First Drive: 2011 Chrysler 200
Chrysler isn't into mincing words about the company's recent past. After years of corporate and product neglect, those at the helm of the smallest of the Big Three know that the company has a long way to go to regain buyer confidence. While a rash of new and revised models are hitting Jeep and Dodge show rooms over the next few months, it's clear that the company is beginning to gain momentum under the guidance of Fiat. But the models under the Silver Wing seem to be staring down the barrel of a more uncertain future. With plenty of product overlap with Dodge and a lack of any real brand cohesiveness, Chrysler has yet to yield any clear indication of progress away from the dark days of the company's past. As a result, buyers are having a hard time knowing what to make of the company or where it's headed.
Still, after Chrysler emerged from Chapter 11, it was clear that wherever the carmaker was going, the Sebring wasn't coming along for the ride. After a long, degrading life of rental car service and all out neglect from designers and engineers alike, the Sebring had mutated into a car that was a few leagues behind the competition, even when the third-generation bowed in 2007. To that end, Chrysler sent the Sebring name to the burn pile by revealing the 200 – a small sedan that rides on the same bones as its ill-fated predecessor but wears new sheet metal and a revised interior along with a slew of significantly reworked mechanical components. The result is the vehicle that Chrysler should have built in the first place – a competent economy cruiser with plenty of content even at lower trim levels. Is it enough to banish thoughts of the Sebring from our minds? We hopped behind the wheel to find out.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
One of the unfortunate realities of adolescence is that the teacher's pet always gets away with more than the mischievous child in the class. Once you've landed yourself on the troublemaker list, you're doomed to have to work twice as hard as your goody-two-shoes counterpart, which is exactly where the 200 finds itself right now. For years, the motoring press delighted in nothing more than condemning the vehicle's predecessor, so the 200 now has some serious ground to cover to prove itself a viable competitor in its segment. Part of that effort rests on the four-door's new exterior. Chrysler's designers did as much as they could to give the 200 its own personality by adding details like sculpted headlights with projection lenses and LED accents, and removing design elements like the odd striations on the old Sebring's hood.
In fact, everything from the A-pillar forward is all new. The front fascia is a much more mature design with subtle brightwork nestled down low and an attractive grille with blades that mirror the design of the new Silver Wing emblem. From the front, the look is, dare we say, attractive, though still a bit too anonymous.
That same level of handsomeness is carried around the rear of the 200, too, with sharp LED tail lamps, a cleaner rear fascia thanks to the license-plate bezel that's been moved to the vehicle's trunk lid, and small strips of shiny up top and down low. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the 200's rear end is paying the Jaguar XF quite a compliment.
Unfortunately, the 200 is hobbled by having the same roofline and side profile as its less-than-loved predecessor. That makes parallels between the two all but unavoidable. Additionally, while Chrysler did a smart thing by keeping the rear of the vehicle free of any badges other than the new Silver Wing, designers took the odd step of sticking unattractive chrome 200 emblems on the C pillars. Hopefully those issues will be ironed out once Chrysler gets the chance to rework the 200 from the ground up.
But for all of the tweaks to the vehicle's exterior, it's the interior that's been given the biggest revision. The harsh, Rubbermaid-style plastics of the Sebring have been nearly banished completely in favor of high-quality leather seats and soft-touch materials on the dash and door panels. The change is downright amazing and makes the 200 a perfectly acceptable contender instead of an also-ran.
That's not to say that every last element of the ghost of Sebring past has been exorcised. Oddly enough, Chrysler chose to continue to use both the same shifter and hand-brake lever as the old machine. With chunky, cheap-feeling plastics and visible injection-molding seams, these pieces feel out of place given the classed-up guise of the rest of the cabin. Swap those two pieces for nicer hardware, though, and you'd have a cabin that's a few light years ahead of its predecessor.
Chrysler says that its engineers and designers left no stone unturned on the mechanicals of the 200. The biggest change comes from the fact that buyers can now have their 200 with the company's excellent Pentastar V6 under the hood. With 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the engine makes all the difference in the vehicle's drivability. While the old 2.4-liter four-cylinder is still around, it's gotten no more smooth, powerful nor fuel-efficient. In fact, with the new six-speed automatic transmission, the V6 consumes just 29 mpg highway while the four-cylinder comes in at 31 mpg in the same cycle. We'll trade 2 mpg for over 100 additional horsepower any day of the week.
Technically, the bottom-rung 200 comes with the same four-speed automatic gearbox as the 2010 Sebring, though Chrysler says that option will make up just 5 percent of the total mix. We're guessing that the four-cylinder, four-speed combo is built for one thing and one thing only – rental car duty. Meanwhile, an optional six-speed automatic will take care of shifting duties for both the 2.4-liter and 3.6-liter engines, though eventually Chrysler says it plans to unveil an optional six-speed dual-clutch transaxle just for the four-cylinder. We're hoping that the new transmission will make that engine both more livable and fuel-efficient when it debuts soon.
But Chrysler didn't just plop a new V6 under the hood and call it day. The company's engineers also took the time to give the vehicle's suspension a good going-through. As a result, the 200 sits nearly half an inch lower in the front and a quarter of an inch lower in the rear to help put the vehicle's center of gravity closer to the ground and improve handling. In addition, of the vehicle's 30 suspension bushings, 26 were re-engineered to provide a firmer ride and more feedback along with larger roll bars and stiffer springs and dampers. Throw in a steering rack with a quicker ratio, and you've got the essentials of a thoroughly-revised ride.
Our tester came with the potent 283-horsepower Pentastar V6 under the hood. With an extra 50 horsepower and 2 mpg highway over the outgoing 3.5-liter V6, the engine is exactly what the doctor ordered for the 200. Not surprisingly, there is some torque-steer under hard acceleration, but it's not nearly as much you'd expect. The power is always controllable without feeling like the steering wheel is going to wrestle its way out of your hands. With all of that extra grunt on tap, the sedan has the pep it needs to best traffic on the interstate, giving the whole vehicle a much more confident feeling. It's more than we expected.
Shifts from the six-speed automatic are smooth, though the logic isn't as quick as we'd like. We noticed a bit of a delay between the time that our foot went for the floor and when the gearbox actually began dropping cogs, but saw a similar action across the entire Chrysler line. Even so, the gearbox is a wonder of technology compared to the old four-speed disaster. We have to wonder why Chrysler is even bothering to offer the old tech in base trim.
Suspension-wise, the 200 is more sorted than the Sebring it replaces, but the engineers still have a good bit of work ahead of them. Handling is far from confident, with a cushy ride that still has plenty of slop compared to competitive metal. Even with those new bushings, stiffer springs and larger sway bars, the 200 delivers a good amount of body roll with a detached steering feel. We have to wonder, however, if buyers will even care given the now-nice interior and decent slew of standard equipment depending on trim level.
Chrysler also made some waves about how much quieter the interior of the 200 is supposed to be compared to the Sebring, though we noticed plenty of road and wind noise during our stint behind the wheel. More than once we found ourselves wondering if the front windows were open at the top, especially at interstate speeds.
Of course, it's easy to start digging at the details in the 200, but it pays to remember that this sedan carries a base MSRP of $19,995 with destination. Even in Limited trim, with that beefy V6 under the hood, the 200 will only set you back $24,495, complete with heated leather seats, the stylish 18-inch wheels of our tester and a 30-gig hard drive-based stereo. That means for all of its foibles, the 200 is a good value instead of just a cheap car. For us, that's the most impressive change of all for Chrysler's small sedan.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
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