It's hard to know whether Chrysler's gamble of building an unashamedly old-fashioned, American-style sedan-big inside and out, rear-wheel drive, with the option of a honking V-8-will get buyers flocking into its showrooms, but the 300 is pretty sweet. Driving around Palm Springs in a 300C equipped with the bodacious 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 seemed appropriate, because this artificial oasis a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, with its endless golf courses and stylish mid-century architecture, reflects more of the optimism of the immediate postwar era than almost any other place in the United States. From the high-set driving position to the rumble of the V-8, the 300C is a throwback to the time when big was better, bigger was best, and no one had heard of Toyota.
American cars used to look distinctive, drive distinctively, and offer more for less. Sometime between the late 1960s and now, the ineptness (and arrogance) of the domestic auto industry, an oil crisis that was manna to import automakers, and changing consumer tastes led the major domestic automakers to build ersatz import cars rather than American ones.
The 300, though, actually looks like an American car. At 196.8 inches long and 74.1 inches wide, it's large enough to make the Mercedes-Benz E500 we brought along for comparative purposes seem like a waif. The 300 looks very distinctive on the road, glamorous even, with its baby Bentley proportions, lead-sled chop top, and showy details. If there's any American car that's going to appeal to the rap pack, this is it. In fact, 50 Cent already has shot a video with a 300C, tricked out with the 22-inch wheels that seem to be a prerequisite for hip-hop acceptability.
The confident exterior is matched by a stylish interior. Chrysler has made a quantum improvement in the quality of the bits you touch, even if they aren't always up to Lexus standards. In many cases, the materials are better than those used by the Japanese competition, with soft-touch surfaces as opposed to hard plastics, for instance. The design is very attractive, with great-looking gauges and chrome accents everywhere, and the tortoiseshell finish on the C's steering wheel, shifter, and door handles is delightful. Just like the outside, the interior is massive-similar in size to the BMW 745i, believe it or not. Headroom, shoulder room, and legroom are not only superior to mid-size cars' but are comparable to those of short-wheelbase luxury cars such as the Jaguar XJ8 and the Infiniti Q45.
When it comes to trim, the base 300 ($23,595) has cloth upholstery, a power driver's seat, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; leather is standard on the 300 Touring ($27,395). The 300 Limited ($29,890) adds heated seats, a power passenger seat, dual-zone climate control, and one-touch front windows. The 300C ($32,995) gets a power tilt/ telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, and a 288-watt stereo as standard. Options include a navigation system, power-adjustable pedals, xenon headlamps, a 380-watt sound system, and a power sunroof.
The big news for people who enjoy driving is that the 300 is rear- (or all-) wheel drive. Chrysler has spent years telling people about the traction advantages of its front-wheel-drive cars, but now the company has reversed course and is spinning the virtues of traction and stability control systems like crazy. (Traction control and ESP are optional on the base 300 and standard on the other models.)
The reality, however, is that if Chrysler wants to be considered a premium brand, rear-wheel drive is the only way to go. The new LX platform that underpins both this car and the Dodge Magnum wagon (see sidebar on page 82) uses Mercedes-Benz E-class know-how, if not much actual hardware. Similar to an E-class's, the front suspension is by upper and lower control arms, with coil-over dampers and an antiroll bar, while a five-link arrangement is fitted at the rear, with separate coil springs and dampers. The sportier 300C has retuned dampers, a rear antiroll bar, and a bigger front bar, but the spring rates remain the same. Antilock brakes are standard on all but the base 300, while the 300C gets larger-diameter 13.6-inch front and 12.6-inch rear discs that are vented all around, along with two-piston front calipers in place of the standard single-piston items. The base 300 gets seventeen-inch steel wheels, the Touring and the Limited sport aluminum seventeen-inchers, and the 300C and all-wheel-drive models come with eighteens.
