Greg Anderson, Contributor
In 1955, Chrysler Corp. debuted the first of its letter-series sedans. The C-300 brought the V8 performance of a sports car to the body of a sedan, and created one of the first American muscle cars. For another 10 years, the letter-series sedans would continue in this sports-sedan vein, culminating in the 300L. However, just 10 years after its initial launch, Chrysler pulled the plug on the letter-series program.
More than 30 years later, the company has decided to give the performance sedan idea another go. For 1999, the alphabetic series takes up where it left off, and the new car is called the 300M. Although the 300M is more of an "LH" series than anything, it is the sedan that Chrysler aims to introduce to the world. That's right, the American muscle sedan is going international. Chrysler hopes to expand on its current worldwide success with minivans and Jeeps, and the 300M is the proposed flagship for its passenger car aspirations.
The 300M is known internally at Chrysler as the "five-meter car" because of its length: 197.8 inches, or 5.02 meters, give or take a few millimeters. hrysler sees this length as the international standard, because European garages, parking spaces and tax laws are designed to accommodate smaller cars -- five meters being the maximum usable length for an automobile.
As for styling, the 300M borrows some of its characteristics from the beastly sedan of the '50s and '60s, but it is thoroughly modern in appearance. A big central grille is flanked by two of the meanest headlight designs on record. Just below the grille is an air channel that contains toothy foglights. With these unique styling cues, the car's cab-forward design comes across as not just aggressive - it's potentially violent.
From the rear, the designers went for a less-brutal-yet-still-intriguing look. Taillights are shaped so that from the side, they resemble fins. The rear deck of the 300M has been raised, creating our one serious complaint: from inside, it's hard to see out the back - especially when backing up. But luggage space is ample. We could fit a set of golf clubs into the trunk in either direction, and didn't even need to open up the 60/40 folding rear seat to accommodate them. foursome could easily use the 300M as transportation to and from the country club. If that's not international appeal, what is?
In Europe, people like their cars with a bit more handling capability than the average train. So the 300M was designed to offer a taut suspension and consistent steering as well, as a strong motor. Two different suspension settings are available for the 300M: the standard one for more of a touring taste, and an optional Performance Handling Group which includes a tighter suspension. The performance suspension is standard fare for exported 300Ms, but because Americans seem to prefer interstate cruising to negotiating switchbacks, we have to settle for a slightly softer ride. Or you can pay an extra $255 for the "Performance" suspension, tighter steering, 16-inch performance tires, high-performance ABS and a less restrictive governor on the top speed. Consider it money well spent.
The 300M shares its engine -- which debuted on the Plymouth Prowler -- with the LHS. The 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve V6 makes good on the performance promise, churning out 253 horsepower @ 6400 rpm and 255 foot-pounds of torque @ 3950 rpm. To quote Chrysler, "That's more torque and horsepower than the BMW M3, Ford Taurus SHO, Lexus GS300 or Mercedes E320, and many other engines in vehicles sold in North America." We couldn't have said it better ourselves, except to point out that "many other engines" include a few V8s.
Exports will get a slightly de-tuned 251 horses and 251 foot-pounds of torque. Also available overseas is the 2.7-liter V6 from the Concorde/Intrepid sedans, which still provides 200 horsepower and plenty of torque. But since little would be left to distinguish a 300M from a Concorde (under the skin, that is), Americans can only get the performance-enhanced 300M. And that's fine by us.
The LH series family traits are apparent in the cars' 113-inch wheelbase, also shared with the Concorde/Intrepid and LHS. All of these cars were developed with the help of Chrysler's computer drafting system, which allowed the total development time to be cut significantly. We can almost picture the morph sequence from Concorde to LHS to 300M.
Inside the 300M and LHS, the LH family resemblance is even more apparent; they're virtually identical. Both have powered and heated front seats (leather), three central air vents, identical center stack controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a long slab of fake wood trim, and the same instrument panel. The LHS adds another three inches of rear seat legroom, and the 300M has a shorter rear window because of the higher rear deck.
Special to the 300M and LHS are glow-in-the-dark gauges that resemble the Timex Indiglo watch: black numbers on a green background. These gauges are the industry's coolest, rivaling the "hovering" look of the new Corvette's nighttime instrument panel. Even the centrally-located analog clock glows green at night, though it's not made by Timex.
Without the "soul" and heritage of the 300M, the LHS has undergone quite a transformation during its one-year hiatus. The '97 LHS (the last year the car was sold) featured a six-cylinder motor, but one with a relatively anemic 214 horsepower output. While wheelbase measurements are identical between the former and current cars, the previous LHS was 207.4 inches long, weighed over 3,600 lbs., and luggage capacity was 17.9 cubic feet.
Each aspect of the new LHS has been improved. In addition to the extra 39 horsepower, the LHS sheds over 20 lbs. for even better use of available power (and is only 20 lbs. heavier than the 300M). The new car is a smidgen longer and offers almost one extra foot of luggage space compared to its 1997 ancestor. The appearance has also changed dramatically and for the better. We love how this car looks. But best of all? The 1999 LHS is less expensive than the vehicle it replaces.
Compared to the 300M, the LHS is not such a dramatic improvement. In fact, it's a step down in performance, because the variable-assisted steering transmits less feedback from the ground. A lower trunk height is appreciated, ecause once again, it's possible to see while backing up. An extra hundred bucks (the premium of an LHS over the 300M) buys a prettier (to our eyes) front fascia, an extra 10 inches of length, a regular (non-AutoStick) automatic transmission, and a more cushioned ride. Not bad for a hundred bucks.
From inside, it's hard to distinguish the two cars except for the lack of AutoStick in the LHS. The LHS gets Chrysler "wings" around the centrally-located clock, but that's the only real clue as to what you're driving. Our test car came with a tan interior with a light-colored dash, which didn't blend well with the black plastic at the base of the windshield. The contrast in dash plastics brought an equally contrasting glare to the windshield, something we could live without.
Driving the LHS is less exciting than driving the 300M, and that's due in part to an extra-loose suspension that allows the car to roll easily from side to side in turns. Gun the throttle through a slow curve, and watch out for some steering correction. That's not going to happen in the 300M, but the 300M is built for drivers who want better handling. The LHS is more for the luxury buyer, or someone who doesn't care so much for slalom racing. But on the highways, the LHS is right at home, and makes for a very comfortable long-distance runner.
The 300M is the more athletic of the two, but not by a gaping margin. Both cars can be fun to drive. They come standard with four-wheel antilock brakes, a four-wheel independent suspension and an engine that's by far the best in its class. nd if near-luxury is too dear for your budget, there's always the familial Concorde or Intrepid to fit the bill.
Chrysler's building some tempting automobiles these days, and the new LH-series cars are making a case for themselves. We'd almost want to own one, except they're not offered with the one feature that every true sports sedan must possess: a manual transmission. Oh well. Nobody's perfect. With 253 horsepower, three different suspension settings to choose from, ravaging good looks, luxurious accouterments and an MSRP of less than $30,000, the new LH cars are about as close to perfect as we could ask a sedan to be. In the near-luxury sedan segment, Chrysler is poised to take on the world.
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