One of the great mysteries of the current automotive landscape is a giant, crossover-shaped hole in the Chrysler brand’s lineup. Chrysler is such a storied name in the American auto industry, but the brand’s lineup right now consists entirely of a full-size sedan and a minivan, both of which are declining segments. Chrysler has a whole SUV brand to draw platform sharing from in the form of Jeep, so why on Earth doesn’t this pseudo-luxury brand have any crossovers in a time when that’s all anybody wants?
One possible explanation is the painful memory of the original 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, the first and only Chrysler crossover (we’ll count the short-lived, Durango-based Aspen as a real SUV rather than a crossover). Before the Pacifica name was worn by a minivan, it was a midsize crossover from Chrysler that was born in the DaimlerChrysler era and died in the Chrysler LLC era.
In fact, it was the first vehicle to be jointly engineered by the DaimlerChrysler "merger of equals." It was the sole vehicle to ride on the CS platform, itself a modified version of the RS platform that was used by the Chrysler and Dodge minivans of the 2000s. The idea of the Pacifica was to be a "sports-tourer," putting kind of a sporty twist on the practical minivan while not necessarily being a wagon. In other words … a crossover. So Chrysler, of all brands, was ahead of the curve on the whole luxury crossover craze by coming out with the Pacifica back in 2004 — and, thus, it must have been a big hit, right?
Not quite. The Pacifica only saw five model years of production before it was discontinued because nobody was buying it. Chrysler ambitiously planned on selling more than 100,000 Pacificas per year and actually came pretty close to that number in 2004, but there was a sharp decline in sales after that. In the seven calendar years the Pacifica was for sale, Chrysler sold a little under 400,000 units. Despite being a lifted wagon thing with available all-wheel drive, something that is extremely popular today, Chrysler just couldn’t make it work on its first try. It was partly because of the car itself and partly because of the perception of the Chrysler brand and the Pacifica’s own stablemates that it had to compete with.
Let’s say it’s 2005 and you’re looking for a new vehicle for activities like taking the family to go see "Star Wars: Episode III" while listening to Feel Good Inc. by the Gorillaz. You know, regular 2005 stuff. Anyway, you go to the Chrysler dealer because Chrysler offers multiple family-friendly vehicles with three rows of seats. You could get a Town & Country Touring, a nice minivan with lots of interior space that gets 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway and has a starting MSRP of $27,655. On the other side of the showroom, there’s a Pacifica Touring AWD, a smaller vehicle with a cramped third row of seats, less cargo space, 17 mpg city/22 mpg hwy, and starts at $30,965. Which one are you going to go with? The more expensive one with less space and worse fuel economy, or the more affordable one with more space and better fuel economy?
Families wisely favored the Town & Country to the Pacifica. The minivan outsold the crossover in huge numbers. If it wasn’t for the bigger, cheaper and more efficient Town & Country, the Pacifica might have had a better shot, but it also had the issue of being positioned as a premium car, poised to compete with the likes of the Lexus RX and the BMW X5 — but folks weren’t really looking at Chrysler as a premium brand. It’s a brand that has been in this identity crisis for some time, now torn between being a luxury brand and a volume brand. Even to this day, it still hasn’t quite picked a lane.
A fun aside to that: Chrysler made an effort to position itself as a luxury brand by signing a 3-year, multi-million-dollar contract with none other than Celine Dion in 2003 to appear in ads for the Pacifica. As I can tell, this deal only produced one ad that doesn’t really tell us anything about why we should buy a Pacifica before the deal was called off.
The Pacifica also had another problem, which was styling. Although it seemed to have the "crossover" thing down right, in the sense that it was a car-based family hauler with added ride height and AWD, it just didn’t look SUV-ish enough, and instead had more of a minivan appearance — and I think that, too, contributed to buyers staying away in droves. If you were going to buy a minivan, buyers probably reasoned, why not get the one in the same showroom with actual sliding doors?
As a result, the Pacifica died — but if Chrysler wants to save its storied brand name, it might be time to revive the idea of a crossover. Just badge engineer a Grand Cherokee and call it a day.
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