Chrysler has its most impressive periods of spectacular design and innovation right after hitting bottom. The company's fall from grace in the 1970s led to a reconstruction in the 1980s that culminated in the era of the Viper, Ram pickup, LH sedans, and the Chrysler 300C. And while those successes brought Chrysler to new heights, other forces were working against America's number three automaker.
The lesser models struggled to keep up with the industry. Cost cutting worked to bring the Neon to market, where it did fairly well, but continued pricing reductions brought down other models. Lower-quality interiors and extensive platform sharing made Chrysler's entry-level and mid-range cars uncompetitive. The collapse in sales, heightened by the bottom falling out of the economy, pushed the company into bankruptcy.
Then, in February, Chrysler employed what was arguably the most powerful Super Bowl ad of 2011 to announce its return. Images of Detroit, good and bad, flashed across the screen to a driving beat. A voice announced that the city has seen its ups and downs, just like Chrysler. "What does this city know about luxury?" he intoned. "What does a city that's been to Hell and back know about the finer things in life?"
After touring the city, rapper Eminem emerged from a black Chrysler 200 in front of the Fox Theater. As the gospel choir on stage stopped singing, he pointed into the camera and said defiantly, "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do!"
Punctuating the statement, the simple words "Imported from Detroit" appeared on the final black panel with the Chrysler logo.
Yes, this mini-movie was an over-the-top way to introduce the Chrysler 200, but it was necessary. The 200 marks the beginning of the latest chapter in the 85-year Chrysler saga.
Chrysler brought out the Sebring name to replace the mid-sized Cirrus in 2001, and it was a success. The nicely appointed and attractive Sebring sold well and kept the Sterling Heights plant humming. When it came time to replace the Sebring, the proverbial wheels began to fall off.
A new "global" four-cylinder engine (developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai), along with Chrysler's powerful 3.5L SOHC V6, couldn't overcome the low-rent interior and incoherent exterior styling. Sales plummeted.
With a new lease on life, and with the help of Fiat, Chrysler focused on salvaging this car. To break from the past, the revamped model dumped the old name. The new 200 moniker linked the car to its popular big brother.
Names aside, plenty of work was needed to take the Sebring to the level that could be the foundation of a return to luxury cars for Chrysler. Plenty of work has been done.
Fresh out of bankruptcy, Chrysler couldn't afford to develop an all-new car. Nor did they have time to do so, since this car needed to be on the market immediately. What they did do, in two short years, is a remarkable testament to the abilities of the American automobile industry.
Derived from the DaimlerChrysler-era Airflite concept car with its long hood and extremely short deck lid, the old car's styling was cleaned up. A revised rear fascia hides underbody parts better than in the Sebring, which had a particularly awful and cheap view from behind.
Oversized headlights and taillights that gave the Sebring a squat look were replaced with more contemporary optics. LED lights give the whole vehicle new proportions more in line with its longish (108.9-inch) wheelbase. Hood lines, originally adopted from the Crossfire coupe, gave way to a cleaner and smoother engine cover. All of this peaks at the new nose with its redesigned, more elegant grille.
While the exterior changes are by no means groundbreaking, they do make the 200 a more attractive car. This, in turn, results in a more expensive aura. Chrysler staff have led some of the changes, while others were instigated by Chrysler's new Italian partner.
Fiat looks at the Chrysler brand as a way to fill out the declining Lancia lineup. Blending the styling directions of Chrysler and Lancia completes part of this new picture, but upgrading the interior for European tastes was also necessary.
Here's where the Chrysler 200 shines brightest. Somehow, in the past decade or so, manufacturers around the world forgot the importance of the materials inside a car.
Chrysler improved the feel of all interior components the driver or passengers might touch. You expect the soft leather wrapped around the steering wheel to be soft, but materials used on the dash and the center console are surprisingly expensive feeling. Even the plastic pieces lack the burrs so common just a few years ago.
