The Chrysler 300C is probably the best American sedan ever built. Of course, it’s not actually a true-blue American: its underpinnings come straight from Germany and the last-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class, its starred-and-striped Hemi engine is manufactured in Mexico, and the car itself is assembled in Canada. Nonetheless, as editor-in-chief Jean Jennings wrote when we selected the car as our 2005 Automobile of the Year, the 300C is “a traditional American car done just right.” As such, it offers big horsepower, bold design, lots of space, and the ability to gobble freeways. It also excels on twisty back roads, a factor that clinched AOY honors and a spot in our Four Seasons fleet for the Chrysler.
The 300C stood tall among our import-heavy long-term lineup, getting the nod for lengthy trips to Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Quebec, and Washington, D.C. “Of all the vehicles in our Four Seasons fleet, this is the car that always puts a smile on my face, even on the drive home in the evening,” creative director Richard Eccleston wrote in the 300C’s logbook. Most drivers commented on how relaxing and comfortable it was over long distances, but some highway trekkers criticized the car for undue wind noise and a soft ride. “It feels floaty and big like an old Rolls-Royce,” offered Eccleston’s wife, Liz Turner. Because of its girth, some staff members preferred piloting the car on the highway, but a few drivers argued that its precise rack-and-pinion steering and good handling helped make the 300C notably nimble around town. Wherever we drove it, however, the poor visibility made it tricky to conduct in heavy traffic-a corollary of the masses of metal, slotted windows, and thick pillars that give the car its cool, chopped-top appearance.
Although sightlines were compromised by the styling, the distinctive exterior received lots of positive ink in the 300C’s notebook. “I’ve never gotten so many comments on a test car before-all positive, all responding to its looks,” a staffer noted. Our reader/owners agreed that their cars’ bold looks turn heads like Natalie Portman at a Star Wars convention, even though more than a quarter-million 300s-owned by everyone from rappers to retirees-are now on North American roads. (The 300’s ubiquity is a big plus for Chrysler; without the strong sales of the 300 and its Dodge Charger and Magnum siblings, Chrysler might be in even deeper trouble than the other two-thirds of the Detroit automaking contingent.)
The 300C’s interior was also often complimented for its simplicity and good ergonomics. The elegant and nearly translucent tortoiseshell accents decorating the steering wheel, shift knob, and door handles were especially attractive-at least when the vehicle was first delivered. Unfortunately, these pieces, along with other bits of plastic trim, bore scratches and scuffs well before our year concluded. From the beginning of the test, the fit and solidity of many of those plastics were not up to competitive price-range standards, let alone the more expensive cars to which the 300C invites comparison. The long hood didn’t line up quite right against the fenders, either, as senior editor Joe DeMatio observed: “These are not Lexus-like body-panel tolerances.”
The 340-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi engine beneath that ill-fitting hood never let us down, though. “The powertrain is a true American beauty,” DeMatio marveled. Even after 30,000-plus miles, the car felt quicker than our 0-to-60-mph figure of 6.4 seconds suggests, because the Hemi’s colossal 390 lb-ft of torque provided seatback-straining oomph whenever called upon. Perhaps the most remarkable performance stat for this highway star is its 5.9-second 30-to-70-mph passing time, thrust that easily beats most luxury sedans and lags slightly behind the 551-hp Bentley Continental GT. That quick kickdown time is helped by the responsive, Mercedes-Benz-sourced, five-speed automatic, which has an intuitive manual mode. As driving enthusiasts, we generally prefer manual transmissions, but the 300C’s obedient manu-matic was great whether we were cruising around town or tearing up the twisties. (Incidentally, the 300C is our first AOY without a manual gearbox option since 1993’s Chrysler LH cars.)
The refined Hemi breathes heavily under hard acceleration, furthering the impression that the 300C has the soul of a muscle car. To enhance that vibe, we ordered some go-fast parts from Mopar Performance-a 3.5-inch Borla cat-back exhaust and a 3.5-inch AEM cold-air intake-which cost less than $1500, installed. The only change in the car’s performance was a slight drop in observed fuel economy, but the raspy sound track and the magnified tailpipes seemed worth the expense. “The new intake and exhaust really add to the car,” said online editor Mike Dushane. “They provide a great rumble when you’re on it without introducing annoying resonance at low rpm.”
We also added a feature-filled Pioneer AVIC-N2 XM satellite radio receiver with a CD and DVD player, navigation and traffic-monitoring systems, and a vehicle dynamics recorder (“In Gear,” July 2005). Its steep learning curve, however, soon led us to toss it in favor of the simpler, original six-disc CD changer. As you may have noticed, lots of 300 owners have modified their cars more than we did, but Lamborghini-style scissor doors and twenty-four-inch spinning wheels just weren’t in our budget.
We didn’t budget for a $205 body-shop bill, either, but we had to pay it after a canine avoidance maneuver ended in a light collision between a curb and the right-side rocker panel. Other expenses included $299 to replace warped front brake rotors and $617 for scheduled maintenance. Four mounted Continental ContiWinterContact 225/60VR-18 winter tires, at $806, were imperative to properly employ the heavy rear-wheel-drive car’s low-threshold stability control system during Michigan’s worst season. More recent 300C owners won’t enjoy the benefit of Chrysler’s seven-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty, which expired in the ’05 model year. We invoked the warranty only to replace a broken sun-visor clip. Otherwise, the car proved a model of reliability.
Even though Chrysler doesn’t include scheduled maintenance in the 300C package, our dealer service experience was decent, and the car was a spectacular overall value. We ordered it with very few options, since the base 300C comes well equipped at $33,495, with many additional features over the base six-cylinder 300, such as the Hemi engine, leather-trimmed seating, power-adjustable and heated front buckets, a power tilt/telescope steering column, and rain-sensing wipers. Our selected options included side-curtain air bags, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and a handy reverse-park-assistance system.
Senior editor Joe Lorio summed up our feelings when he wrote: “The 300C is in an entirely different league from the large Chrysler sedans that have gone before. There is a feeling of substance that was never present in the front-wheel-drive cars. It’s a welcome departure for Chrysler.” It’s also been a wake-up call to the American auto industry. If only General Motors and Ford would build more cars that are as affordable, attractive, powerful, and enjoyable to drive, perhaps the U.S. industry might be able to shake itself out of its current funk.