The Taming of Rear-Wheel Drive
After watching its stable of sedans -- the 300M, Concorde and Sebring -- get lost in a crowd of newer, more refined competitors, Chrysler decided that drastic measures were necessary to get the attention of shoppers hell-bent on buying fast Nissan Altimas and super-refined Toyota Avalons and Lexus ES 330s. Seeking an edge of their own, company designers and engineers took a wistful journey back to the mid-1950s when Chrysler's letter-series 300 cars were some of the most powerful and desirable cars on the American market. Upon their return, they specified three ingredients for the company's next sedan:
1) Rear-wheel drive
2) An available "Hemi" V8 engine
3) A more authentic luxury ambience
The product of their efforts is an all-new large sedan bearing the name 300. Priced from the mid-$20Ks to the low-$30Ks, this 300 will square off against a range of competitors -- some of them family-oriented, some of them luxury-branded, but very few of them rear-wheel-drive. And it will be the only one available with a 5.7-liter V8 with hemispherical combustion chambers -- taking the venerable old 300C name when thusly equipped.
Although one can't help but fixate on its large chrome grille and double-lens headlights (ostensibly borrowed from the 1957 300C), the 300's body doesn't have quite the "retro" appeal of its sister car, the Dodge Magnum wagon. It's no cause for criticism, though, as the sedan's simpler lines and more classic shape should appeal to a wider cross-section of buyers. All the same, there's certainly no shortage of testosterone here: The 300's powerful stance is anchored by an exceptionally high beltline and standard 17-inch wheels (18s on the 300C) encased in bulging fenders.
A long 120-inch wheelbase shortens up the front and rear overhangs and opens up plenty of occupant space on the inside. Run down the specs, and you'll see that Chrysler's new sedan offers more shoulder, hip- and legroom than most of its competitors. After spending a couple hundred miles in several 300s at the introductory event, we can confirm the accuracy of the company's measurements -- there's room for people of all sizes in both the front and the back. What's more, the 300 is a few inches taller than the retiring 300M and Concorde, so headroom is quite generous, especially in cars without a sunroof.
But anyone can build a spacious sedan these days, and obviously it's the 300's rear-drive layout that will set it apart from its peers. Rear-wheel-drive sedans have long been a dying breed among the domestic brands, and the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis are the only survivors in this price range. Neither is a model of refinement, as their old-tech solid axle rear suspension design makes them cheap to produce and buy but does the cars no favors in terms of handling. Although the 300's ancestral namesakes had similar underpinnings, the new sedan borrows its independent, five-link rear suspension from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, one of the most refined cars on the planet. Further, it incorporates such modern-day safety nets as stability control. And for those living in harsh climates, Chrysler will offer optional all-wheel drive starting this fall.
Of course, with 390 pound-feet of torque rushing toward the rear wheels of 300C models, all the safety nets in the world can't stop you from lighting up the tires if you dive into the throttle from a stop. And if you're trying to relive earlier days when there were muscle cars aplenty, we expect you'll be delighted. That said, the 340-horsepower Hemi V8 is easily the most docile of the three engine choices in the 300 line. It rumbles convincingly under full throttle, but at highway speeds it settles into the background, remaining well under 3,000 rpm at 90 mph.
While you're cruising along, you won't have to worry as much as you might think about fuel consumption. Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System (MDS) deactivates half the cylinders in undemanding driving situations, thereby saving fuel and reducing emissions. The transitions between eight- and four-cylinder operation are so smooth that you won't notice the difference. The EPA has not yet released fuel economy estimates, but Chrysler's internal tests put city mileage at 17 mpg and highway mileage at 25-26 on V8 models. A Mercedes five-speed automatic transmission comes standard with the Hemi, and we were impressed by its smooth, timely shifts.
Still think the V8 might be a bit much for you? Chrysler will offer a pair of V6 engines, and both offer better fuel economy as well as a more affordable entry point to 300 ownership. Base 300s start you out with a 200-hp, 2.7-liter V6. It's tough to argue with the $23,595 price tag, but with the car's 3,700-pound curb weight (almost 300 pounds heavier than a 2004 Concorde LX), the power-to-weight ratio is not good. We spent an hour driving a base 300. The engine was reasonably calm at cruising speeds but quickly broke a sweat during simple maneuvers in suburban traffic.
A better choice, we feel, is the 3.5-liter V6 rated for 250 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. This engine is standard on midlevel Touring and Limited models, and provides enough low- and midrange power to handle everyday driving situations without fuss. With the 300's extra curb weight, the 3.5 doesn't have quite the punch that it did in the 300M and Concorde, but most buyers should be content with its performance. A four-speed automatic is standard with both V6s. It gets the job done, but with fewer gears to choose from (compared to the V8's five-speed), there's plenty of shuffling when climbing grades. When optioned with AWD, Touring and Limited models get to trade up to the five-speed automatic.
