It was December 2008, mere weeks after former chairman Robert Nardelli pleaded with the U.S. Congress for bailout funding for Chrysler Corporation. The company was up against the ropes, sales were tanking along with the economy, and the product lineup was heavy on misses, light on hits. An increasingly desperate Chrysler invited the usual scrum of automotive journalists, pundits, and analysts to the company’s design dome in Auburn Hills for a sneak peek of the next-generation Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans, among other future models, in an attempt to prove that this was a car company and a roster of products that were worth saving. There on the dome floor sat two draped vehicles; there was no time or inclination for such niceties as elevated turntables. The drapes were unceremoniously peeled away, revealing two crisply executed sedans that were distinctly American and clearly related to the existing cars, yet substantially different. It was immediately evident that these were not just pinpoints of light in Chrysler’s gathering darkness, they were kliegs, and they were vivid proof of the talent that resided in the vast Chrysler headquarters complex even through the years of Daimler mismanagement. To quote Madonna, they had style, they had grace. In those grim days, though, we weren’t sure if they had a chance in hell of ever seeing the showroom floor.
We all know what happened in the intervening two years, and you probably already know that these two sedans did make it out of the design studios and into the public spotlight. We drove the handsome new Dodge Charger two months ago, and now we’ve been behind the wheel of the Chrysler 300, which is trailing the Charger to showrooms. How much is riding on the 300’s shoulders? We’d say nothing less than the entire Chrysler brand, as the division cannot survive on Town & Country minivan sales alone.
Happily, the new 300 not only looks great, it’s still a great driver. The previous car’s rough edges have been sanded away, as evidenced mainly by the high-caliber cabin and the standard 292-hp, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 with variable valve timing. The previous base engine, an anemic 2.7-liter V-6, wasn’t worthy of the car, and the previous optional 3.5-liter V-6 was no class leader, either, leaving only the mighty Hemi V-8 to really get an enthusiast excited. That engine returns in the 300C, but the Pentastar V-6 is powerful enough, and good enough, that we think far fewer buyers will be pining for the Hemi this time around.
Where the previous 300 could make its mark based solely on its styling, its brashness, its rear-wheel-drive chassis, and its allusions to Chrysler history, the second generation delves more deeply into luxury-car territory. Mitch Clauw, chief engineer on the 300, explains that he and his development team benchmarked the Lexus LS460 and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as well as other premium luxury brands, and surveyed 350 owners of those cars and the original 300 to arrive at 3300 functional attributes that they wished to achieve. The LS was their target for ride quality and NVH, the Mercedes E350 for handling.
Our first drive impressions indicate that Clauw’s team came pretty close to meeting those targets. The 300 is impressively quiet, especially on the freeway. In fact, some 300C buyers might find the car too quiet and wish for a bit more exhaust note and Hemi hum. As for handling, the 300 drives smaller than it is, with good body control; a creamy and controlled ride; and meaty, precise steering. The brake pedal on the 300 has really nice modulation and excellent response, inspiring confidence during our drives in the foothills of southern San Diego County. The 300C, as before, gets bigger front rotors and dual-piston calipers.
We had several opportunities to take real advantage of the Hemi’s 363 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque, and although it extracts a 2-mpg penalty over the V-6 (which gets 18/27 city/highway), it sure is nice to have this 5.7-liter beast behind the 300’s big, seven-slat grille when you need to pass on a two-lane road. It’s just too bad that, although the 300C provides a 160-mph speedometer, a limiter cuts in abruptly at only 118 mph, as we repeatedly found out. Come on, Chrysler, 118 mph is for wimps. At least give us the option of a premium tire package that would enable you to increase V-max. The four 300 trims — 300, 300 Limited, 300C, and 300C AWD — are equipped, variably, with seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-inch tires, every one of them all-seasons rubber.
Another bummer is the carryover five-speed automatic, a severely dated device with unpredictable responses that does not make the most of the Pentastar’s very flat torque curve. Chrysler has confirmed that a ZF eight-speed automatic, the very one used by the big guys in Germany, is on its way, but only for the V-6, not the Hemi. Cannot. Come. Quickly. Enough.
Aside from the gearbox, though, the 300 offers much of what a luxury-sedan buyer might want, aside from a true prestige badge and the inflated price that comes with it. Every conceivable modern safety device is available, including active cruise, blind-spot monitoring, and collision warning. The cabin is elegant and well-proportioned, what Brandon Faurote, head of Chrysler design, calls “more sculptural, fluid, and refined, with less bright trim,” than before. The front doors are so big, and open so wide, that it’s a stretch to grab the nicely trimmed interior door handle and pull them shut.
From the driver’s seat, you’ve got a handsome steering wheel and two ice-blue-lit instruments in the main cluster. There’s a big expanse of dashboard and a high cowl, but the top of the windshield is raked back three inches more than before and the A-pillars are thinner, which helps outward visibility. A huge new 8.4-inch touch screen, beautifully integrated into the center stack, has graphics and colors that rival any of its competitors, but then you touch the navigation button and all that loveliness disappears, replaced by the garish colors and graphics of Garmin. Incredibly cheesy. When pressed, Bruce Velisek, the 300’s chief marketer, admits that they might move toward two levels of navigation: the Garmin as the cheapie and a more refined interface for more money. Cannot. Come. Quickly. Enough.
We nitpick, but then again, luxury-sedan buyers nitpick. They also have become accustomed in recent years to the availability of all-wheel drive, but the new 300 is coming out of the Brampton, Ontario, assembly plant with AWD available only on the top-spec 300C. The old car offered AWD with the 3.5-liter V-6. Luckily, Chrysler will likely reintroduce AWD and a V-6 for the 300 this fall, probably in conjunction with the eight-speed automatic and just in time for the winter 2012 buying season. Cannot. Come. Quickly. Enough.
Chrysler at that time also hopes to introduce a line of 300 variants that it’s currently referring to as the S models. Tim Kuniskis, head of Chrysler marketing, explains that they “are not sport models or trim packages. They are totally different from [the regular 300] yet the same. We’re going to give them different wheels and interiors, take out the chrome and wood. They represent design with purpose and a whole lot of attitude.” We gather that what they really represent is Chrysler’s recognition that the aftermarket has sucked up a lot of modification dollars from Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger buyers, and the company understandably wants a slice of that.
We say, more power to them. The fact that Chrysler can even entertain the notion of such baubles in its lineup is an indication of how far it has come since 2008 and of its prospects for yet another phoenixlike resurrection from the near-dead. Which cannot come quickly enough.
2011 Chrysler 300
Price: $27,995/$31,995/$38,995 (base/Limited/300C)
On sale: Now
Engines: 3.7-liter V-6, 292 hp, 260 lb-ft; 5.7-liter V-8, 363 hp, 394 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel