Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
You might be asking yourself, "When was the last time Chrysler offered a model with a starting price above $34,000?"
OK, maybe you've never asked yourself, or anyone else, that question. But that's the first query that sprang to mind upon learning what the all-new 2004 Crossfire would cost. Oh sure, you can make a Chrysler Town & Country (or even a Dodge Grand Caravan) cost over $35,000. And by the time we stopped checking options on our long-term Pacifica, its MSRP had ballooned to over $41,000.
But the answer to that question is, of course, the Chrysler Prowler, which rang in at a pricey $45,400 for its final year of production (2002). However, since that car started out as a Plymouth model and was simply rebadged when the Plymouth brand retired, I would suggest even the Prowler shouldn't count as a true Chrysler vehicle.
Regardless of the convoluted branding and the elimination and repositioning of various Mopar divisions in recent years, the fact remains that $34,995 is probably more than most people would expect to pay for a Chrysler product. But if the Chrysler in question is really a rebodied SLK, does that help justify its MSRP? The SLK starts at over $40,000, and that version doesn't come with a 3.2-liter V6 (it's a 2.3-liter supercharged four-cylinder instead), though it does include a retractable hardtop that permits open-air driving.
After spending a week with the Crossfire we can assure you that, even if it's not a screaming bargain, it's definitely not a bad deal. For your $35,000, you get styling that is as arresting and unique as the aforementioned Prowler for $10,000 less. This car generated plenty of interest even in car-snobby Los Angeles. Better still (from Chrysler's point of view), several people were happily surprised by our answer when they asked "How much does it cost?"
And if that was the reaction from people who had merely seen the Crossfire, there should be plenty of smiling shoppers as the vehicle makes its way into dealer showrooms and the test-drives begin. We fully expected the Crossfire to feel like its SLK cousin, and it did. But because of the larger wheels (18 inches in front, 19 inches out back) and increased body stiffness (remember, no folding top), the Chrysler version has a considerably crisper demeanor when driven with enthusiasm along a canyon road. In fact, dynamically the car was nearly as impressive as a BMW Z4 or Boxster, and it felt far more confident than any Audi TT.
The "nearly" part of the above statement comes from the slightly numb steering. Everything needs to be kept in perspective, and the Crossfire's steering is certainly not as lifeless as a large truck or SUV. But when held up to the standards set by its likely competitors (Boxster, Z4, S2000) it doesn't quite deliver. Weighting is about right and there's no on-center dead spot, but it doesn't transmit the same subtle sensations that Porsche and BMW can deliver through the steering wheel rims. Considering its recirculating-ball design, (Porsche and BMW use rack-and-pinion) we can't say we're surprised, but it's unfortunate that this element keeps the Crossfire from being every bit as entertaining as its German competition.
In addition to its steering response, there's one other aspect of the Crossfire's performance that holds it back from true greatness. Chrysler describes the car as "Where Route 66 Meets the Autobahn," but we're certain that when Buzz and Todd hit the go pedal on their V8-powered 1960 Corvette it responded with more low-rpm urgency than the Crossfire's 3.2-liter V6. As with the steering feel, low-end torque isn't atrocious, but BMW somehow manages to make the Z4 feel quicker with a 2.5-liter engine, and the 3.0-liter Z4 positively screams. Why does the 3.2-liter in the Crossfire have to feel anemic below 3,000 rpm? Put simply -- we wish the car had a bit more Route 66 (or BMW's version of the autobahn) under the hood.
Thankfully, the engine's midrange power is superb, and because of its refined and willing nature (undoubtedly far better than that old 'Vette), it can be great fun to find a twisty section of road, put the car in third gear and simply jump between the gas and brake pedal as the car rapidly slings itself from apex to apex. And speaking of gears, the six-speed manual is one of the best you'll encounter at this price point. Throws are a tad longer than in the S2000, and one editor felt there was too much resistance when swapping gears. But most of our staff thoroughly enjoyed working the shifter while keeping the engine in its midrange sweet zone (between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm). Downshifts came easy due to the excellent synchros, and the real metal shift knob further adds to the car's upscale aspirations.
Our on-road assessment of engine performance was confirmed at the track, where the Crossfire managed a respectable 6.9-second 0-to-60-mph time; however, the Z4 2.5i we tested a few months back managed to hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. It also cleared the quarter-mile in 15 seconds flat, while the Crossfire needed 15.1 seconds. Even these relatively close acceleration numbers don't tell the whole story. When you're traveling at freeway speeds, and the engine is loping along at 2,500 rpm, you don't really want to have to shift just to maintain speed up a slight grade, but in the Crossfire you either downshift or watch the speedometer slowly unwind.
We're certain we could have cut our acceleration numbers by spinning the tires off the line and keeping the engine's rpm up, but with the super-sticky 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport rear tires sized at 255/35, spinning said tires off the line was not an option, regardless of launch technique. Those 19-inch rear wheels likely contributed to the engine's low-rpm woes, and they would explain why the SLK (which uses 16-inch wheels with less rotational inertia) never feels as weak at low rpm, despite utilizing the exact same drivetrain.