The 300's generous girth (all 4,000 pounds of it in the 300C's case) is apparent from the cockpit, but the carefully tuned suspension succeeds in managing all that weight. The Chrysler event staff was bold enough to plan a driving route with lengthy stints on winding two-lanes, and the 300 rose to the challenge, settling eagerly and gracefully into the turns. The 300C is especially pleasurable to drive in this setting, as the driver can always count on having ample torque for quick exits. We were also fond of the Continental tires fitted to the various test cars, which proved both quiet and high on grip, even during sudden rain showers. The steering could use some tweaking, though: Although its weighting and response to driver input are both acceptable, it doesn't offer much feedback from the road considering the sedan's sporting personality.
Ride quality is one of the 300's assets. Even though the suspension feels taut in the corners, it's suitably smooth when cruising down the highway. And you can look forward to a quiet ride as well. The 300M and Concorde were notorious for wind noise intrusion, but Chrysler engineers have insulated the 300 well enough that there's minimal disruption, even at very high speeds.
Inside the 300, the cabin design is fresh yet simple with crisp, two-tone color schemes and a minimum of panels and seams. Interlocking white-faced gauges are ringed in chrome and complemented by a white-faced analog clock mounted at the top of the center stack. Depending on the model, the center stack can be trimmed in faux carbon fiber or faux aluminum, both of which we found attractive. Translucent tortoise-shell trim on the steering wheel and shift knob is a hallmark of the top-line 300C, and it's a unique alternative to the usual wood inlays.
Although we examined only preproduction models, it's fair to say that materials quality is several steps ahead of the 300M and Concorde. Not every surface had the impeccable feel of an import, but we were heartened by Chrysler's attention to detail: Most of the grain patterns match; the adjustable vents have an unusually solid feel and operate in a fluid manner; and the glovebox is fully lined and has a gradual-release mechanism (so that it doesn't just flop open). There are two grades of leather upholstery -- a coarser hide in the Touring and Limited and a smoother variety in the 300C. We actually preferred the less expensive grade, because designers did a better job of matching it to the vinyl used on the sides of the seats and in the rear center position.
We spent several hours in the front seats and found that they offered an optimum blend of cushioning and support. The seats are firmer than what you'll typically find in a large domestic sedan and should prove more comfortable during long road trips. A wide range of adjustments ensures that just about anyone can get comfortable behind the wheel, and we love the fact that a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel is standard. The seat bottom is a bit low in the backseat, but there's so much room back there that you're unlikely to hear complaints. A large center console container and various other slots make it relatively easy to store personal effects, while a 15.6-cubic-foot trunk can swallow up larger items through its wide opening.
Chrysler has adopted a fresh set of audio and climate controls for the 300, and they're a welcome upgrade from what was used in the 300M and Concorde -- both in terms of visual appeal and ergonomics. We had only a couple of quibbles. The dual-zone automatic climate control system doesn't have a display that allows you to confirm your settings. And the company has abandoned its excellent back-of-the-steering-wheel secondary audio controls in favor of a less intuitive set mounted on the front of the wheel. Too bad.
In keeping with the premium image Chrysler hopes to build for the 300, every model in the lineup comes well equipped. Though saddled with a weak engine, the base model brings 17-inch wheels, air conditioning, power driver seat, a telescoping steering wheel, a CD player, cruise control and an outside temperature display to the table. Make the worthwhile step up to the more powerful Touring and you'll get alloy wheels, leather upholstery and metallic interior trim. You also get ABS and stability control, both of which are optional on the base car. The Limited adds chrome wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power front-passenger seat, heated seats, one-touch front windows and a trip computer.
Finally, if you crave both power and luxury, the 300C supplies the Hemi V8, dual exhaust, 18-inch wheels, tortoise-shell interior accents and a 288-watt Boston Acoustics stereo with an in-dash CD changer (this sound system is optional on lower-line models). A navigation system is available on Limited and 300C models, and the C alone is eligible for an even more powerful 380-watt stereo amplifier and HID headlights. Safety takes greater priority in the 300, as all models can be optioned with side curtain airbags, adjustable pedals and self-sealing tires.
The import manufacturers have what seems to be an unshakable reputation for building reliable cars. They may not always be exciting but they last forever. Or so the argument goes. Unable to wave the dependability flag in front of savvy consumers, Chrysler prefers to innovate. We've seen this with the PT Cruiser, which backs up its cosmopolitan style with a roomy, flexible interior. Since its debut in 2001, other carmakers have scrambled to come up with tall wagons of their own. Now Chrysler will reintroduce the idea of rear-wheel drive and V8 power to buyers shopping for a premium family sedan and/or entry-level luxury car. Will the 300 be the car that sends Toyota back to the drawing board and forces BMW to slash prices? Maybe not, but with just $32,000 standing between you and a stylish, well-equipped 340-hp sedan, it has never been a better time to be a power-hungry weekend enthusiast.