The base 300 is equipped with a revamped version of the corporate 2.7-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 that makes 190 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque, which seems barely adequate for the car's 3721-pound bulk. The Touring and the Limited come with the 3.5-liter, SOHC V-6 that is good for 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. Both V-6s are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Enthusiasts will head straight for the 300C, which uses Chrysler's 5.7-liter, OHV V-8 "Hemi"-it doesn't have the hemispherical combustion chambers of yore, but we'll give Chrysler the benefit of the doubt. That engine makes 340 horsepower and a bounteous 390 pound-feet of torque. There is a displacement-on-demand feature, called the Multi-Displacement System, that turns the V-8 into a V-4 under certain conditions (see Techtonics sidebar above). This powerplant is mated to a five-speed manu-matic transmission that's shared with many a Mercedes-Benz.
The all-wheel-drive system is virtually identical to the Mercedes 4Matic, too, with a planetary center differential and a 38/62 percent front/rear torque split. The five-speed manu-matic is standard with all-wheel drive, regardless of engine. Chrysler predicts a 15 percent takeup rate on the all-wheel-drive option, available starting this fall, but pricing has yet to be announced. The company expects that the base 300 will account for about 10 percent of sales, with the 3.5-liter cars taking 51 percent and the V-8s 39 percent, for a volume of about 80,000 cars in the first year.
There weren't any all-wheel-drive 300s to test-drive in Palm Springs, but we spent some time with a 300 Touring and lots of time with a 300C and a Mercedes-Benz E500 farther south in the mountains near San Diego. And we liked what we drove. On the highway and in the city, the 300 rides smoothly and is very refined, with muted wind and tire noise. The narrow windshield opening and shallow side glass take some getting used to, but the driving position is perfectly natural. On a twisting road, the light yet accurate steering is a touch overboosted on turn-in and lacks feedback once you're cornering hard. The handling tends toward mild understeer but is always faithful and predictable, whether the electronic watchdogs are on or off. The brake pedal has a reassuringly linear feel that's more reminiscent of European sport sedans than American cars of yore. The biggest flaw is a mismatch between the engine and the transmission: second gear is too low, and third is too high, so the autobox is always hunting between ratios. The 3.5-liter V-6 provides good performance, but the note can become raucous at high revs, and it lacks the sweetness of Honda and Toyota V-6s.
The 300C is more our thing. The Hemi engine transforms the performance; Chrysler claims that it sprints from 0 to 60 mph about 2.5 seconds faster than the V-6. We managed it in 6.1 seconds and saw a speed-limited 126 mph on a very deserted section of desert highway. This power-train is beautifully matched. The Hemi makes a great growl when you're hard on the throttle and provides smooth power all the way to the redline, although it seems to perform with more vigor above 4000 rpm. The automatic works well whether you leave it in drive and let the electronics adapt to your driving style or use the Mercedes-like manual shift pattern, slapping the lever to the left to downshift and to the right to upshift.
Along some spectacular canyon roads, the 300C kept pace with the E500, which is high praise, because the E-class is one of the best-handling sedans out there. The brakes work well, the power is accessible, and the 300C sticks. However, the steering lacks the communicative feel that separates the good from the great, and it tends to float over undulations rather than crushing them as the Benz does. It never loses its composure, though, and actually rides decently considering it has eighteen-inch wheels and tires (albeit with relatively high sidewalls). Like the V-6, it understeers mildly at first, but this car's behavior is much more throttle-sensitive; you can use the abundant torque to revector the rear end, but the electronic nannies will step in at some point and turn off the fun. (Even when the ESP is switched off, the system is active, just at a higher threshold.) As in the Touring, highway performance is terrific, although it isn't as solid in crosswinds as the E500, probably because of its slab-sided styling.
The 300 is a really nice piece. It isn't the BMW 5-series crusher some Chrysler people seem to think it is, but it's a very comfortable, spacious, stylish, and imposing car. The 300C is also very fast and drives more like a premium European car than the soggy American sedans of our memories. Yet, by moving upmarket, Chrysler is also taking the brand to a price point that is higher than consumers are used to paying for its cars. Most Americans don't regard Chrysler as an upscale brand (even if it was from the 1930s to the '60s) and might blanch at a $28,000 Chrysler, let alone the 300C at nearly $33,000. That could be a problem, even though the car is definitely good enough to succeed and looks more expensive than it is. In the same way that the Escalade became cool and helped Cadillac's revival, perhaps the 300-a bargain Bentley that actually is cool-will do the same for Chrysler. Good product is always the key to changing perceptions.