Large switches fall right at hand for all controls. Most of the switches are easy to adjust with little attention necessary from the driver.
Just below the classic dial clock in the center of the dash is the UConnect system. This unit combines the sound (including a 30-gigabyte hard drive and Boston Acoustic speakers) and Garmin navigation systems with the expected Bluetooth and voice-command technologies. While you do need to take your eyes off the road to change stations manually and the like, the amazingly accurate voice command removes most of the distractions. Even making calls is as simple as telling the car to "Call Joe at Home." UConnect politely asks if it has the right information before making the call.
Overall, the loaded Chrysler 200 Limited wasn't lacking for much in the way of amenities--although certain 10-year-olds did ask whether the 6.5-inch screen showed the back-up camera, which is not offered on the 200.
All the touchy-feely-talkie features are only good if the car drives well. Who's going to listen to the Boneyard on SiriusXM radio when they can't stand driving? And while the 200 is an improvement over the Sebring, it's still not world class.
Tuning of the suspension has left the Chrysler 200 with a solid and sometimes harsh ride, as many imperfections in the road are translated into significant bumps in the passenger compartment.
It's quite noticeable on the highway--something to keep in mind on longer road trips. Handling, however, is fun if not sporty on back roads.
While the new Pentastar 3.6L V6 is optional, the test car was equipped with the 2.4L GEMA four-cylinder engine. At 173 horsepower, the engine is not weak but it can get a bit noisy. Engine noise is intrusive at about 3,000 r.p.m., but the optional six-speed automatic transaxle keeps the revs down unless the engine's power is in high demand.
And it is that six-speed that helps keep fuel economy up. My test vehicle got about 26 m.p.g. in mixed driving. Fuel economy like this allows the Chrysler 200 to travel more than 430 miles between fill ups.
(See the sidebar on the next page for more on the 2011 Chrysler 200 Limited's suitability for road trips, including feedback from the trip we took with the kids to the famous Daniel Boone Homestead.)
Chrysler and Fiat have created a good car from what was a barely passable car. In no way will the Chrysler 200 be the turnaround hit that the automaker needs. It is a proper placeholder until the next generation comes along, something that could not be said about the Sebring.
For a company that's been "to Hell and back," the new 200 is hardly Heaven--but it's far better than Purgatory. Compared to the hellish Sebring, this is truly a compliment.
From 18th-century Daniel Boone to 21st-century Eminem, America's been through quite a bit, just like Chrysler. The Pennsylvania-born explorer laid the groundwork for our country, while the Detroit rapper spreads modern American music past our borders. The 2011 Chrysler 200 won't be the global breakthrough that is Eminem, but it may act more like Daniel Boone and pave the way for future generations of the American brand to grow.
Bringing the family somewhere such as the Daniel Boone Homestead uses up everything the car has to offer. Even though the greenhouse is designed to emulate the high beltline of the Chrysler 300, the car provides ample glass area for everyone to see the rolling hills and the nearly three-century-old house where the famous frontiersman spent his first 16 years.
Part of the 101-cubic-foot interior, the three-passenger rear seat hauls children in comfort, although only two adults could ride for any length of time back there. In front, the seats are comfortable for a long trip and especially nice for the daily commute to and from the office.
Even with the car's short deck, the Chrysler 200 offers enough storage for all of the stuff our family needed for a weekend away. The rear strut towers encroach on the cargo room but still leave 14 cubic feet of usable space. Split fold-down rear seats and a pass-through for long items increases the usability of the trunk when the full rear seat is not needed for your smaller passengers.
Length: 191.7 inches
Width: 72.5 inches
Height: 58.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,525 pounds
Engine: I-4, 2.4-liter DOHC naturally aspirated
Horsepower: 173 @ 6,000 r.p.m.
Torque: 166 lb.-ft. @ 4,400 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 20/31
Base price: $23,745
As-tested price: $26,030 including $750 destination
Also consider: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry