Chrysler has refreshed its entire lineup for 2011, which sounds mighty impressive until you remember that the brand has been reduced to just four vehicles in recent years. Despite the small product portfolio, Chrysler's vehicles were in desperate need of updating and among the surviving nameplates, no Chrysler needed as much attention as the Sebring mid-size sedan. From the day it launched in 2007, the Sebring was a vehicle far less competent and compelling than the mid-size stalwarts, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, not to mention the rising class of mid-size cars from Ford, Chevrolet, and Hyundai. To catch up to the pack, Chrysler's designers, engineers, and product planners have given the Sebring a makeover so thorough that the company is giving the car a new name. The Sebring is now the Chrysler 200.
Modern, upscale, and unoriginal
Chief among the old Sebring's shortcomings was the fact that the car looked dated from launch, and mild tweaking throughout its life did little to improve its appearance. With the new 200, the design team has significantly altered the front and rear into an all-new, much more modern and upscale look. Up front, there's a new corporate grille, cleaner lines, and slimmer headlights featuring an attractive LED light pipe.
The rear end is blatantly ripped from the Jaguar XF, a comically ambitious influence for a car of the 200's stature. Just as with Britain's fine sport sedan, the 200's red taillamps form C shapes around the clear backup lenses with slivers of red spilling onto the trunk atop a broad horizontal chrome accent strip. The design is so similar you'd think the Chrysler designers were peering over their Jaguar counterparts' shoulders. Despite the unoriginality, the new look is a massive improvement over the stale Sebring, looking much more refined with the subtle trunk lip spoiler and generally clean lines.
The profile, however, still evokes a Ford Focus (or last year's Sebring) with the wedge-like stamping in the doors. A garish 200 badge has sprouted on the C-pillars, muddling the design. Build quality is also reminiscent of the old Chrysler, lagging behind the industry when it comes to manufacturing precision. A quick inspection of the exterior reveals uneven and excessively large gaps between body panels.
A nicer interior, but far from the nicest
The interior has been given almost as much attention as the exterior, though the effect is less dramatic. There are nicer materials, better finishes, and a less cluttered dash, but the style in our all-black test car was underwhelming. The 200 still uses the company's brick-like navigation system rather than the better integrated screens and physical controls used by the competition and the single-piece dash means Chrysler is using fewer accent trim pieces. The driver benefits from new gauges and a smaller-diameter steering wheel, while all passengers enjoy a quieter cabin thanks to acoustic laminated glass now used for the windshield and the front windows.
Since the dimensions are unchanged, the 200 maintains its modest width and rear legroom, making the cabin feel like the smallest among mid-size competitors. There are also a few remnants of cost cutting such as the felt-like parcel shelf. Overall, though, the perceived quality of the cabin is much higher.
Foppish four, superb six
Chrysler's unexceptional 2.4-liter four-cylinder carries over from last year with an output of 173 hp and 166 lb-ft. A six-speed automatic is standard in the Touring, Limited, and S trims, but we were shocked to find out that Chrysler will continue to offer a four-speed automatic in the base LX trim. No other major automaker currently offers a four-speed automatic in their mid-size sedan, but Chrysler can lay claim to the lowest price of entry at $19,995. Still, we'd say buyers are better off spending the extra $500 to $1000 to get a better behaved five- or six-speed gearbox. The 200's fuel economy, rated at 20 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway with either transmission, is about two ticks behind the class standard in both figures. In the middle of 2011, Chrysler will introduce a third transmission, a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic, available only on the Limited trim four-cylinder model that should improve fuel economy slightly.
The news for V-6 buyers is much better, as the old, 235-hp 3.5-liter V-6 has been dumped in favor of Chrysler's new Pentastar V-6. The 3.6-liter, which first appeared in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, is energetic and refined, and in a smaller vehicle like the 200 it makes a surfeit of power. With 283 hp and 260 lb-ft, it's easy to overwhelm the front tires, but it's nice to have power in reserve. Further enhancing the V-6's appeal is the fuel economy rating of 19/29 mpg, which is only a small drop from the mediocre four-cylinder's figures. All six-cylinder 200s are equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Major chassis changes
To address the Sebring's unkempt road manners, engineers have reworked the chassis with changes to the suspension geometry, steering hardware, and bushings, and it pays off with a vehicle that drives far better, both in terms of comfort and handling. The chassis overhaul includes retuned dampers, a slightly lower ride, and stiffer springs. Redesigning 26 of the 30 suspension bushings along with a new steering gear and hydraulic power-assist pump results in sharper turn-in with better feel. These chassis changes substantially improve the character of the 200, moving it from a 1990s-era sedan to one that meets our current expectations. While the 200 isn't as entertaining as a Honda Accord or a Suzuki Kizashi, the suspension changes put the ride and handling on par with mainstream favorites like the Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu.
Catching, but not beating the pack
For a mid-cycle update, Chrysler has delivered an exceptional vehicle with the new 200. Unfortunately, the old Sebring didn't have the DNA to deliver a world-class car. It will take an all-new vehicle before we can expect Chrysler to have a leader in the mid-size sedan segment. While the cosmetic and chassis updates lend the 200 credibility, it still suffers from small size, mediocre build quality, and an uninspiring four-cylinder. We're also disappointed to see Chrysler chasing a low starting price rather than top-notch luxury. In all, the 200 is monumentally improved over the outgoing model, but when starting from so far back, it shouldn't be a surprise to find that the 200 still isn't leading the pack.
2011 Chrysler 200
Base price (with dest.): $19,995
As Tested: $27,000 (est.)
Body style: 4-door sedan
Accomodation: 5 passenger
Construction: Unibody construction
Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.6 liters (220 cu in)
Power: 283 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy: 19/29 (city/hwy)
Headroom f/r: 40.1/38.4 in
Legroom f/r: 42.4/36.2 in
Shoulder room f/r: 56.3/56.0 in
Wheelbase: 108.9 in
Track : 61.7/62.7 in
L x W x H: 191.7 x 72.5 x 58.4 in
Cargo capacity: 13.6 cu ft
Weight: 3559 lb
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gal
Fuel grade: 87 octane