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2021 Chrysler Pacifica First Look: New AWD For a Vantastic People Mover


Minivan sales continue to crater in the U.S., with the once-popular segment's 2019 numbers dropping by 15 percent year over year. But plucky Chrysler, which has sold over 15 million of the things since 1984, including just over 50 percent of the minivans sold last year, is doubling down on the segment with a surprisingly involved mid-cycle refresh of its excellent Pacifica. Fresh styling, vastly upgraded Uconnect-ivity, and the return of an all-wheel-drive option aim to broaden the Pacifica's appeal. The van already was a favorite of ours, having prevailed as champion of our March Mayhem bracket elimination contest to determine America's "best family car" last year.


The Pacifica's 2021 redesign includes a bolder new grille featuring a three-dimensional-effect diamond mesh and available satin-chrome finish, plus more SUV-like lower air intakes. In back, new full-width, two-tiered LED taillamps tighten up the look while also seeming curiously similar to those units on the 2020 Genesis G90 luxury sedan. These styling revisions and added rear-axle propulsion (AWD hasn't been offered on a Chrysler minivan since 2004) are both aimed at snaring a few of the myriad buyers fleeing minivans for sport utility vehicles. Will it work?

In all likelihood, unless Chrysler hinged the Pacifica's rear doors, leveled the hoodline, and hiked up the floor height, probably not. And besides, such a transformation to something more evocative of an SUV would ruin the Pacifica's excellent packaging for people and cargo. What the 2021 Pacifica therefore achieves is this: It's less rounded and gelatinous in appearance than before and now offers all-wheel drive, eroding Toyota's until now 100-percent share of the all-wheel-drive minivan market, such as it is.


Toyota says the take rate for AWD on the Sienna minivan is about 25 percent, which equates to roughly 22,000 units last year. If Chrysler gets equally lucky luring its own snowbound buyers—and possibly winning over a Sienna AWD intender or two—it can look forward to just under 30,000 sales of all-wheel-drive Pacificas. (That'd be one quarter or so of its 2019 sales total for the Pacifica.) That's no small potatoes. And Chrysler claims that its superior system will also win over discerning AWD-nerd comparison shoppers. The  on-demand system features a clutch at the front power takeoff that can proactively engage the rear driveshaft whenever wheelslip at the rear tires can reasonably be expected, whether that be during launches from a stop in cold temperatures, at wide-open throttle, or with substantial steering inputs dialed in.

To maximize efficiency, another clutch at the rear differential makes it possible to idle the three-piece propeller shaft when it's not transmitting torque, thereby reducing driveline drag and lowering fuel consumption. There will be no AWD button to lock the system "on," however. The American Axle system, which is said to add roughly 300 pounds to the car's overall weight, is unique to the Pacifica and chooses when to engage on its own.

Good news! Selecting the Pacifica's all-wheel drive option does not preclude the van's signature Stow 'n Go fold-flat seating, nor does it end up routing the exhaust pipes around the outside of the seat-stowage wells, as in the past, potentially heating up those cubbies and whatever's in them. In fact, Chrysler didn't even need to change the Pacifica's floorpan stampings to make room for the four-wheel drive. The prop shaft to the rear axle runs down the middle of the body, just on top of the exhaust's pathway; that exhaust hangs a little lower to make room, but Chrysler raises the AWD Pacifica's ride height 0.8 inch to match, preserving the same ground clearance as in front-drive Pacificas.

All-wheel-drive models also receive larger front and rear brake rotors and self-sealing 235/60R18 Michelin Premier all-season tires—or Pirelli self-sealing tires if you order the available 20-inch wheels. Because there's so little disruption to the vehicle architecture, Chrysler is actually launching the AWD option in the last 90 days of the 2020 (so, pre-refresh) Pacifica's model run. As for the 2021 Pacifica, AWD will be available on four trim grades: Touring, Touring L, Limited, and the new-for-'21 range-topping Pinnacle. The recently announced lower-price, lower-spec Chrysler Voyager will remain front-drive only. Pricing has yet to be announced, but we expect the drivetrain to add at least $1,500 to the price of any Pacifica.


Predictably, you can't option all-wheel drive on the plug-in hybrid Pacifica. The hybrid's batteries already span the full width of the under-floor area where the Stow 'n Go wells would otherwise be—and where the driveshaft to the rear would need to go. Perhaps Chrysler could add an electric motor to that model's rear axle (negating a front-to-rear driveshaft) to provide e-AWD, but for now the hybrid remains front-drive-only.


The Rest of the 2021 Changes

Not all the 2021 news has to do with how many wheels are driven. A brand-spanking-new Uconnect 5 system promises five times faster processing speed, higher-resolution images on the new 10.1-inch infotainment screen (up from 8.1), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity for two devices simultaneously, Amazon Alexa integration, over-the-air upgradability, and more. Audiophiles selecting the Harman Kardon audio option get a new 10-inch subwoofer along with the 19-speaker system. The 23-liter sealed enclosure delivers more dynamic bass through the dual-voice-coiled subwoofer and integrates better with the available Stow 'n Vac in-van vacuum-cleaner system.

A new Ultra center console on Pinnacle models provides a wider and longer stowage bin (7.6 liters, up from 4.6) for front-seat users, plus a pullout drawer accessible to rear-seat occupants. The aforementioned Pinnacle trim level gets a black suede headliner, Berber carpet floor mats, a caramel and black upholstery color scheme accented by light tungsten stitching and piping with perforated center inserts, and quilted seat bolsters. Chrysler even throws in two loose-quilted lumbar throw pillows in the back seat. Outside, Pinnacle models are distinguished by a satin carbon grille with platinum chrome on all other trim including the Pinnacle side door nameplate.


Chrysler says this will be its quietest minivan ever, thanks to interior noise-reduction measures that include enhanced body sealing, new door fitment and glass-run seals, thicker sliding-door glass, and acoustic glass for the windshield (as well as front-door windows on Limited and Pinnacle models). A bird's-eye FamCam mounted in the headliner between the sunroofs above the middle row of seats lets parents keeps an eye on all rear-seat occupants, including middle-row kiddos in rear-facing child seats, via the new 10.1-inch Uconnect screen. New USB-C jacks throughout the cabin promise four times faster device charging, bringing the total number of USB charging ports to 12. The rear-seat entertainment system adds Concentration, chess, backgammon, and Simon Clone to its roster of games (the latter two arriving later in the model run). See? What crossover or SUV could possibly match this new Pacifica's family friendliness? It has the space, it has a new face, and it'll keep pace when the weather goes foul—who needs an SUV? If you need pricing for the 2021 Pacifica minivan, you'll have to hold tight. Full pricing is expected to arrive closer to when orders start being taken in the third quarter of 2020 for fourth-quarter deliveries.

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Bloom Magazine: 2021 Chrysler Pacifica First Look: New AWD For a Vantastic People Mover
2021 Chrysler Pacifica First Look: New AWD For a Vantastic People Mover
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