Driven: 2011 Chrysler 300C

When the original Chrysler 300 debuted in 2005 (make that the modern original, as the nameplate first appeared in 1955), it was a dramatic affirmation that the classic American sedan -- a big, rear-wheel-drive, V-8 -- could still be relevant, rather than just some hoary old throwback suitable only for sunbelt geezers and the livery trade. With its blocky, vaguely Bentley-esque design, the car was an immediate hit. It was a darling of today's tastemakers, the hip-hop crowd, and was frequently customized. Much was made of the fact that Snoop Dogg phoned up then-Chrysler president Dieter Zetsche ("Doctor Z") looking to get one.


In, then out
In the years following, the fervor over the 300's styling inevitably cooled, and people began to take a more critical look at the car underneath. Although the 300 still represented the best of Chrysler Corporation, it was not immune from the problems that were rife throughout the company's lineup, including painfully penny-pinched interiors, rudimentary chassis tuning, and plentiful road noise. Buyers who didn't step up to the Hemi V-8 also suffered with one of two V-6 engines that were underpowered and coarse.

Given Chrysler's tumultuous bankruptcy and new ownership under Fiat, it's safe to say that expectations for the revamped 300 were not high. The new 300, however, has proven to be one of the nicest surprises of the year. It's a far more worthy example of Chrysler's back-from-the-brink ethos than the 200, which was used in the award-winning "Imported from Detroit" TV commercial.


More changed than it appears
The reworked sheetmetal appears at first to be just a tweaking, but it actually incorporates significant changes, such as a less upright windshield and less massive pillars, both of which aid visibility. The car also wears a lot more jewelry, with LED daytime running lights, LED taillamps, and a more chrome-heavy visage.

The more evident changes are inside. Again, the visuals are brighter and glitzier, starting with a standard 8.4-inch touch-screen that incorporates a variety of controls -- a few too many, actually, although there are large knobs and some physical buttons for important HVAC and audio functions. The other good news is that the screen's touch points are large and the logic is clear. Gauges with thick chrome surrounds and bright blue LED lighting (day or night) also makes quite a visual impression, and real wood trim is liberally used, including on the thick rim of the steering wheel. The oversize seats are comfortable, the optional leather is high quality, and soft-touch surfaces abound. Doctor Z and his cohorts wouldn't recognize this cabin.

The list of standard and available features is long. Options include adaptive HID headlamps, blind-spot warning and rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, and a panoramic sunroof. Standard items (on the 300C) include heated and ventilated seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, power steering column, heated and cooled cup holders, Nappa leather, keyless ignition and remote start, navigation, a backup camera, and LED ambient interior lighting. Obviously, one of the lessons of the Daimler/Cerberus years that had to be unlearned was that one should be stingy with standard equipment.


More than skin deep
The reworking of the 300, however, goes deeper than upgrading the interior and adding a lot more equipment. There's been some reengineering of the car underneath, and that's noticeable too, once you drive it. There's a new electric power steering system, and it's tuned well enough -- precise and well weighted -- that it easily could pass for hydraulic. The suspension has been revamped, and on the 300C AWD, which has the Touring-tuned Suspension (larger anti-roll bars and firmer dampers), it felt pleasantly tied-down but still delivered an exceptionally comfortable ride -- particularly given the standard 19-inch wheels. Engineers also threw a bunch of noise-reduction measures at the car, and indeed it is a quiet cruiser.

The V-8 powertrain essentially carries over, and the much-vaunted Hemi and the five-speed automatic turn out to be one of the weakest aspects of the new car. The Hemi is still sweet sounding and powerful (363 hp) but it has a pretty big drinking habit, although at least it's satisfied with regular. The optional all-wheel-drive system exacerbates the situation, despite its ability to disconnect from the front wheels when operating in rear-wheel-drive mode. Also, the V-8/AWD car, at 4513 pounds, carries an additional 500-plus pounds compared to the six-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive version.


American-style
Still, as an example of a true, American-style luxury car, the 300 pretty much stands alone. Lincoln doesn't make a car like this. Cadillac (!) doesn't make a car like this (the CTS may be good but it's determinedly Euro). The 300's formula is one your dad would recognize: a powerful V-8, rear-wheel drive, a roomy interior, plenty of flash, lots of gadgetry, and solid street presence. The most surprising thing about the 300 is that all the chrome and leather, all the electronics and LEDs, do not feel like a thin veneer of glitz papering over a cheap substrate. The car is quiet, the powertrain is smooth, the steering is direct, the seats are firm, and the ride quality is good.

Thirst and weight are negatives, but the new 300 earns its swagger. But with this test example, the 300C AWD (the most expensive version), starting at $41,145 and maxing out at $46,880 with options, the question becomes: Does it have $46,880 worth of swagger? I think the 300 is getting ahead of itself at those prices. It's unlikely anyone actually pays those prices given Chrysler's hefty incentives (currently averaging more than $3000), but still. It may be that the much-improved new V-6 -- which for 2012 comes with an eight-speed automatic -- is the way to go, as it deflates the sticker and dramatically improves fuel economy. Indeed, that's the version that stars in the 300's own "Imported from Detroit" commercial. There are those who quibble that the 300 is made in Ontario, and that Jay-Z, whose music is used in the 300 commercial, is not a Detroiter. But I'd argue that the spot is still impactful, and this car is too.

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