The Dad-Mobile, Expanded

Can Chrysler Finally Make the Minivan Cool?


November 30, 2016 Cars By Photo by Chris Wright
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Ah, to be driving the meandering curves of Hollywood Boulevard. The Glamor! The History! Just imagine it: swooping through salacious curves in a red Corvette drop-top, gabbing with your lovely actress wife about your dealings as her all-knowing agent, imagining all the money you’ve got in the bank, the L.A. sun pouring down over you both, and only burning the top of your balding head a little.

Me, I was just a tourist in a minivan. Even without the fame, money, or power, it was still great.

The minivan I was cruising in on the high bluffs above the HOLLYWOOD sign was Chrysler’s Pacifica Limited ($42,000+), which is almost singularly aimed, it would seem, at making 30-year-old men with one-point-five kids feel perfectly good about themselves. This is not a new concept in the car world — or even in the minivan world, which, when it comes to men, is pretty obvious about the message it’s trying to send. We can’t all be power-agents, after all.

It’s been done in vans and crossovers plenty, like when Honda did a Super Bowl commercial for the Odyssey featuring an ’80s hair metal band, and the Odyssey kept flashing into a cougar. You could make the same argument about Priuses making eco-folk feel good about themselves, or that red Corvette drop-top doing it for balding 50-year-olds. Cars make us feel things because they tend to define us, and the Pacifica, especially the higher-end Limited model, definitely defines its male owners as not just a DAD, but a DAD who has GOOD TASTE and a SENSE OF HUMOR, who has sacrificed only a little bit of his MASCULINITY, and done it in a SMART way.

I’m not a dad, and I’m not sure I have good taste. But I liked the Pacifica just fine, and that’s a good sign for the vehicle. It’s not just an ideal dad-van; it’s a good car. Which means Chrysler didn’t overplay its “still be masculine, daddy-o!” hand — a common mistake among the segment.

But before we get to those things the Pacifica does really well, let’s take a quick break to examine something terrible: using a knob rather than a lever/stick for shifting. This trend is not just Chrysler’s doing; big automakers like Jaguar and Chrysler’s truck cousin RAM are also doing it. The move away from the traditional automatic shift lever can be debated to high heaven (some people like the space that’s saved by moving gears to the dashboard). But when you make the gearshift knob the same size as the volume knob for the radio, then put it right where a volume knob for the radio ought to be, right next to the actual volume knob, you’ve moved from attempting neat design to attempting murder.

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Why would you do this, Chrysler? The Hollywood Hills are crazy steep, and I tend to panic when my girlfriend accidentally shifts my minivan into neutral while I’m driving. So: I hope that Chrysler and other automakers will change this feature as fast as possible.

Now, on to the things this minivan does well. It looks great in all its packages. It’s low and has a big, wide mesh-y grill that actually looks like some oversized, aggressive luxury sedan from far off, and its curves are subtle and shapely. When I parked it behind an Aston Martin and a Bentley, it didn’t create a ridiculous picture, which is not something you could say about most vans.

The sleekness holds strong in the interior, where plush leather (this is just for the Limited) and blue running lights create a very luxe, mature look. The TV screens in the back come pre-loaded with games for the kids. The sunroof (also just for the Limited) is enormous enough to make the car feel like a magic school bus when loaded with kids, and a party bus on adult friend nights. There’s also a built-in vacuum.

With a few exceptions, the Pacifica feels more like a sedan on the road than a van. Handling was light and managed to make the van feel small. In those curvaceous Hollywood Hills it tucked right into the corners, though with all the body roll you’d expect. The backup camera was excellent, as was its active safety features like forward collision alert and a chirped blind spot warning that engaged when I hit the blinkers to change lanes.

Unfortunately, in one of their unsuccessful nods to the “cool dad,” Chrysler made the low-end takeoff extremely chippy, which for about 0.2 seconds makes you think the car can really go, before you continue pressing the pedal and it turns immediately back into a slow van. Really, the driver wishes they hadn’t even tried. We’re all adults here, and otherwise, the thing drives pretty darn well.

So if I had some kids, and if they would get rid of that damn terrible gearshift knob disguised as a volume knob, it’d be the minivan I’d buy — not to feel cool, but to feel smart.