Munich, Germany 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.
Dynamically, the Crossfire turns out to be a mix of the familiar and the new. The eighteen-valve, 3.2-liter SOHC V-6 is a staple of the Mercedes lineup; in this application it makes 215 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. The engine sounds better here, thanks to the Crossfire's unique, center-exiting exhaust. Peak torque comes on stream at 3000 rpm, which helps make the Crossfire sports car quick at low speeds. But open it up on the highway, and the rush doesn't continue with the same urgency. The four-wheel disc brakesaided by Mer-cedes' Corner Brake Control and Brake Assistdo a commendable job hauling the Crossfire down from extralegal speeds and are easy to modulate.
There is a choice of two transmissions. Chrysler gives the five-speed automatic its AutoStick label, but in fact this is the superior Mercedes Touch Shift unit, which can be manually up- and downshifted without first moving the selector out of drive. We would like to see steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, however.
We found we preferred the smooth, smart autobox to the six-speed stick, whose stubby shift lever promises short, slick shifts, but whose linkage doesn't really deliver. And the clutch's long travel makes shifting for yourself feel more like work than play.
Like the powertrain and the brakes, the suspension is a Mercedes design as well, with upper and lower control arms up front and a multi-link setup at the rear. But the actual pieces used here are different, with unique spring heights, anti-roll bar diameters, bushings, spring rates, and shock valving.
We know the SLK to be not quite a sports car but more of a sunny-day tourer compared with the purist BMW Z4 or the Porsche Boxster. You get the sense that the Chrysler engineers wanted to take the Crossfire further. They tuned the suspension to be firmer, specified larger wheels, and opted for lower profile rubber: 225/40ZR-18 up front, 255/35ZR-19 at the rear. Both the high-performance and the available all-season tires are Z-rated.
Combine that chassis setup with the Cross-fire's ultra-rigid body (stiffer than that of the Porsche 911, the engineers brag) and you get a car that responds very well in hard driving. The Crossfire turns in sharply and corners flat. The ultrawide tires provide so much grip (even the all-season Continentals), that, even with the stability control switched off, it's hard to find their limit. Yet, despite the tires' low aspect ratios and the aggressive suspension tuning, the ride isn't too harsh. The only missing element here is some involvement from the helm. Unfortunately, the Mercedes recirculating-ball steering unit can't hope to match the feel of the best sports cars' (Boxster, Z4, Nissan 350Z).
Still, the Crossfire is the sportiest Chrysler ever, and that's a good thing. We're not sure what Chrysler's use of Mercedes componentry will do for the Mercedes brand, but it's certainly good news for Chrysler. And if parts sharing helps make an exciting concept like the Crossfire a showroom reality, then we're all for it. But some of the borrowed bits keep the Crossfire out of the sports car Promised Land. Instead, the Crossfire finds itself at the crossroads between sports car and sporty coupe.