerable 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Here, it makes 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, but what's new is the ability to send that power to four wheels, rather than two. A $2,995 upcharge, its newly available all-wheel-drive getup offers a little extra piece of mind for drivers in locales with more than one or two seasons. I find it has no effect on the Pacifica's overall character, mostly because the rear wheels don't actually engage until the car detects slippage up front, which boosts fuel economy. The 362-pound weight delta doesn't seem to affect the surprising amount of hustle that the Pacifica's always packed, and the V6 still sounds great when it's hustling down an on-ramp.
There's a bit of extra ride height on AWD Pacificas, but from what I can tell it doesn't affect the handling whatsoever. This is one neutral minivan, with the right amount of body roll to soften the ride without making it feel too wishy-washy, and with sufficient damping to remove most of the nasty bits on local roads. Like before, it'll make a great road trip minivan, soaking up the miles and returning plenty of comfort for long stretches. The steering is nicely weighted, and both the throttle and brake pedals are tuned to ensure smooth starts and stops every time. The actual stop-start system, however, is a little on the janky side, with ample jostling when the V6 both cuts out and returns to life.
The one place that the AWD system can't be ignored is in the Pacifica's fuel-economy estimates. While the front-drive model earns a respectable 19 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway, the added mechanical complexity of the AWD variant (and the heft that comes with it) drops those figures to 17 and 25, respectively. Thankfully, a light foot can bridge that gulf a bit, as I'm seeing highway figures closer to 28 or 29 mpg.
The minivan segment might not be the most riveting in the industry, but it's not like it's stagnant. The Toyota Sienna is now a hybrid-only affair, with optional AWD by way of a second electric motor out back, which lacks the electric-only range of the Pacifica's PHEV variant but promises 35 mpg combined. It's also… very uniquely styled. Honda recently refreshed the Odyssey, as well, but the changes are all minor, so it's slowly becoming the segment laggard as Toyota and FCA offer more routes to efficiency, which is important in family vehicles of this size.
If you don't want your minivan to look like something out of Akira, the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica is a hard act to beat -- but then again, you could say the same about the 2017-2020 models, as well. Throughout the Pacifica's life cycle, it impressed me with its family-friendly functionality and quality ride, and its newfound versatility only makes it more appealing.