AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — All-wheel drive is back on the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica minivan after a 17-year hiatus as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV seeks to continue its dominance in the shrinking segment.
Although the redesign takes athletic styling cues from SUVs, the new Pacifica, which debuted Thursday at the Chicago Auto Show, likely won’t attract SUV owners, acknowledges Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger cars in North America. But the Italian American automaker hopes all-wheel drive will help retain its current minivan buyers and attract passenger-car owners who are looking to upgrade.
“You trade in a passenger car for a UV (utility vehicle) for more utility, more speed, more size — and more capability,” Kuniskis said. “We think the key to maintaining our leadership in this segment and maybe inviting a couple of those 3,000 people a day who are switching out of cars into UVs into the segment is directly after those reasons.”
All-wheel drive is so in-demand, executives say, that starting in the second quarter Fiat Chrysler will offer the feature on the 2020 Pacifica for 90 days to arrive in dealerships late that quarter. The 2021 redesigned version will become available for orders in the third quarter of the year for delivery to dealers starting in the last three months of the year.
“We have a lot of people wanting all-wheel drive now,” said Matt Davis, director of Chrysler and Fiat brands. “We have some many requests from people hearing we were going to come out with it, and we have the Great Lakes, Denver, Minneapolis that are all big for us, so we are going to give them that opportunity.”
All-wheel drive engages when the vehicle detects loss of traction on ice, snow and other conditions. It has the ability to transfer 100% of torque to the rear wheels. It comes in addition to 116 available standard safety features — 97 of which are standard. Fourteen features are new including LED lights and automatic emergency-braking with pedestrian detection.
The all-wheel drive minivan retains its “Stow ‘n Go” seating and floor storage — one of the engineering challenges the company faced when attempting to bring back all-wheel drive after it disappeared following the 2004 Chrysler Town & Country.
The new Pacifica targets the Toyota Sienna, the only currently available all-wheel drive minivan in the United States. The Sienna had an 18% market share in 2019, according to auto information website Edmunds.com Inc., which did not have a breakout for the all-wheel-drive models.
The U.S. minivan segment that Chrysler invented in the 1980s has shrunk from nearly 1.2 million vehicles in 2004 to about 409,000 in 2019. Pacifica sales were down 17% in 2019 from a year prior.
“Unlike the compact SUV market, the minivan category is not a particularly vibrant category,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Cox Automotive Inc. “There’s a fixed amount of sales in that category.”
Still, with only four players, Fiat Chrysler dominates. It has a nearly 54% market share between the Pacifica and the more popular Dodge Caravan, which executives recently confirmed eventually will be replaced by the Chrysler Voyager. The change will help to better define Chryslers as the people-haulers and Dodge as Fiat Chrysler’s performance brand.
The Voyager nameplate returned for 2020 as the lower-end models of the Pacifica. The Voyager is not getting the 2021 update or all-wheel drive.
“We have a price-sensitive vehicle available,” Davis said. “And we have this vehicle that really allows us to retain our customers as well as expand the reach for those people who like that more SUV-type experience as well as what we’re seeing already in the hybrid.”
The Pacifica continues to be the only hybrid minivan available in the United States, attracting younger, higher-educated customers, Davis said. The automaker sold roughly 6,000 hybrid Pacificas last year, Kuniskissaid, though a battery shortage prevented it from delivering more. The company has more for this year, he said, though he declined to share how many.
On the new vehicle, a “FamCAM” interior camera allows parents to check on children in the back seats of the three-row vehicle. That is accessible through the 10.1-inch touchscreen, which marks the debut of the five-times faster, Amazon Alexa-enabled Uconnect 5 infotainment system, which includes four new games on seat-back screens.
The Pacifica comes in four models, including the new top-of-the-line Pinnacle with 60 gallons of storage, caramel leather seats and lumbar pillows in the second-row captain’s chairs. The Pacifica is available in 10 colors, including the new “Fathom” dark blue. The nameplate was resurrected as a minivan in 2017.