The new 2021 Chrysler Pacifica gets an all-wheel drive system that fixes a major packaging problem that plagued Chrysler starting in the 2005 model year. The refreshed minivan also gets increased ride height, a new infotainment system, and a front end that actually looks damn good. The current Pacifica is already the darling of the minivan class, and this mid-cycle update looks like a smart way to keep it that way.
When the Chrysler Pacifica debuted at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show, pretty much everyone liked it. Then, when folks actually got behind the wheel, they downright adored it (despite its silly shift knob layout), with my coworker Jason writing: “The Pacifica feels like Chrysler finally picking itself up, dusting itself off, and then going in to kick some minivan ass.”
So with the new 2021 mid-cycle action, Chrysler had to be careful not to ruin a good thing, and based on what I’m reading in the brand’s press release, I doubt it has. The biggest update is the availability of an all-wheel drive system, which is a big deal, because that’s a sought-after option among families living in northern states, and it’s something that Toyota has offered for years in the Sienna.
Chrysler hasn’t offered all-wheel drive in its minivans since 2004, with the option going away with the 2005 introduction of Stow ’n Go seating, a $400 million update to the “RS” minivan that took up the all-wheel drive system’s packaging space. (Stow ’n Go allows the seats to be folded into bins that are part of the vehicle’s floor).
Back in 2012, when I was working as an intern in Chrysler’s Advanced Concepts Engineering group (the packaging team), I remember engineers working hard to package all-wheel drive on the “RU” minivan platform. And that, the Pacifica’s chief engineer Brian Swanson told me, was key to allowing this 2021 model to offer both features unlike any Chrysler minivan before.
“We just package-protected knowing that someday we’d want to put all-wheel drive on the car,” he told me. This meant that “the real estate to accommodate the propshaft to the rear of the car was already kind of there.”
How did FCA go about package-protecting? Well, part of that involved making the van bigger. “One of the large differences between [the last generation minivan called the] RT and [the current] RU is overall width,” Swanson told me over the phone, “and that was driven specifically due to package-protecting things like all-wheel drive.” He told me that the distance between the metal from sliding door to sliding door was about 1.5 inches greater on the RU versus the last-gen RT, and this meant there was more room to package the all-wheel drive system around Stow ‘N Go.
The all-wheel drive system consists of a Power Transfer Unit that apportions torque between the front and rear axles. Attached to the back of that is a three-piece driveshaft routed through the center body tunnel, connected to a clutch-containing rear-drive module that apportions power between the left and right rear wheels.
Chrysler makes a big deal of the fact that this system can not only run entirely in front or rear-wheel drive mode, but it actually features a disconnect at both the Power Transfer Unit and Rear Drive Module. This, Chrysler says, prevents the rear driveshaft from spinning when the vehicle is moving in front-wheel drive, reducing drivetrain losses and improving fuel economy.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Fiat Chrysler offers a similar disconnect feature in the Jeep Cherokee KL, which shares the Pacifica’s transmission and basic engine architecture (It’s worth noting that the KL also offers a 2.0-liter engine in addition to a smaller 3.2-liter version of the Pacifica’s 287 horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar motor).
I asked Swanson about the commonalities between the Cherokee’s and Pacifica’s all-wheel drive system. “The architecture of the [all-wheel drive] system itself is very similar,” he told me over the phone. But due to each vehicle’s unique packaging environment, he mentioned, there are differences, including in the PTU layout. Plus, he said, all-wheel drive tuning is different between the two models. He specifically mentioned the “triggers” that determine when to send torque to certain wheels, saying the system on the Pacifica is entirely “seamless and automatic,” and is tuned to match the vehicle’s specific “attitude.”
Per Chrysler’s press release, the system can send as much as 100 percent of the engine torque to the rear axle, and it can transfer torque cross-car to keep the vehicle moving forward by using a “brake-lock differential” (this just applies the brake to the spinning wheel on a given axle to allow the wheel with more traction to rotate and move the car forward).
Chrysler describes some of the inputs that affect the all-wheel drive system’s performance, writing:
For best traction performance, AWD is engaged when the Chrysler Pacifica begins to accelerate from a standing stop. Other inputs that signal AWD engagement include:
Cold exterior temperatureUse of windshield wipersSlip detected at the front wheelsHeavy acceleration at certain vehicle speeds, such as overtaking during passingElectronic stability control activationAbrupt steering or sudden throttle inputsRough road conditions/grades
The all-wheel drive system brings larger brakes and a 20 millimeter increase in ride height, which Swanson told me is a product of packaging constraints and a desire for improved usability, though it’s worth noting that ground clearance—likely measured somewhere at the front cradle—is unchanged.
I recalled from seven years ago that packaging the spare tire on the all-wheel drive model was a bit of a struggle, and indeed, Swanson told me that the two-wheel drive Pacifica’s optional inflatable spare—which normally sits upright behind the cargo area trim—is no longer available.
That’s the case for two reasons: The all-wheel drive system already adds 300 pounds to the Pacifica, which is a big deal, especially on highly-equipped models (All-wheel drive is available on all non-hybrid trims, but if I had to guess, it’ll be chosen more on higher-end models.). Plus, the setup comes with 18-inch wheels. “We couldn’t get an 18 back in that corner in the van, because it’s one of those inflatable spares,” Swanson told me.
So don’t expect a spare on all-wheel drive Pacificas, though the standard tires are self-sealing Michelin all-seasons.
Other changes to the Windsor, Ontario-built Chrysler minivan include a new front grille and fresh headlamps, taillamps, and fog lamps. The resulting design is a major improvement over the outgoing model, which looks like this:
This van has the unfortunate dishonor of sharing design elements with the Chrysler 200, Chrysler’s failed attempt to build a compelling mid-size sedan. In case you’ve successfully blocked from your mind what that sad, sad automobile looked like, I’m sorry to do this to you:
Even the tail of the outgoing Pacifica had hints of Chrysler’s unfortunate sedan that tried to compete with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Here’s the Pacifica:
And here’s the 200:
It’s probably safe to say that Chrysler doesn’t want to be associated with failure, so this new styling seems like a smart move. I think it looks great.
Also new for 2021 is the Uconnect 5 infotainment system, which Chrysler says is significantly faster than the outgoing system, and gets a new 10.1-inch touchscreen. This, especially in the new “Pinnacle” trim, yields a ridiculously beautiful interior—for a minivan, at least. Check it out:
Plus, there’s a feature called “FamCAM,” which lets drivers keep an eye on kids sitting in the back seats.
This seems like a good idea, because—and I know very little about taking care of children, since all of mine are constantly broken—those kids in the image above appear to be up to no good. Definitely keep an eye on those two.
Update (Feb 6, 2020 5:23 P.M.): I added a paragraph after speaking with chief engineer Brian Swanson about how FCA engineers actually increased the RU Pacifica’s overall width over the outgoing RT to provide space for both the all-wheel drive system and Stow ‘n Go.