DaimlerChrysler has set an aggressive sales goal for its Chrysler brand. During the past decade, sales have increased nearly four times the 1991 total sales figure, and Chrysler doesn't intend to rest on its laurels anytime soon. Instead, it believes it can boost sales another 40 percent by the end of 2004. How? By introducing exciting new models that capture the public's attention in segments and price ranges that Chrysler has never attempted in the past. The Crossfire is just such a car. With its rakish good looks and healthy dose of German engineering courtesy of corporate cousin Mercedes-Benz, the Crossfire is poised to remake Chrysler's image in a bold new way.
Twenty-four short months ago, Chrysler proudly unveiled the Crossfire concept car at the 2001 North American International Auto Show. After garnering favorable reaction from the automotive press and consumers alike, it was put on the fast track -- scheduled to start production for the 2004 model year. Chrysler's engineering team got busy immediately, and the production version was unveiled at the 2002 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Chrysler believes the Crossfire coupe will attract new buyers -- consumers who have traditionally purchased luxury import models. Reaping the benefits of its Mercedes-Benz corporate ties, the Crossfire is the first true Mercedes-Chrysler collaborative effort, featuring 39 percent Mercedes-Benz technology. That figure alone should catch established import buyers' attention.
The Crossfire name is derived from one of its many distinctive design cues -- the character line that runs along the Crossfire's sides from front to rear. The "X" that is created when the line crosses to a negative formation as it moves through the car's rear fender is the "cross." Since the name "Crossover" wasn't an option, the Chrysler engineers joked, Crossfire seemed to fit Chrysler's hope for the sports car's success.
Other interesting design elements that enhance the car's windswept look are the six "speed" lines that run the length of the car's hood, and the center spine line that moves over the length of not only the exterior, but through the interior as well. Interior lines were set to focus attention down the road, and the distinctive center line even cuts through the center console.
The Crossfire's high belt line was designed to minimize glass surfaces and give the driver a feeling of being inside a protected cockpit instead of in an average car. Chrysler Senior Designer Glenn Abbott says, "This is a car that you wear, not just ride in." Abbott adds, "The soul of a sports car is how the body relates to the wheels," and the Crossfire was designed to sport cast-aluminum rear wheels that are slightly larger than the front wheels in order to give the rear-wheel-drive car a more aggressive stance.
Other unique styling elements include metallic-finished side air louvers and a retractable spoiler that pops up to improve stability when the Crossfire hits 60 miles per hour. The Crossfire's spoiler is a first for Chrysler, and a mark of its intention for the Crossfire to be regarded as a true sports car. The monotone exterior is finished with satin silver door handles, and a new chrome Chrysler winged emblem caps the entire width of the vehicle's large front grille.
With a 3.2-liter, SOHC V6 engine that produces 215 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, the Crossfire is more than just a looker. The standard six-speed manual transmission can be replaced with an optional five-speed adaptive automatic instead, but after experiencing both versions, we recommend the six-speed manual, if only because it's more exciting to work your way through all six gears in true sports car fashion.
Like the Mercedes' SLK roadster, with which it shares its engine, the Crossfire is quick on its feet but certainly not fast. There's a good strong pull off the line, but after that the engine's power curve flattens out quickly. The delivery is smooth throughout, however, and the slick shifting six-speed makes it fun to mix up the gears to keep it primed and ready.
The Crossfire relies on old-tech recirculating ball steering instead of the more modern rack-and-pinion setup favored by most new cars. We didn't feel cheated by the dated technology since the steering was precise as we wound through the turns on our test-drive route, taking each twist as quickly as the wet pavement would allow. The standard Electronic Stability Control and all-speed traction control ensured that even if the tires did begin to slip we weren't likely to notice it.
Chrysler claims that this joint European/American-developed vehicle is twice as stiff as a Porsche Boxster, and even stiffer than a Porsche 911. We agree that the sports car handles well, and we're also grateful that the rigidity and handling prowess don't translate into a jaw-jarring experience. The Crossfire's touring suspension provided a far more comfortable ride than our current long-term 350Z Track model. The Crossfire is a car in which you could eagerly offer your grandmother a ride, without worrying about the excessive wear and tear on her dentures.
Grandma would appreciate the Crossfire's interior as well, as it's easy to slide into the leather high-backed bucket seats, emblazoned with the Chrysler logo. The handsome two-tone leather cockpit with metallic trim screams Mercedes-Benz, while the heated eight-way power driver's and four-way power passenger's chairs offer wide, flat seating areas. There is too little lower bolstering for our curve-hugging taste, but the supportive seat backs allow both the driver and passenger to remain comfortable -- although taller passengers may find the 7.6 inches of seat travel a little short.
Other cabin amenities include power one-touch down windows for the driver and passenger, a telescoping steering column, dual-zone semiautomatic air conditioning and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. When planning a weekend getaway in the Crossfire, better pack light. The 7.6 cubic feet of cargo space won't hold more than a couple of suitcases, but then, such is the reality when choosing to drive a two-seater coupe.
With a substantial list of standard equipment, Crossfire options are few, or actually, just two: a five-speed automatic transmission instead of six-speed manual or Continental all-season tires instead of the standard Michelin performance rubber. Chrysler says the performance tires are unique to the Crossfire, and the new all-season tires are the first factory offered Z-rated (for higher speed) all-season tires on the market.
With first-class looks and fine handling characteristics, the Crossfire is sure to turn even the most jaded import loyalists' heads. Although pricing has yet to be announced, the fact that the Crossfire will be built using a significant percentage of Mercedes-quality components means that it will probably cost more than the average Chrysler buyer is used to spending. But even though we feel the Crossfire will be well worth the premium, the elevation of the Chrysler brand is unlikely to come without a noticeable increase in price.
Crossfire production began in Germany this past January, with the factory building both right- and left-hand drive vehicles to be sold worldwide. The sport coupe goes on sale simultaneously this summer in both the United States and Germany.
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