Perhaps no other type of vehicle does a better job of delivering what it offers than a minivan.

Running from the Southern California Coast towards Lake Elsinore, the Ortega Highway is the sort of torturously twisting two-lane highways that motorcycles and sports cars love. Minivans travel it at their own peril, and yet, we’re planning to run nearly the full 111.5 miles of what’s official known as CA-74 this drizzly, late winter morning.

If we were driving Chrysler’s old Town & Country model, or just about any conventional minivan, for that matter, you might have reason to question our choice of routes. But this is our first chance to drive the new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.

No automaker is more closely identified with the minivan. The Detroit side of Fiat Chrysler invented the modern people-move back in 1984, and for years it struggled to meet demand, U.S. sales at one point nudging 2 million a year. These days, the numbers are down for nearly three-quarters and a number of one-time competitors, including Ford and General Motors have dropped out of the minivan market. So, some question whether the new Chrysler Pacifica is the segment’s last great hope.

“There’s a martyrship about owning a minivan for some people,” said FCA’s chief designer Ralph Gilles, when the Pacific made its debut at the North American International Auto Show last January. “We wanted to get that out of the ownership experience.”

With the 2017 Pacifica, Chrysler aimed to enhance styling as well as the features owners love.

That’s no easy task. The automaker has been struggling for much of the last decade trying to come up with a suitable replacement. It came close, scoring solid reviews for the Chrysler 700C concept vehicle revealed at the Detroit show in 2012.

(Chrysler takes aim at Honda, Toyota and Hyundai; drops price on new Pacifica. Click Here for more.)

The challenge has been to come up with a design that moved away from the classic van box and picked up some of the more macho styling cues that have led so many one-time and potential minivan owners to switch to utility vehicles. Were it that simple, we might see a rebadged version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. But the irony is that to get the looks they like, customers have often been willing to sacrifice the family friendly features that once made minivans so popular.

The irony is that, with things like electrically operated sliding doors and foldaway seats – Stow ‘n Go, in Chrysler lingo – few vehicles do a better job of delivering what they’re intended for.

In the end, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica has struck a surprisingly effective balance. It isn’t quite as radical-looking as the 700C concept, but it’s definitely more visually appealing than the old Town & Country. About the only other model that comes close is the Honda Odyssey – which has, noticeably, given Chrysler its toughest challenge in more than three decades.

The original 1984 Dodge Caravan.

Indeed, Pacifica unabashedly borrows a few key features first seen on that Japanese rival, such as its built-in vacuum cleaner – though Chrysler makes it better by offering such accessories as an extension hose that lets you clean out another car parked alongside.

Pretty much everywhere you look you’ll find some appealing features and details, from the decidedly upscale stitching of the instrument panel to the broad range of safety features that parents today crave in a family vehicle. Add surprisingly good ride and handling for a vehicle like this and the Chrysler Pacifica just could win back some buyers who’re confident enough to stand tall when telling friends and family they’ve bought a minivan.

That is, of course, a matter of debate – as was the decision to use the Pacifica name, which originally adorned a Chrysler crossover-utility vehicle that failed to build much momentum and was quickly abandoned. To some, it is an odd choice, but company officials insist there’s relatively baggage countering that the name has a hip, coastal cool to it.

The 2016 Honda Odyssey is probably the closest-looking van out there right now.

Visually, the new Pacifica will not be confused with an SUV, though it might initially be mistaken for some crossover like the Honda Pilot – itself a substitute for those who just can’t imagine owning a van. There is a more stylish look to it, overall, with a more ute-like bend to the hood and a much more macho front grille.

The 2017 Pacifica retains the larger rear window and, of course, the sliding doors that can be operated in all manner of way, from various push-buttons inside, from the key fob, and even the little buttons on the door handles that marketing chief Bruce Velisek calls “chiclets of coolness.”

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica also carries over those Stow ‘n Go seats, though they’ve been made even easier to use and more functional. With the seats up, for example, you can insert a special bin that turns them into large ice chests – covered by the fold-up floor.

Significantly, the Pacifica gets an all-new platform and the product team made some notable changes. For one thing, they actually turned the seat storage bins into a structural element in the minivan’s platform, yielding a significant improvement in structural rigidity. They’ve also shaved 250 pounds off the total mass of the Pacifica compared to the old Chrysler Town & Country, even when factoring in all the new features and hardware.

The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica's instrument panel reveals a high level of attention to detail.

