BOZEMAN, Mont. — The snow-topped mountain peaks clearly indicated that we were no longer on the coast of Maine in late September. Frost on our rent-a-car windshield in the morning cemented the fact that we were high, and very dry, in the mountains of Montana.
Pushing east and then south to the North Gate of Yellowstone National Park gave us (four adults) ample time to enjoy the wide-open scenery, the awesome landscapes, as well as the comfort afforded by the roomy Chrysler Pacifica. While crossovers have stolen everyone else’s lunch money, Chrysler still dominates the shrinking minivan market with the two top sellers — the Dodge Grand Caravan, which was supposed to go away last year, remains the top-selling/rental fleet mainstay, with the much more refined Pacifica the second best-selling minivan in America.
With four full-size suitcases, two carry-on bags, four backpacks and two large cooler bags, we barely covered the Pacifica’s expansive rear load floor — once the stow-n-go rear seatbacks are dropped into their ample well. With second-row stow-n-go capabilities, plus numerous bins, pockets, slots and a tri-level console, the Chrysler van retains its best interior packaging honors over all rivals.
Once in Yellowstone, we got to see how nimbly this platform handles on the narrow, winding roads that circulate this expansive natural wonder. Sudden wildlife? No problem. Icy mountain passes? Piece of cake, while other cars slithered around. Riding atop the widest and longest chassis in the segment, the Pacifica is impressively stable, sure-footed and relaxing to drive no matter what the pace. Later in our week, when the wild west speed limits were 70 mph for rural two lanes in Wyoming and Idaho and 80 mph for the super-slab, the Pacifica remained rock solid — despite the heavy winds that forced the numerous triple-bottom hay trailers that we witnessed to weave down the highway. We overtook these behemoths — quickly.
The Pacifica also offered excellent path accuracy and direct steering sensations from the helm — despite tires that had obviously never been rotated. Combined with a tiny low-speed turning radius that allowed us to make prompt U-turns on narrow park roads, the Pacifica has a clear driving advantage over its rivals.
In a region where the “state vehicles of choice” are more often than not domestic-branded pickup trucks — preferably of the heavy-duty variety with turbo-diesel power (there are a lot of elevation changes out West), 4WD and individual customization for their various towing/work needs — the Pacifica earned its bona fides by being the perfect people mover. The open cabin offered great sightseeing visibility. The triple-zone climate system kept everyone comfortable. The power sliding doors and power liftgate made ingress and egress for all of our gear extremely convenient. Remote access plus remote starting made this driver happy each cold morning, while blind-spot detection and cross-traffic alerts made all aspects of driving as a tourist much less stressful. And, a kick in the pants was the impressive fuel economy; after 1,227 miles through four Western states the Pacifica averaged 28 mpg on 85 octane fuel!
We went over the infamous Beartooth Pass Highway (elevation 10,947 feet) crisscrossed the 45th parallel plus the Continental Divide, and the Pacifica never protested, stumbled or otherwise gave us concern. It was a road warrior just as hard-working as the frontier conquering adventurers that founded Cody, Wyo. (Buffalo Bill Cody, for whom a fabulous museum is named after — we spent a whole day exploring the six wings of this Western history marvel), or, Promontory, Utah. The once prosperous town no longer exists but is the site of the Golden Spike National Monument, which is the very isolated place that joined the nation by railroad 70 miles north of Salt Lake City in 1869.
From Yellowstone’s awe-inspiring geysers at Old Faithful (which isn’t even the best geyser) to the mind-bending grandeur of the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone (over 1,200 feet down from the no-secure railing rim trail), to the majesty of hiking the park’s many mountain trails and traversing the wooden boardwalks around Mammouth Springs and other sensitive areas within this active volcano, our Pacifica proved to be the perfect photo car, lunch on-the-go car and frugal traveling companion. Its 3.6-liter V-6 engine (now mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission) proved more than powerful enough for the long grades and constant switchback roads traversed throughout our journey. With pricing starting at $27,000, the Pacifica undercuts all of the competition except its sibling Grand Caravan, plus the Pacifica is the only minivan available with an optional hybrid powertrain.
We saw hundreds of bison, many elk, deer and wild birds but only six moose and not a single bear — our only lament. We saw craters and caves. We witnessed the massive power of the West’s water. Plus we came away realizing that Yellowstone and the West cannot be consumed in just two weeks. When we return, we will again need a Pacifica to best experience more of this national treasure region.