I've been eager to drive the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica ever since it debuted at the Detroit auto show earlier this year. That may sound odd -- eager to drive a minivan? I have three kids, we own an older Honda Odyssey, and I've been chaperoning KBB's long-term Kia Sedona for the past year. On top of that, I've had significant wheeltime -- thousands of miles -- in pretty much every single minivan currently on the market. I wear the mantle of "minivan enthusiast" without regret.

There's no doubt the new Pacifica's a looker, inside and out, but countless style vs. substance internet memes will tell you that looks only take you so far. So when Chrysler brought its van to Southern California for media drives, I skipped Chrysler's offer of a day at Legoland or Disneyland, and instead took the Pacifica home for some real-world testing. Sadly, the new plug-in hybrid wasn't available, so I took home a Chrysler Pacifica Limited, with 8-passenger seating, the Advaced SafetyTec option package, Uconnect Theater, and Harmon Kardon audio system. That's $48,775 worth of minivan, folks. It may sound like a lot, but this is a highly-optioned top-line example; base prices for the Pacifica LX start at about $30,000, with a mid-range Touring-L, which includes leather coming in at the $35,500 mark.  In other words, it's priced competitively against the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, and Kia Sedona.

A day in the life of a minivan

The idea was to drive the new Pacifica under normal circumstances during a usual Saturday routine that involved schlepping the kids around, going to the beach to ride bikes, and hitting the grocery store. It also gave me a chance to let the kids try out the new gadgetry that comes with the new Pacifica, specifically, the new Uconnect Theater, with its multiple games and iPhone integration.

First things first: bikes at the beach. There were four of us, and without a bike rack everything needed to fit inside. Folding the third row down was a snap, taking just a couple of seconds. It's so easy that you may as well skip the power-folding mechanism that's available. Loading up the bikes was also easy, thanks to the low liftover and long cargo area behind the second row seats. Thanks to the new center position in the second row -- earlier Stow 'n Go seats didn't offer a middle spot -- the new Pacifica can still handle five passengers with the third row folded, greatly increasing overall utility.

On the way to the beach we quickly fell in love with the optional Harman Kardon audio system. This is easily the best audio system available in any minivan, with thundering lows, sharp highs, and a clear midrange through its 20 speakers and 760 watts that will bring tears to the eyes of van-driving audiophiles.  It's $995 worth spending if you're getting the Touring-L Plus or Limited models.

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That’s entertainment

The kids were immediately impressed with Uconnect Theater. The built-in games were fun, but the best part was when they plugged in their iPhones to mirror their displays on the 10-inch screens mounted on the front seatbacks. It's more than a parlor trick, too; the kids can watch their own movies, play their own games, or do whatever they want without being accused of hogging the screen. It's no Cone of Silence, but it'll make road trips to the Grand Canyon or Grandma's house much more peaceful.

With the bike ride over and time getting short, we weren't able to get to the grocery store. However, I did play around with the cargo area, and it's excellent. The well behind the third row is wide and deep, and like the Honda Odyssey there's no hardware in the well itself to clog up with food scraps, lost toys, or whatever. You can fit multiple rows of grocery bags back there, or a large stroller with plenty of space left over. And if your kids are stroller-aged, you'll be happy to note that the new Pacifica's LATCH points for infant and booster seats are all easy to find, reach and use. The Stow 'n Go seats even feature a new tilting mechanism that lets you keep a booster in place while still allowing access to the third row.

Also: See the New and Redesigned Cars of 2016  

Storage abounds

There's ample storage all around the Pacifica, from bottle and cup holders to storage bins and trays just about everywhere. There's a big bin between the front seats, and in front of that on the floor, a large tray for purses, bags, and whatnot. We're glad it's there, as it enhances the practicality of the Pacifica while doing nothing to hurt the aesthetics. And thanks to styling flourishes and some eye-catching interior colors, the Pacifica's interior looks more like a luxury sedan than a family-friendly kid hauler.

As the day wound down, it was time to return the van to the event headquarters, which meant an hour-long drive from Los Angeles to Orange County. We loaded up, and I turned on the Advanced Safety Tech group features: active cruise control that includes low-speed and full-stop for heavy traffic; active lane keeping assist; lane drift warning; collision avoidance and mitigation; and so on. It all worked beautifully, especially the active cruise, which was helpful in a small knot of slow traffic we encountered. The sole downside was the overly aggressive lane keeping assist function; it got annoying enough that I shut it off after a while. Everyone was impressed by the Pacifica's remarkably quiet interior, especially when compared to the Kia Sedona, which KBB considers the class leader when it comes to road noise.

From behind the wheel, there's little to dislike. The touch-screen Uconnect system on our test van worked well, and despite the cool-looking flush-mounted screen and glossy finish, we didn't have a problem with glare or reflections. Uconnect is one of the easiest touch-screen infotainment and navigation systems around, and Chrysler has wisely left well enough alone here. The rest of the controls were also easy to use and view; and the small gear selector knob thankfully takes up little space on the dash. We like that controls for volume and tuning the radio are still knobs, and that the climate controls are likewise not integrated into the touch-screen.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Plenty of power

Saving the driving experience for last feels like a setup for "So everything's great, except..." but that's hardly the case. With 287 horsepower and a 9-speed automatic that has greatly improved since it was first introduced, the new Chrysler Pacifica offers up surprisingly good acceleration. The transmission shifts well in nearly all conditions, the lone exception being delayed downshifts under full throttle. The suspension isn't sporty by a longshot, but who cares? It's comfortable and nicely controlled, and there was little excessive body motion on the curvier roads we drove on. The steering and brakes are both better than you'd hope for in a big, 8-passenger family hauler as well.

So how does it stack up? Well, the Honda Odyssey is viewed as the best in class thanks to its combination of fuel economy, family friendliness, and overall utility. But the Pacifica gives up virtually nothing here, and now that the Stow 'n Go seats are finally comfortable, it even one-ups the Odyssey in cargo hauling since you don't have to remove heavy second row seats like you do in the Odyssey. The Kia Sedona was viewed as the most refined but, again, the Pacifica ups the ante with an even quieter interior, and one that's designed to look like a luxury car without compromising utility. Then there's the jack-of-all-trades Toyota Sienna, and the Chrysler Pacifica is simply better, with the Sienna's available all-wheel drive its only real advantage.

When you read that, you might come to the conclusion that the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is the best minivan in its class. Funny enough, we thought the same thing.


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