The flip side of having such large rolling stock is that the car's stability through our slalom course was among the best we've experienced. Its average speed of 65 mph misses the benchmark set by the Z4 (67.1) by a few mph, but just beats the last Boxster S we tested (64.6). We also liked the calibration of the stability control system, which was subtle and unobtrusive during slalom testing (though we did have to turn it off to get our best times). And, as mentioned earlier, all of these performance characteristics translate into a thrilling ride on twisty roads...as long as you keep the engine in its midrange sweet zone.
If you're considering a Crossfire for reasons beyond pure performance, you'll be pleasantly surprised by its comfortable and quiet cabin. Entry and exit take some getting used to because of the low roof that curves down to meet the side windows, but once inside headroom is plentiful due to the car's domed shape (think TT here). Outward visibility is another worry some might have when viewing the Crossfire's low, swoopy shape. Our first impression was that outward visibility equated to that of a military tank, but our primary driver reported that, after a short acclimation period, maneuvering the car through heavy L.A. traffic wasn't nearly as tricky as he first expected. The rearview mirrors do an excellent job of filling in the blind spots, and at just under 160 inches long (a Z4 is 161.1 inches long, a 350Z is 169.6 inches) the car is easy to slide through tight spots.
Those same Michelin Pilot tires that give the car substantial stick around corners are also silent at highway speeds. In fact, with the exception of some very light wind noise from the A-pillar area, the Crossfire is whisper quiet at 75 mph. The one problem with having such a serene cabin is that the car's rear spoiler, which goes up at about 50 mph and drops down around 39 mph, makes an audible whine as the motor deploys and retracts the rear wing. If the cabin weren't so quiet, the motor wouldn't seem so intrusive. A switch on the center console allows for putting the spoiler up manually and keeping it there -- regardless of speed. If your commute involves regularly going between 35 and 50 mph, you might want to utilize this switch.
Seat comfort lives up to the car's premium nature. The leather feels high grade and the range of adjustments in seat height and fore/aft location makes finding the right driving position easy for a variety of body types. We did note that the steering wheel only telescopes -- no tilting. But again, by playing with seat height and seat back angle every editor who drove the Crossfire (ranging in height from 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 2) found a position that suited them.
The cabin itself displays much of the same "linear" themes seen on the coupe's outer shell. The interior door pulls are long, narrow handles that, unfortunately, are covered by silver plastic. A line runs down the center of the dash, and along the center of the headliner, to echo those found on the hood and roof. Interior materials all have a premium look, but, as with the interior door pulls, running your hand along the center stack or over the climate control dials reveals the true nature of this "metallic plastic." It measures up well when compared to the Nissan 350Z's center stack but, with the exception of the brushed metal shift knob, falls far short of what Audi uses in its TT.
Interior controls display a combination of Chrysler and Mercedes parts bin raiding. The power seat controls, turn signal stalk and cruise control stalk are all clearly Benz bits, but the dials for the climate control (which is dual-zone but not automatic) feel more Sebring than C-Class. The upper dash and door panels display a texture that looks rather coarse for a premium-grade vehicle, but nearly every interior surface (with the exception of the aforementioned center stack and door pulls) is soft-touch. The power windows operate with a Mercedes-like refinement, but the switches, located on the center console, felt "backward" to most staffers -- meaning you push down on the back of the switch to raise them, and you push down on the front part to lower them. At least they featured one-touch operation.
Storage space is about typical for this segment, meaning not much. There are small nets on both doors, and the glovebox, while featuring a large opening, only offers a small amount of useful space. The center console does have a decent-size bin near the back, but you really have to reach behind the seats to access it. There's also a small pouch on the bulkhead that separates the seating area from the cargo area. The cargo hold itself offers 7.6 cubic feet of space, but accessing it through the rear hatch isn't easy because of the narrow opening and high liftover.
Other areas that could be improved include the one cupholder that deploys from the center console. It's hard to operate, feels excessively cheap and blocks access to the shifter when deployed. And, interestingly, while the car is a combination of Mercedes and Chrysler parts, the audio system's head unit looks like it's right out of a Porsche 911. Too bad we hate the 911's head unit, and our opinion remains consistent when the same system shows up in a Chrysler-badged vehicle. You can read all about it in our stereo review.
We have to give Daimler-Benz credit for what seems like a solid business plan. Take the outgoing Mercedes mechanicals (the SLK gets redesigned next year) and slide them under all-new bodies with Chrysler emblems. As the Crossfire (and Pacifica) proves, even Mercedes' "leftovers" feel as good or better than many of the competitors' state-of-the-art platforms. Mercedes gets to further amortize the SLK's original platform costs, Chrysler gets an all-new model with exceptional ride and handling qualities and the consumer gets a premium-feeling product for $35,000. Even more compelling is the fact that Chrysler already has a convertible version of the Crossfire in the works. Makes sense really when you consider the original platform started out as a drop top.
We wish the Crossfire had more low-end torque, slightly better steering feel and less plastic in the cabin, but we can't deny how much fun the car was on twisty roads, or how upscale it felt when cruising along at freeway speeds. We also can't deny the surprised expressions from mesmerized onlookers when we told them how much the car cost.
So despite all the internal infighting, quarterly red ink and lingering lawsuits from angry stockholders, this whole "merger of equals" thing might just pan out. And even if it doesn't, the Crossfire is proof that we'll see some interesting product in the meantime.
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