SAN FRANCISCO — The beauty of being first into a segment is the ability to define it. Chrysler Group enjoyed that luxury when it created the minivan, almost 20 years and 10 million people-movers ago.

Today, from the same Windsor, Ont., Canada, plant that still makes minivans comes the all-new '04 Chrysler Pacifica, the product of an all-new platform. This cross between a minivan, SUV and sedan has been dubbed a “sports tourer” by an auto maker taking a new risk.

For most of its first model year, the Pacifica will bask alone in the sports tourer segment. One year to convince the buying public that the Johnny-come-latelies (the Ford Freestyle, Cadillac SRX and Chevy Malibu Maxx) are not worth the wait.

Seeing a Pacifica on the road (it hits dealerships this month) may not produce swivel head, the way the minivan did when it debuted. But to dismiss it as a squashed minivan or tall wagon does not do it justice.

What will cause a doubletake is an elegant execution of a clever vehicle.

The Pacifica joins the ranks of cross/utility vehicles claiming to assimilate the best attributes of a car, minivan and SUV and attract the attention of the 2.7 million buyers who migrate between them annually.

Pacifica accomplishes this and arguably sets a new benchmark.

Engineers set out to give this family vehicle the spirit of a sports car with the all-wheel-drive capability of an SUV, the comfort and ride of a large sedan and the cargo hold of a minivan.

A curving drive through northern California, from San Francisco to Healdsburg (past exits for Pacifica and Windsor, CA), shows off the wisdom of adopting the independent front and 5-link, load-leveling rear suspension from the Mercedes E-Class.

Hugging curves with a lower, wider stance — the track was pushed as wide as possible, 66 ins. (168 cm) — makes it clear this is no minivan.

Yet the availability of all-wheel drive (front-wheel-drive models go into production in April for the 25% of customers expected to opt for it) equips the Pacifica to trudge through a snowstorm. When slippage is detected, up to 80% of the torque can be directed to the rear wheels.

It is powered by the same 3.5L single-overhead-cam V-6 engine that is in the 300M, mounted transversely, as opposed to north-south in the sedan. It was upgraded for the Pacifica, has a new intake manifold but delivers the same 250 hp and 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of torque. While the current 3.5L is built in Trenton, MI, the 3.5L for the Pacifica is assembled in the expanded Kenosha, WI, plant.

This vehicle, with a curb weight of 4,600 lbs. (2,087 kg) for the heavier AWD version, can tow up to 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg).

The true selling point is the tasteful interior. With all its extra toys, Pacifica is a business-class upgrade for a minivan buyer.

The difference starts upon entry — at step-in height as opposed to a step up into an SUV or step down for most cars. The driver settles into a leather, 10-way power-adjustable, heated seat. The controls are grouped, along with the switch for the adjustable foot pedals, on the door — a design element borrowed from Mercedes-Benz.

But this 6-seater caters to more than just the driver.

Second-row passengers get first-class seating in heated (optional), leather captain's chairs with seat-mounted armrests. The seats move fore-aft, recline, and fold flat for extra cargo room. They also tip forward for access to the third-row, 50/50 split bench that folds flat for a huge loading area.

The optional rear-seat entertainment system has a drop-down screen, remote control and wireless headphones. Theater-style, 5-channel surround sound comes from the digital audio system with 385-watt amplifier and eight speakers. The 6-disc player accepts both CDs and DVDs, adjusting sound quality to the type of disc inserted. Sirius Satellite Radio is a dealer-installed option. Output jacks accommodate game consoles and video cameras.

Chrysler expects a 20% take rate on the DVD system, about double the interest from minivan owners.

Radio and cruise control switches are on the back of the steering wheel, and they are surprisingly intuitive.

The integrated in-dash full-map navigation system is an industry and Chrysler first, with the 5-in. (13-cm) liquid-crystal display nestled within the speedometer, while the floating end of a needle marks speed.

The navigation system is presented as a full-map display, turn-by-turn directions or both. Or the driver can rely on voice prompts.

Aesthetically, Chrysler says it did not want a screen as the centerpiece of the center console, a vacant black waste of valuable real estate when not in use. The result is a system that is less distracting, allowing the eyes to stay focused forward. Turned off, it reverts to a conventional speedometer. The one disadvantage is the driver-centric system doesn't allow the passenger to act as navigator.

Hands-free communication is offered through Chrysler's UConnect system that uses Bluetooth technology to make the vehicle an extension of a person's own cell phone. The vehicle identifies the driver's Bluetooth-equipped phone and allows voice-activated calling. The caller comes through on the car's sound system. UConnect incorporates a universal garage door opener, and the Home Link system allows the driver to turn on house lights or deactivate the home alarm system from the car.

A comprehensive memory system records each driver's settings, from seating position to radio preferences. Messages in the instrument panel can be personalized, such as whether the horn will chirp when the vehicle is locked.

The rugged elegance of the exterior — with a new rendition of Chrysler's chrome winged badge on the signature grille — and crisp beltline hint at the marriage of luxury and AWD capability.

The side profile shows Chrysler's new proportion of one-third glass, two-thirds sheet metal. The lower cladding offers stone protection.

The sheet metal gives way to a power liftgate in back and power sunroof on top.

The Pacifica was nicknamed “the protector” during development for safety features including front-mounted crash sensors to power multi-stage airbags and supplemental side curtain airbags to protect all three rows of passengers.

The Inflatable Knee Blocker (an airbag for the driver's knees) is a Chrysler first. The energy-absorbing steering column has a patent-pending design with collapsible straps to absorb energy and reduce the risk of chest injury.

The disc brakes are as large as engineers could fit behind the 17-in. (43 cm) wheels, and a tire pressure monitoring system warns the driver of dangerous inflation levels.

This cruiser, and the all-new '04 Chrysler Crossfire sports coupe, are supposed to elevate the image of the Chrysler brand to the middle of the premium segment.

The expectation is Chrysler easily will outsell its 100,000-unit capacity. Buyers are expected to be professional couples whose children are getting older, and the third row will get only occasional use.

The auto maker expects some cannibalization of minivan sales, but the bigger risk was losing customers ready to move beyond a minivan to a competitor's luxury CUV — such as the Lexus RX 330, Acura MDX, Nissan Murano or Volvo XC90.

Chrysler has strategically priced the Pacifica ($31,230 for FWD with traction control and $32,980 for AWD) about $5,000 less than some of its perceived competition.

As first into the sports tourer segment, the Pacifica sets the standard. It will be up to future competitors to instill a pecking order.