Chrysler has its most amazing periods of spectacular design and innovation right after they’ve hit the bottom. Their fall from grace in the 1970s led to a reconstruction in the 1980s that culminated in the era of the Viper, Ram Pickup, LH sedans, and the Chrysler 300C. And while those successes brought Chrysler to new heights, other forces were working against America’s number three automaker.
The lesser models were struggling to keep up with the industry. Cost-cutting worked to bring the Neon to market where it did fairly well. But the continued pricing reductions brought down other models. Lower quality interiors and extensive platform sharing made Chrysler’s entry-level and mid-range products uncompetitive. This collapse in car sales, heightened by the bottom falling out of the economy, pushed the company over the edge and into bankruptcy.
On February 6, Chrysler announced, with arguably the most powerful Super Bowl ad of 2011, that they are back. With a driving beat, images of Detroit, good and bad, flashed across the screen as the announcer stated that the city has seen its ups and downs, just like Chrysler. “What does this city know about luxury,” he asks before continuing, “what does a city that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”
After touring the city, rapper Eminem emerges from a black Chrysler 200 parked in front of the Fox Theater 85 seconds into this two minute mini movie. As the gospel choir on stage stops singing, Eminem points directly into the camera and defiantly states, “This is the Motor City and this is what we do!”
Punctuating the statement, the simple words “Imported from Detroit” appear on the final black panel with the Chrysler logo.
Yes, it was an over-the-top way to introduce the Chrysler 200, but it was needed. Because the 200 marks the beginning of the latest chapter in the 85-year Chrysler saga.
Chrysler brought out the Sebring name to replace the mid-sized Cirrus in 2001, and it was a success. The nicely appointed and attractive Sebring sold well and kept the Sterling Heights plant humming. When it came time to replace the Sebring, the proverbial wheels began to fall off, and the second-generation Sebring was not as well received.
An all-new “global” four-cylinder engine (co-developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai) along with Chrysler’s powerful 3.5L SOHC V6 couldn’t overcome the low-rent interior and incoherent exterior styling. Sales plummeted.
With a new lease on life, and with the help of Fiat, Chrysler focused on salvaging this car. To break from the past, the revamped model dumped the old name replacing it with the 200 moniker, linking it to its popular big brother.
Plenty of work was needed to take the Sebring to the level that could be the foundation of a return to luxury cars for Chrysler. Plenty of work has been done.
Fresh out of bankruptcy, Chrysler couldn’t afford to develop an all-new car and, honestly, they didn’t have the time since this car needed to be on the market immediately. What they did do, in two short years, is a remarkable testament to the abilities of the American automobile industry.
The old car’s styling, derived from the DaimlerChrysler-era Airflite concept car with its long hood and extremely short decklid, has been cleaned up. A revised rear fascia hides underbody parts better than in the Sebring, which had a particularly awful and cheap view from behind. Oversized headlights and taillights that gave the Sebring a squat look have been replaced by more contemporary optics featuring LED lights giving the whole vehicle new proportions more in line with its longish (108.9-inch) wheelbase. Hood lines, originally adopted from the Crossfire coupe, gave way to a cleaner and smoother engine cover. All of this peaks at the new nose with its new, more elegant grille.
While the exterior changes aren’t ground-breaking, they do make the 200 a more attractive car giving it a more expensive aura. Part of the changes have been led by the Chrysler staff and part of the changes have been led by Chrysler’s new Italian partner. Fiat looks at the Chrysler brand as a way to fill out the declining Lancia lineup. Blending the styling directions of Chrysler and Lancia completes part of this new picture, but upgrading the interior for European tastes are also necessary.
Here’s where the Chrysler 200 shines brightest. Somehow, in the past decade or so, manufacturers around the world forgot how important the materials are inside a car. Chrysler improved the feel of all interior components where the occupants might touch. Soft leather wrapped around the steering wheel is expected to be soft, but materials used on the dash and the center console are surprisingly expensive feeling. Even the plastic pieces lack the burrs that were so common just a few years ago.
Large switches fall right at hand for all controls. Most of the switches are easy to adjust with little attention necessary from the driver.
Just below the classic dial clock in the center of the dash lies the UConnect system. This unit combines the sound (including a 30gb hard drive and Boston Acoustic speakers) and Garmin navigation systems with the expected Bluetooth and voice command technologies. While it takes the driver’s eyes off the road to change stations and the like, the amazingly accurate voice command removes most of the distractions. Even making calls is as simple as telling the car to “Call Joe at Home.” UConnect politely asks if it has the right information before making the call. The loaded Chrysler 200 Limited wasn’t lacking for much in the way of amenities, but ten-year olds were asking if that 6.5-inch screen showed the back-up camera, which is not offered on the 200.
All the touchy-feely-talkie things inside the car are only good if the car drives well, because who’s going to listen to the Boneyard on SiriusXM radio when they can’t stand driving? And the 200 does improve over the Sebring, but it’s still not up to world-class.
Bringing the family to someplace like the Daniel Boone Homestead uses up everything the car has to offer. Even though the greenhouse is designed to emulate the high beltline of the Chrysler 300, there’s ample glass area for everyone to see the rolling hills and the nearly three-century old house where the famous explorer spent his first 16 years.
Part of the 101-cubic foot interior, the three-passenger rear seat hauls children in comfort but only two adults could ride for any length of time back there. In front, the seats are comfortable for a long trip and especially nice for the daily commute to and from the office.
Even with the car’s short deck, there’s ample storage for all of the stuff our family needs for a weekend away. The rear strut towers encroach on the cargo room but still leaves 14 cubic feet of usable space. Split fold-down rear seats and a pass-through for long items increases the usability of the trunk when the full rear seat is not needed.
Tuning of the suspension has left the Chrysler 200 with a solid and sometimes harsh ride as many imperfections in the road are translated into significant bumps in the passenger compartment. It’s quite noticeable on the highway. Handling, however, is fun if not sporty on back roads.
While the new Pentastar 3.6L V6 is optional, our test car was equipped with the 2.4L GEMA four-cylinder engine. At 173hp, the engine is not weak but it can get a bit noisy. About 3,000 rpm, engine noise is intrusive but the optional 6-speed automatic transaxle keeps the revs down unless the engine’s power is in high demand. And it’s that 6-speed that helps keep fuel economy up with our tester getting about 26 mpg in mixed driving. Fuel economy like this allows the Chrysler 200 to travel over 430 miles between fill ups.
Chrysler (and Fiat) has created a good car from what was a barely passable car. In no way is the Chrysler 200 going to be the turnaround hit that the automaker needs, but it is a proper placeholder until the next generation comes along, which could not be said about the Sebring. For a company that’s been “to Hell and back,” the new 200 is hardly Heaven but it’s far better than Purgatory. Compared to the hellish Sebring, this is truly a compliment.
From the eighteenth-century Daniel Boone to the twenty-first century Eminem, America’s been through quite a bit, just like Chrysler. The Pennsylvania-born explorer laid the ground work for this country while the Detroit rapper spreads modern American music past our borders. Chrysler’s 200 won’t be the global breakthrough that is Eminem, but may act more like Daniel Boone and pave the way for future generations of the American brand to grow.