We discovered the benefits quickly. Paired with a 9-speed automatic, the Pacifica’s updated 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 makes a best-in-class 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet and proves surprisingly aggressive when you stomp the throttle. Even so, it’s rated at a second-best 28 mpg. (Falling oh-so-slightly short of Chrysler’s goal of best-in-segment mileage.)

Power, incidentally, is delivered through the front wheels. There’ll be no all-wheel-drive offering, though Velisek hints Chrysler has “reserved” space to go AWD if it sees the demand.

Meanwhile, there’ll be no debating the fuel economy leadership when the plug-in hybrid version of the Pacifica is added about a year after the gas model’s debut. It’s expected to deliver about 30 miles in electric mode from its 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and the target is an 80 e-MPG EPA rating.

If we have a gripe about the powertrain it’s the buzzy sound it makes under wide-open throttle. Under all other driving conditions, however, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is one of the quietest vehicles we’ve ever driven, an amazing accomplishment for a vehicle that big and with the built-in Stow ‘n Go tubs.

Storage, storage everywhere.

The new van gets front and rear independent suspension, meanwhile, and when you add it all up, the 2017 Pacifica delivered remarkably good handling compared to the Town & Country and any other extended-wheelbase van we’ve driven. No, you can’t flog it around the Ortega highway like some of the sports car we’ve driven there over the years, but you won’t have a line of traffic backing up, horns a’blaring, if you’re up for a more aggressive ride.

That said, minivans traditionally appeal to two distinct buyer segments, young families and retirees. And it delivers pretty much anything we could think of wanting inside. That starts with a surprisingly luxurious cabin where Chrysler designers and engineers have paid a lot of attention to detail, down to the subtle ways they’ve finished the climate control vents.

There’s plenty of room, even in the third row. No more penalty box, especially if you order the tri-pane panoramic roof that stretches nearly windshield to back glass.

A three-row panoramic roof.

There are storage nooks everywhere, including a place up in the center console big enough for a purse, tablet or even a laptop computer. Chrysler claims 115 minivan innovations. The number is a bit of a stretch, but even when the Pacifica picks up on someone else’s good idea – like the Honda Odyssey vacuum – the goal has been to make some clear improvements.

Some of the best will likely have kids no longer saying, “Are we there yet?”

Up front, there’s a large color information display between the nice, 3D gauge cluster, with an 8.4-inch touchscreen atop the center stack. You also can opt for the new Uconnect Theater system which puts twin 10-inch videoscreens in the back of the front seats. Among other things, the kids – or older family and friends, for that matter – can access a raft of built-in videogames, or plug in a game console, laptop, DVD or what have you through an HDMI connector.

(The new Pacifica is a nearly $2 billion bet by Chrysler. Click Here for more.)

Minivans like Pacifica have two primary audiences: young families, as well as retirees.

The base minivan comes with a six-speaker audio system that includes Active Noise Cancellation. There’s an upgraded 13-speaker Alpine package and a 20-speaker Harman Kardon surround system for those who want audiophile quality.

Some years back, Chrysler launched a new version of the old Town & Country that fell a bit short of the government’s top safety rating. It quickly learned that lesson. It expects to meet top NHTSA and IIHS crash ratings, and that includes getting the Insurance Institute’s covered Top Safety Pick Plus endorsement for models equipped with some of the optional smart tech.

We’d quickly run out of space for listing everything available, but there is the usual array of airbags, of course, and the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica now meets the small overlap crash test. A nice touch is the ability to slide the second-row seats forward without removing the child seat – though you do have to take out the child.

A look at Pacifica's nose reveals safety features such as the radar-guided collision warning system.

On the smart safety side, there’s Active Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning-Plus, which can apply the brakes automatically if a crash seems imminent. Add Lane Departure Warning, blind spot monitoring and a Park Sense system that can handle both parallel and perpendicular spots.

As for pricing, the base 2017 Chrysler Pacifica starts at $28,595, with the top-line model, the Pacifica Limited going out the door for $42,495 plus delivery charges. On the whole, Chrysler claims all models come in hundreds of dollars below rival Japanese models, even with more features. The Koreans, however, are a bit closer.

After logging almost 500 miles in the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica – half in a mid-range model, half in the Limited – we are duly impressed. No, it’s not a stealth minivan. Functionality still comes first, but the new model is decidedly more attractive than what we’ve seen before. We’ll wait and see if the new Pacifica will convince buyers that they don’t have to feel like martyrs to get a vehicle that does pretty much anything a family might need.

(Honda Odyssey named cheapest vehicle to insure. Click Here for the story.)


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