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.