If ever a car was in need of a complete redesign, it was the Chrysler 200 -- a last remnant of the dark days when Chrysler's engineering mandates were set first by Germans and then by investment bankers. Chrysler is thriving under Fiat ownership, and they've taken this opportunity to redefine the mid-size 200 -- but have they taken it in the right direction? Read on.
First Glance: Starting from zero
There's a famous Tracy Champan song called Fast Car that goes, "Starting from zero, got nothing to lose." That applies to the Chrysler 200 -- not the fast car bit, but the starting-from-zero bit. One of the last remnants of the bad old days of German ownership, the outgoing Chrysler 200 (née Sebring) certainly fulfilled its basic task of setting five seats in motion, but aside from that, it was pretty much the bottom end of the mid-size segment, with awkward styling, a chintzy interior (though somewhat improved after a crash interior redesign in 2011), and forgettable driving dynamics.
So even if the all-new 200 were just okay, it would be an improvement. But the new 200 is more than just okay -- it's a really impressive car, so highly improved over the old model that one wonders if a contract with Satan might have been part of the early product planning stages.
Chrysler took full advantage of the opportunity to re-cast the 200, if not the entire Chrysler brand. And so we have a svelte, stylish car with a profile that mimics the "four-door coupe" look of vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz CLA and Volkswagen CC. The Chrysler 200 is not the most spacious or practical of mid-size cars, nor is it the best to drive (though as we'll see, Chrysler made some smart choices in that department as well), but it's good looking, smartly appointed, and -- as one expects from an American car -- it's a bargain.
In the Driver's Seat: Lovely up front, tight in back
Inside, all versions of the 200 (and there are several) share a common dash, and a lovely thing it is: Gauges are inset into a blue-illuminated box (link goes to photo), while the climate and stereo controls and rotary-style shifter sit on a floating panel on the center stack. Underneath is an open storage area lined with a rubber mat featuring the Detroit skyline, a nice little flip-o'-the-bird to the 200's imported competition. Twin cupholders ahead of the armrest slide back to reveal a deep storage cubby, where one will find USB, 12 volt, and (on some trims) 110 volt power ports. An opening at the front allows power cords to be run to the open Detroit skyline bin, a thoughtful touch.
It is in the use of interior trim that we get the first hint as to the 200's Y-shaped model strategy. Base-model LX and Limited get a textured black trim panel that frames the instruments, stereo and door pulls, so arranged that it looks more like a structural piece than decorative trim. In the 200S, these panels are a rather unusual shade of blue, while the 200C offers grained wood as part of a premium-interior package. It's a nifty idea that gives the 200's interior a unique look.
Seating up front is quite good, with thick cloth upholstery for LX and Limited and leather for the C. The 200S gets unique seats with deep bolsters and an embroidered "S"; cloth is standard and leather is optional. But the 200's rakish styling takes its toll on the back seat: The roof is very low, and even short folks like me must duck to avoid a potential concussion while getting in. Once inside, the seat is comfy enough, but headroom and legroom are cramped compared to other mid-size sedans -- if you crunch the numbers, you'll find that the 200's back-seat measurements are closer to Toyota's compact Corolla than to their mid-size Camry. The 200 redeems itself somewhat with a big 16 cubic foot trunk, if you can ignore the cut-rate gooseneck hinges.
All 200s save the basic LX model get a touch-screen stereo, with limited redundant controls; some functions, such as heated and cooled seats, are only accessible from a menu on the touch-screen, and the intermingling of climate and stereo controls makes it easy to mix them up. And while navigation is offered in the 200S and 200C, it isn't available in the Limited, which is expected to be the volume-selling model. Seriously, Chrysler, no nav for the masses? Is this 2015 or 2005?
On the road: Good enough
Chrysler offers two engines for the 200: 2.4 liter "Tigershark" 4-cylinder, featuring Fiat's ingenious MultiAir variable valve timing system, good for a healthy 184 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque, and Chrysler's fantastic 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, with 295 hp and 262 lb-ft. Both drive the front wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission. All -wheel-drive is optional with the V6, and like other Chrysler AWD cars, the system completely disconnects the rear driveline when the it's inactive in order to save fuel.
Performance is much as you might expect: The four provides perfectly adequate power for the 3,500 lb. 200, with enough reserve for confident passing and a muted, buzzy engine note that disappears at highway speeds. The transmission was guilty of the occasional hard shift; Chrysler says they are still tuning it, but having had similar experiences with this trans in the Jeep Cherokee, I have to wonder if Chrysler will ever get it sorted out. Oddly enough, the 9-speed behaved perfectly with the V6 engine, which gives the 200 plenty of punch and a lovely burble from the exhaust. EPA fuel economy estimates are 23 MPG city and a noteworthy 36 MPG highway for the four-cylinder engine, 19/32 with the V6 and front-wheel-drive, and 18/29 for the V6/all-wheel-drive combo. I drove fairly aggressively and saw mid-to-high 20s in the 4-cylinder car and low 20s in the AWD V6.
In terms of handling, the 200 is okay -- it won't earn a reputation of one of the great sport sedans of the era, but it goes down the road a durn sight better than the old 200. S models come with a sport-tuned suspension that gives it a firmer ride and a heavier, more settled feel. I preferred the sport suspension in the corners, but the "touring" suspension on non-S models tuning struck me as a rather nice balance for cruising and commuting. Most of all, I'm pleased that Chrysler offers buyers a choice. All-wheel-drive 200S and 200C models have paddle shifters and a Sport mode that quickens throttle and transmission response and increases steering effort, though doesn't do much for the lack of on-center feel.
Among the 200's optional offerings is active cruse control, which looks for traffic ahead and slows to match their speed; automatic high beams and rain-sensing wipers; and a self-parking system that can steer the car into both parallel and perpendicular spots. It's great to see such modern and useful technology on Chrysler's latest.