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Mr. Smith would approve

Chrysler's Pacifica wins over our new reviewer as he revisits a bit of history

September 10, 2003|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

It's my first day on the job, I'm supposed to deliver a Chrysler Pacifica review, and already I have to write a correction.

OK, here goes: Because of what might charitably be called "editing errors," in some editions of The Times published in May through July 1912, stories concerning the Times Ocean-to-Ocean expedition -- a transcontinental auto trip sponsored by publisher Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and reported by auto editor Bert C. Smith -- may have given readers the impression that the effort was the first successful transcontinental auto trip. It was not.

The first such drive was completed in 1903 by Horatio Nelson Jackson, mechanic Sewell K. Crocker and a bulldog named Bud (who, if travails had escalated, might have been renamed "Lunch"). The 1903 expedition is the subject of sepia-toned documentarian Ken Burns' "Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip," airing Oct. 6 on PBS stations.

We regret the confusion.

Not that The Times effort wasn't interesting. It was a hoot. The Times "machine," as it was called, carried Smith, driver John Zak and Col. Dell M. Potter, national organizer of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Assn., from one bleeding-kidney adventure to another. On May 21, the expedition discovered A.E. Weeks of Whittier dying of thirst in the Arizona desert. They rescued him, owing to the fact that he was a Republican. A week later, the car caught fire and Zak was forced to drive into a river to put out the flames.

The two-month, 3,000-mile adventure was chronicled by Smith in the tones of breathless, eye- brimming triumphalism commonplace in Gilded Age journalism and Fox News. From a wireless dispatch of July 12: "President Taft received the automobile editor of The Times by special appointment at 10 o'clock this morning at the White House, where the first citizen of the republic listened to the story of the ocean-to-ocean tour of The Times car from Los Angeles to Washington.... With his face aglow the President said he thought the tour was a most creditable undertaking."

Ninety-one years later, Taft, Zak, Potter and Smith have all been subjected to what one hopes was creditable undertaking. And I now have the seat once occupied by the illustrious Smith, and, boy, does it smell strange.

Like Smith, I too organized a cross-country expedition, but in the other direction, from Raleigh, N.C., to Los Angeles. Traveling with me was my sweetheart, Tina; her dog Lunch ... I mean, Tara; my cat Flinch; and Harry the canary. Unlike Smith -- who made the journey in a steaming, wobbly, highly flammable, state-of-the-art jalopy -- I had a choice of vehicles.

An SUV? A minivan? A station wagon?

I chose the 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, which is none of and all of the above.

The nomenclature gets a little squirmy here. Morphologically, the Pacifica is a station wagon, a two-box profile with four front-hinged doors, but with a top-hinged, nearly vertical rear hatch like a minivan. It is tall sided, with ample freeboard below the shoulder line, like a sport utility vehicle; however, it is a unibody design, compared to the body-on-frame construction of a traditional SUV. The design trades off some grit and towing capability for a lower center of gravity and less weight. Though available with front-wheel drive, most Pacificas will feature all-wheel-drive powertrains, the better to brave the wind-chapped moors of Tarzana.

Chrysler prefers the term "sport tourer," though "sport" applies only in roughly the same degree that it applies to, say, bowling. This thing is a dreadnought, a big six-passenger vehicle, only slightly smaller than a Chrysler minivan in every dimension, and quite a bit bigger than quasi-utes such as the Acura MDX and BMW X5.

Only some deft trompe l'oeil -- including blacked-out door pillars and black composite trim at the roof line and on the lower body -- saves the Pacifica from a distinctly bus-like visage. Look side-on at the Pacifica and notice how the body volume dwarfs the 17-inch wheels and tires. I am generally opposed to gaudy aftermarket rims, but the Pacifica's wheel wells cry out for some big wheels.

And yet, overall, the design works nicely. The Pacifica looks great from most every angle, artful and elegant and well composed. About the only complaint I had was the outward sightlines -- it's kind of blind in the rear quarters -- and the vehicle's corners are hard to judge. Chrysler, struggling mightily to reposition itself as a classier brand of cannon fodder against the Japanese, has achieved a look of relaxed formality with its reconfigured egg-crate grill and winged emblem. It's a face you can live with.

Looks count. Whatever you want to call this segment (premium sport tourer? executive daddymobile?), it is peopled with some pretty cool machines, including the new, origami-themed Cadillac SRX and the Volvo XC90, vehicles with three rows to hold lots of passengers, tall seating, versatile cargo holds and optional all-wheel-drive powertrains.

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