As you may recall, the Crossfire started life as a show car at the 2001 Detroit auto show. To hear Chrysler tell it, "Public response to our Chrysler Crossfire concept vehicle was overwhelming." Maybe soalthough we weren't nearly as enamored of the split-windshield, stacked-headlight show car as we are of the production version. But even if faced with genuine public demand, does anyone think for a minute that back in 2001with Chrysler awash in pink slips, red ink, and off-lease Grand CherokeesDieter Zetsche would have coughed up the money to develop an all-new two-seat sports coupe from the ground up? It would have been about as likely as his appearing before the next DaimlerChrysler shareholders' meeting with a shaved mustache and a sequinned ball gown, belting out "I Gotta Be Me." No, if the Crossfire was going to take root in hard times, the development team would have to seek out a novel solution.
A donor platform, in roughly the right size, with the proper driving wheels, was found in the Mercedes-Benz SLK and was adapted for the bespoke new body, which uses all its own sheetmetal. The mechanicals were all purloined, although retuned for this application. The interior was borrowed as well, then restyled to provide a unique appearance. In the face of complex stampings (such as the X-shaped crease on the doors, the deep rear quarter-panels, and the grooved hood) and production numbers of only 20,000 per year, manufacturing was farmed out to German coachbuilder Karmann.
Its origins are unusual, but the Crossfire is a different kind of Chrysler for other reasons. It's Chrysler's smallest-ever model and first-ever sports car, and it pioneers the marque's return to rear-wheel drive. And, aside from the Plymouth-born Prowler, it's the first two-seat Chrysler since the ill-fated TC by Maserati (another transatlantic specialty model built in conjunction with a prestigious European automakerthe eerie similarities to this effort must have had the more superstitious members of the Crossfire team throwing salt over their shoulders).
While that Iacocca-era two-seat exotic looked an awful lot like a pedestrian LeBaron convertible, the Crossfire won't be confused with anything in the current lineup. Andrew Dyson led the team that transformed Eric Stoddard's show car into a production-ready reality. The front-end styling is obviously changed, but Dyson was otherwise pretty faithful to the concept considering he also had to widen the boattail rear and take eight inches out of the wheelbase. The new frontal appearance, the high bodysides and short greenhouse, and the pushed-forward front axle and pulled-back windshield are all themes that will be picked up by other Chryslers.
But even if every aspect of this design finds its way onto every other Chrysler, the Crossfire would still look unique because of its diminutive size. The wheelbase is only 94.5 inches, and both the front and rear overhangs are minimal. The wee dimensions are apparent inside as well. This is a true two-seater, without even vestigial rear seats. A high bulkhead immediately aft of the front seats precludes tossing anything behind them, and there's only 7.6 cubic feet of cargo space under the rear hatch. You're cocooned inside, with a high beltline rising toward the rear, a sloping roof, and a pinched view out the back. The center console is fairly large, but the cabin is wide enough not to feel confining. Tall drivers who need to push the seat far back may find the headliner too close, however.
The interior's SLK pieces are obvious, despite the Chrysler designers' restyling. Still, the Mercedes starting point gives the Crossfire hands down the best-quality interior of any Chrysler product in recent times. The switch-gear works flawlessly, the surfaces are attractive, and the silver trim brightens things up.