This is a great time to be a convertible enthusiast. The array of open-air automobiles is the best it has been in decades. And one category in particular, the two-seat roadster, made a strong comeback during the mid-'90s with most entries coming from Germany. The Audi TT, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class and Porsche Boxster are a tantalizing quartet offered up by the Fatherland. And for 2005, a Yank jumps into the fray.
Actually, the Chrysler Crossfire isn't exactly a red-blooded American car, as it is a product of the DaimlerChrysler joint venture. This means that the Crossfire benefits from both German engineering (courtesy of Mercedes-Benz) and American style. Many of the Crossfire's components (such as the 3.2-liter, 215-horsepower V6) are sourced from Mercedes, while others (such as the body design) were born in the U.S.A.
When we heard that Chrysler was going to make a convertible version of the Crossfire, we were of two minds. On one hand, we think drop tops are great, so why should the Germans have a monopoly on midpriced roadsters? On the other, we were wondering design-wise how a car that debuted as a coupe with a fastback roofline would translate into a roadster. It turns out that we needn't have fretted; the designers and engineers did a fantastic job with the Crossfire Roadster.
With the top down, the lines of the Crossfire flow elegantly through the rear deck, which incorporates a pair of head fairings and "sport bars." A tapered rear end, while not quite a boat tail design, adds an elegant finish to the Crossfire. Up front, the Roadster shares its aggressive grille and headlight treatment with the coupe. Even with the roof up, the Crossfire Roadster is still a looker, as the cloth top smoothly slopes down to the car's body. But be careful when parallel parking with the top up, as rearward visibility is quite limited -- the back window is so small that it reminded us of an old Lincoln Continental's oval opera window.
Dropping that power top is a cinch: 1) pull the center-mounted handle down from the windshield header and give it a twist (which releases the catch and lowers the windows), 2) push the handle up about eight inches, 3) press a button on the center console and watch the top fold down under the power tonneau cover. This electrohydraulic choreography takes only 22 seconds and because of the automatic tonneau cover, there's no need to thumb wrestle with a fussy boot to protect the top when it's down. Like the coupe, a rear spoiler deploys at speed (or at the press of a console-mounted button) and big wheels (18 inches in front, 19 inches in back) are stuffed into the wheel wells.
For those familiar with the Crossfire coupe, the cockpit of the Roadster holds few surprises. Except for the top (which, unlike some of its competition is fully lined inside), the Roadster's interior sports the same "spine" theme in which a central ridge that originates on the hood is carried through the dash, center console and even the gearshift knob before it emerges onto the rear deck. The wide seats proved comfortable and thanks to firm side bolstering, held us in place while cornering.
There will be three Crossfire Roadsters offered -- base (which comes with dual-zone climate control, a power-operated top, ABS, traction control and stability control); Limited (which adds leather/heated seating, fog lamps, a universal garage door control, special luggage and a tire pressure monitor); and SRT-6, the hot-rod of the family that features a supercharged version of the V6 that kicks out 330 horses. Pricing will range from $34,960 for the base Roadster to $49,995 for the SRT-6. The first two trims offer buyers a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic with manual-shift capability, while the SRT-6 comes solely with a massaged five-speed automatic.
The Mercedes-sourced 3.2-liter V6 used in base and Limited trim levels is rated at 215-horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. We drove both manual and automatic transmission versions of the car and were generally impressed with overall performance of the powertrain. Although a little soft off the line, the V6 furnishes perky response once the tach's needle swings past 3,000 rpm and packs a strong passing-power punch. As far as the transmissions go, the six-speed's gearshift was precise, if a bit rubbery-feeling. Although our time with an automatic was limited, we noted quick, lurch-free changes up and down. Hauling down the Crossfire in fine and confidence-inspiring fashion, the powerful binders felt as capable as Chrysler claimed (the company states that 60-to-0 stops take just 115 feet, which jibes with a 117-foot effort we got from a coupe we tested previously).
Blessed with quick steering (although lacking somewhat in feel), sticky tires, a flat cornering attitude and a supple suspension that soaks up the bumps without feeling floaty, the Crossfire Roadster also impressed us with its structural integrity. We detected virtually no cowl or body shudder when we purposely ran the car over the most broken-up pavement we could find.
On this press event, Chrysler provided the Crossfire's chief competitors in the form of the Nissan 350Z Roadster, Porsche Boxster and Audi TT Roadster. We thought that said a lot about how confident the company must be with its product; this isn't common practice. We took those other cars for quick loops after our day with the Crossfire, and as expected, they all had their strengths and weaknesses. The Z is a blast to drive, but the bland interior and unfinished underside of the ragtop can leave you cold. The Boxster is also a lot of fun and sounds great, too, but it has a sticker that can quickly become alarming when just a handful of options are ticked off. And the TT is solid and artfully crafted, but some may argue that it's getting dated and isn't as sporty as the others. Within that group, we feel that the Chrysler made a fine showing for itself. The Crossfire provides generous amounts of performance, style and comfort, not to mention proof that the Daimler and Chrysler merger can indeed bear very tasty fruit.