Chrysler will unveil its face-lifted 300 sedan at the Los Angeles Auto Show this November (the current 2014 model is pictured), and it will be the last of its kind with rear-wheel drive. Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne gave obvious hints at his five-year plan extravaganza last May that the next full-size Chrysler, coming in 2018 probably as a 2019 model, will revert to front-wheel drive.
Perhaps Chrysler should rename it “Concord.”
The change coincides with Chrysler’s move downmarket, to become a brand aimed directly at Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota. Chrysler will retain the Town & Country minivan, while Dodge loses its Grand Caravan next year. A Chrysler crossover will share its platform, and so too, I think, will the Chrysler 300 replacement.
While “mainstreaming” Chrysler for the sake of marketing its 200 midsize sedan (the FWD Dodge Avenger also has been canceled) makes some sense, the FWD 300 replacement is misguided strategy. Chrysler has positioned the 200 as a more elegant, well-equipped alternative to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, even if many buyers go light on the options list that can push the sticker well into the $30Ks. Anchoring the top of the Chrysler lineup with nicely appointed 300s would give the 200 credibility as offering something more for Camry/Accord money.
Though it’s true that the latest-generation FWD Chevrolet Impala is a success, both in sales and in elevating the model’s status, had that car gone RWD, there would have been better separation from the Chevy Malibu. If the next Malibu can gain back some qualities of the previous, 2008 model, watch the full-size Impala’s sales suffer at the hands of the new midsize sedan as the two models again compete with each other on showroom floors. RWD in a full-size car delineates it better from its FWD midsize sibling and allows designers more proper proportions for a car that’s at least 195 inches in length.
Rumors from a couple of years ago had Chrysler engineers losing to Alfa Romeo engineers in developing a new, RWD platform that could underpin a range of Alfas planned for the next five years, plus replacements for the Dodge Charger and Challenger, and Chrysler 300. At his five-year plan presentation, Marchionne said the RWD Alfa platform is appropriate for future Dodges, but not future Chryslers.
A few years after Daimler AG sold off Chrysler Group, engineers in Auburn Hills, Michigan, insisted they had evolved the Mercedes-Benz-based Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger/Challenger platform into something its own. However, there’s still enough Mercedes left in the platform that Chrysler reportedly has to buy all-wheel-drive components from Mercedes, making the AWD 300 and Charger that are so important in snowbelt states a costly car for Fiat Chrysler. And when the Dodge Charger and Challenger, or whatever their replacements are named, migrate to the new Alfa RWD platform later in the decade, they will become smaller models—midsize rather than full-size, an indication that the platform is not designed to stretch to something so large.
Unfortunately, this leaves the Chrysler brand with little choice but to switch its full-size sedan to FWD. The alternative, though, would be to develop a new, full-size RWD/longitudinal-engine platform for the 2019 Chrysler 300, and perhaps even extend the brand with a longer-wheelbase new-age New Yorker that could appeal to both livery fleets and to the Chinese market. The wildly successful Jeep Grand Cherokee also has Mercedes bones -- in this case, derived from the M-Class, which is a crossover with architecture derived from the E-Class. Some time in the next decade, that Grand Cherokee will need to be replaced, so why not develop a large, RWD platform with enough flexibility to handle both off-roadable Jeeps and boulevardier sedans?
The Chrysler 300 is the big, elegant RWD sedan that has defined the brand these last nine or 10 years, when most of its other models have been substandard before the 2014 200 came along. If Hyundai and even Kia can anchor the tops of their lineups with big, stately RWD sedans, so should the brand that has been known for such models from the time of the Great Depression through the oil embargo years.