Where's the Pacifica's Power?

With Chrysler's SUV-cum-minivan, all the oomph is in the looks

It's tricky rolling out a big vehicle these days. Gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles are under fire, and minivans have zero sex appeal. Still, big is where the money is. So Chrysler (DCX ) has a lot riding on its new SUV-cum-minivan, the Pacifica, which hits dealer showrooms this month. Chrysler calls the vehicle a "sports tourer," a made-up category meant to evoke the image of a family cruising in style.

The 2004 Pacifica looks good. Longer than most vehicles of its kind yet not as tall, it doesn't have that boxy, high-off-the-ground build of an SUV. It seats four adults and two kids comfortably, but it doesn't sacrifice glamour for functionality. It gets a respectable 22 miles per gallon for highway driving. And with its sleek black spoiler extending the rear roofline, the Pacifica even has a sporty look. Unfortunately, there's nothing sporty about the engine.

When I stepped inside--and that's a step, not climb or scramble--I found a lot for a vehicle with a base price around $30,000. The well-appointed cockpit reveals some luxury touches, such as wood accents on the instrument panel that extend along the windows into the rear, a pair of slots overhead for sunglasses, and an analog clock. Most safety equipment is standard, although side-curtain airbags to protect against head injuries will cost extra on some models.

Shelling out for options transforms the Pacifica into a plush touring car. For about $40,000, you'll get the full deal: leather seats, sunroof, hands-free phone, eight-speaker audio system, and a DVD player with drop-down screen and wireless headphones for passengers in second- and third-row seats. There's a navigation system, too, and its screen is in the smartest place I've seen. It's tucked under an arch behind the steering wheel, just below the driver's line of vision, instead of in the center console. For my taste, the Pacifica's interior outclasses such pricier rivals as the $34,035 Volvo XC90 and the $36,200 Acura MDX.

So it's a shame that its performance comes up short. I spent a day driving a Pacifica in the hills surrounding San Diego, and it strained to pull up even slight inclines. The problem? The 250-horsepower V6 engine was borrowed from Chrysler's 300M sedan which, at 3,581 pounds, weighs a full thousand pounds less than the all-wheel-drive version of the Pacifica. Chrysler engineers are refining the engine to deliver more oomph, and there's talk of adding a more powerful one as an option at some point. Certainly a car this good-looking deserves an engine to match.

By Christine Tierney

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.