EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

By now, many viewers have seen pop diva Celine Dion belting out a ditty while driving a new Chrysler.

If it seems a bit silly, realize that the Chrysler Division of DaimlerChrysler has something to sing about: the new Chrysler Pacifica.

The Pacifica is another in a line of crossover utility vehicles that mixes the ride of a car, the function of a minivan with the all-wheel-drive and styling attributes of an SUV. In other words, it’s a tall station wagon.

But what makes the Pacifica so remarkable is not the vehicle’s packaging, rather, the change in Chrysler’s vehicles under the aegis of DaimlerChrysler.

Start with the Pacifica’s sophisticated appearance, which looks at home next to such competitors as the Volvo XC90, Acura MDX, BMW X5, Lexus RX330 and trumps domestic rivals such as the Buick Rendezvous.

It’s so well done, even Celine wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in it.

A large grille and jewel-like headlamps greet the viewer with an aggressively upscale look. Subtle character lines run from front to back with an art-deco-like grace. The sheetmetal-to-glass ratio is two-thirds/one-third, lending the cocoon-like interior a secure feel.

Interior design and function is perfect, with a quality that’s equal to that of sedan class leaders such as the Volkswagen Passat.

The feel is very European, with some pieces, such as the instrument cluster and door switchgear, having been adopted from the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. While the Pacifica still has plenty of Chrysler components in it, they are of a quality and design even Chrysler loyalists don’t currently associate with the brand.

The interior ambience was enhanced by the test vehicle’s full slate of options.

Seating is courtesy of six supportive bucket seats arranged in three rows. A bench seat is not available. The test vehicle had the $890 premium leather option that enhanced the ambience. Front and center passengers get a full console as standard equipment. Seat heaters are available for first and second rows as a $500 option. Both second and third row seats fold to produce a flat floor.

Entertainment options are plentiful in the Pacifica. Want to listen to a Celine Dion career retrospective? The $395 optional in-dash 6-CD/DVD player would help, ready to play albums or videos. The screen folds down from the ceiling and comes with two headphones and a remote as part of the $1,070 Rear Seat Video System option.

Sirius satellite radio is also available. The commercial-free service has spottier reception than XM, and XM’s receivers have a readout that provides the listener with the name of the artist and the song title. The Sirius unit lacked this crucial feature.

The Pacifica also offers UConnect, a hands-free, in-vehicle communication system. Using Bluetooth technology, a microphone housed in Pacifica’s rearview mirror serves as the driver interface. The driver’s cell pho ne may be placed anywhere inside or within 30 feet of the vehicle.

You don’t have to change carriers to do this although Chrysler does have a preferred carrier, AT&T Wireless. This option costs $275.

Other nice touches include power adjustable foot pedals, grocery bag hooks on the rear of the front seats, and plenty of storage nooks, cup holders, and power points.

Although these options enhance the enjoyment of the Pacifica, they are not what makes the vehicle compelling. For that you need to get behind the wheel.

This is where the German engineering is most apparent.

The Pacifica feels solid from the moment you slam the door. Drive down the highway, and the Pacifica exhibits little of the softness associated with domestic multi-purpose vehicles. Ride motion is very well controlled, with moderate body lean in corners and tremendous grip. It handles bumps with an aplomb unseen in a Chrysler minivan or SUV.

There is one driveline available, a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam V-6 attached to a four-speed AutoStick automatic transmission. (The AutoStick allows for manual shifting, although it’s behavior is lethargic.) This is one place where the Pacifica needs help. With all-wheel-drive, performance of the more than 4,400 pound test vehicle is merely adequate. Load it up with people and gear, and the Pacifica will be slow. When pressed for speed, the engine is too loud.

The Pacifica comes in two versions, front-wheel-drive (base price: $31,230) or all-wheel-drive (base price: $32,300).

The Pacifica is one classy cruiser, whether it’s for a family or for empty-nesters who tote grandkids. With a price closer to that of an SUV than a minivan, its enhanced quality and refinement is well worth the price.

No wonder Celine is hitting the high notes over this one.

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