That our 2-year-old daughter can sleep comfortably in the back of the 2011 Chrysler 300 while traversing the 405 freeway through West Los Angeles should hardly surprise us. Two-year-olds, after all, have a knack for being impervious to more than just road noise.
Still, having driven this section of freeway in many vehicles, we're well aware that there's more going on here than just a little road noise. The number-one lane -- situated only inches from the concrete center divider -- was never designed to be a lane at all.
Here, in what was once the median, remain drainage grates, square-edge intrusions and rises sharp enough to rival the Baja 1000's famous Ojos Negros section of road -- all on a first-world freeway. It is hardly safe. It is a ride engineer's worst nightmare. It is...our Sunday afternoon commute.
But it's more than just the 2-year-old's sleepy indifference that is significant in this scenario. Cruising down this median-turned-fast lane at 75 mph, the 300's chassis remains settled over all but the biggest hits. It's stable, tame, locked on the lane and virtually impenetrable to road and wind noise.
Later, at the test track, our over-the-road observations are confirmed by the instruments. The 300 registers only 61.5 decibels during a 70-mph cruise. That, friends, is quiet. How quiet? A BMW 750i registers 5 decibels higher at the same speed, while the $285,000 Bentley Mulsanne only managed to best the Chrysler by 1.4 decibels.
So it's ironic, then, that at $28,290 including destination, this base-trim 2011 Chrysler 300 costs less than 10 percent of the Mulsanne's head-spinning retail price. Our tester came with only one option -- the $295 Blackberry Pearl Coat paint -- and leaves off such niceties as, say, Bluetooth phone connectivity.
That's not to say the base 300 leaves you feeling stripped. This is a new car from a new Chrysler that understands there's no room for, well, getting it wrong -- or feeling cheap. The dead silence at freeway speeds and unruffled ride do much to bolster the sense of quality inside the 300. And it's no accident. Chrysler placed a premium on quietness in the development. There's a dual-pane windshield and front side glass as well as composite underbody sound-deadening panels, body cavity foam and triple door seals.
Chrysler is calling the 300 all-new for 2011, but it retains the same double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension design as the previous-generation car. The "new" part in this equation, then, comes in the form of geometry changes, tuning and new materials throughout.
The full-size domestic sedan once ruled the American roads. That was before SUV mania, before the minivan mattered and before the cost-cutting frenzy that ultimately served the Big Three a large helping of humility.
So, then, a redesigned full-size domestic sedan is a little difficult to place. Here are some numbers that help. The 2011 Chrysler 300 is 198.6 inches long and rides on a long 120.2-inch wheelbase. In overall length that's a few inches shorter than the Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus and about 7 inches longer than a Cadillac CTS sedan. However, and this is the difference that matters, its wheelbase is nearly 7 inches longer than the longest of those three -- the CTS (113.4 inches).
Front legroom is within a half inch of those cars, but the long wheelbase pays dividends in the rear seats, where the 300 offers 2 inches more than its closest domestic competition. The bottom line is that there's enough space to haul a real family. Even large adults won't have reason to whine in the 300's backseats.
Chrysler's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 resides under the hood of the base-model 300. With 292 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, there's more than enough oomph from this new engine to adequately motivate the 3,948-pound sedan through a five-speed manually shiftable automatic transmission.
At the track, the big Chrysler proved quick enough: 60 mph arrived in 7.1 seconds (6.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) while the quarter-mile was completed in 15.1 seconds at 94.2 mph -- both quicker than the last Ford Taurus we tested.
The V6 revs willingly and much of its power arrives above 5,000 rpm. This power delivery is fine at the track, but let us down in certain instances on the street. Moves to maintain position on the freeway sometimes require big dips into the throttle, and the 300's tall 2.65:1 final-drive ratio doesn't help, either.
That's the price you'll pay for a 27 mpg highway rating from the EPA (18 city/21 combined). We averaged 20.6 mpg over 944 miles of mixed driving. As a flex-fuel vehicle, the 300 is capable of operating on E85 as well, but fuel economy isn't as good.
At 118 feet, the 2011 Chrysler 300 stops shorter than most cars in its class from 60 mph. Pedal feel remained consistent during this test -- a somewhat rare occurrence in the class.
Genuine progress has been made not only in ride quality but also in the 300's handling abilities. Our test car circled the skid pad at 0.78g and found its way through the slalom cones at 62.2 mph.
Although it can't be fully disabled, the 300's stability control is lenient enough that there was only a 0.2-mph difference between it being on or off during slalom testing. There's ample body roll during all handling tests, but the car remains easy to control and is always kept in check by the electronics. For such a big sedan, the 300 is surprisingly capable.
And, despite being electrically assisted, the steering transmits relevant information about what's going on at the contact patch. In fact, it's better in this regard than some conventional systems. Sure, the wheel is big and so is the car, but like a big girl who can really dance, this a full-size car that can hustle if you need it to.
New Inside and Out
Although the previous 300 wasn't designed during Chrysler's darkest hours under Cerberus Capital Management, its interior was nothing special. Happily, this new cabin is a much nicer place to spend time. There are comfortable seats, attractive gauges, standard dual-zone climate control and acres of space. The steering wheel is a thick-rimmed, leather-covered piece that we were happy to touch every time we drove the car.
Everything fits together well, but a close look at the door panel will provide a sense of plastic awareness we'd prefer to avoid. The seat material in our base car looked good but we question if it will be durable -- especially in tan. Still, there are obvious modern touches -- like the 8.4-inch touchscreen display that controls HVAC and audio modes, media connectivity and functions like lighting and locking options.
Adequate and Then Some
Spend a day in a base 2011 Chrysler 300 and you won't remember it for what it does. There's no awe and no sense of unjustified luxury. There's no navigation system, no fancy leather seats (yes, both are available) and no overstyled interior missteps (not available). There's also nothing missing. And nothing wrong. Unlike many Chrysler products of recent years, this one doesn't leave us offended or depressed.
It is just a car. A properly engineered, adequately equipped, quiet, smooth-riding American sedan. It is utility uncluttered by pretension or gratuity. It also doesn't look half bad thanks to a subtle restyling.
But the 2-year-old didn't even notice the new headlights and probably won't remember anything -- especially the rough, loud world rocketing past in utter silence.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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