With roughly 2.3-million units sold every year in the midsize sedan segment where the 200 lives, even tallying 125,476 sales in 2012 (when the 200 was the best-selling car in the Chrysler Group) was never going to be enough. This is the brand's volume offering and the entry point for new-car buyers before they move up to something like a full-size or a crossover. Chrysler's 2011 facelift and rebranding program was a pretty valiant attempt at putting lipstick on a Sebring, but the automaker needed to do a lot better, in every way to command more consideration, sales, respect and resale value – and everyone at The Pentastar knew it.
Enter the 2015 Chrysler 200. This is the sedan that "charts a new course for the Chrysler brand," from its hovering wing badge on the grille to the one billion dollars invested in the company's suburban Detroit Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, including more than doubling the number of quality control inspectors in the new quality assurance center.
Since I've never been in a 200 before, I can't tell you how much better this new model is compared to the sedan it replaces. But that's alright, because Chrysler didn't need to just make a better 200, it needed to make a midsize sedan that belongs in the segment, one that can legitimately rival models like the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Mazda6, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. Turns out the 2015 200 is an auspicious start on that new course: the new 200 is good, and comes ready for battle.
Four models will inaugurate the new lineup, those being the LX, Limited, S and C. The Limited is expected to be the volume model, separating itself from the entry-level LX with features like xenon headlights and 17-inch alloys instead of steel wheels and covers, but even the LX gets Keyless Go and pushbutton start. The 200S goes the sporty route, losing exterior brightwork for dark trim and swapping interior brightwork for more muted satin chrome, getting dual exhaust tip finishers no matter which engine goes up front, a uniquely tuned suspension and standard 18-inch wheels instead of the 17-inchers on other trims (19-inch Hyper Black wheels are optional). The 200C takes the premium road, adding more amenities like dual-zone climate control and remote start.
They all have the same skin, but not everyone is convinced by their new looks. I like it, especially in the Velvet Red Pearl – one of 11 exterior colors – and even more especially in person. The front is substantially wide and distinctive, with the Chrysler wing badge laid atop mesh in the upper grille and brightwork separating the upper and lower intakes. That shiny trim is another new design theme, sliding up, over and around the edges of the headlights. Halogen Daytime Running Lamps will come standard, but LED DRLs and fog lights are optional, with those DRLs creating a curved, lower rim inside the housing. To keep the headlights simple, designers have moved the side marker lamps to the lips on the wheel flares. All this, I am told, "is the new face of the Chrysler brand."
All this, I am told, "is the new face of the Chrysler brand."
But the front isn't my favorite angle because it doesn't represent the volume of the entire package. I think things get good when taking it in from front to back – a fulsome, rising wedge that falls into a profiled, fastback-like rear end carved into dimension from front fender to flanks by deep, sculpted lines the whole way. This is a sedan that's been designed. And those split five-spoke wheels are sweetness.
The money shot is the rear three-quarter, though. Chrysler said that that's the angle that sold higher-ups on the design; once they saw a sketch of the rear three-quarter view, the design went straight to a fullsize model. There are all kinds of European sedans back there, to go with the fair bit of modern Korea in the whole car's chiseled drama. Width is also a theme, as well as aerodynamics: the decklid has an integrated spoiler and Chrysler claims this 200 is the most aerodynamic car in its segment.
Another big bet has been made inside, and my opinion is again that it pays off. The heart of the redesign is a new floating center console where you'll find the rotary dial to control the nine-speed transmission next to the tiny lever for the electronic parking brake. Above them, you'll find Chrysler's multimedia center, occupied by either a five-inch touchscreen or the 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen. The materials, fit and finish are all very good, with the layout of controls easy to comprehend for the first-time 200 driver. My only aesthetic nitpick is that cars fitted with the smaller touchscreen include an awkward expanse of bezel.
The money shot is the rear three-quarter – Chrysler said that that's the angle that sold higher-ups on the design.
There's plenty of room inside both for occupants and their things; I was easily able to slide into the rear bench behind the driver's seat set to my preferred position. Getting rid of linkages has opened up a ton of room, which Chrysler's designers have passed along to you. There's a large, open area underneath the center console bridge as you might find on a Volvo, and via a pass-through, it's connected to a huge storage area in the center tunnel accessed by sliding back the cupholders. That cubby has inputs for USB and AUX connections, and a second 12-volt outlet – the passenger gets her own 12V outlet in her footwell. The glove compartment is large enough to hold an iPad or a small laptop and the door pockets can hold 20-ounce bottles.
The materials and quality story spreads from there, with the design guide being layered surfaces like the door window switches and infotainment screen laid up on available open-pore wood, soft vinyl along the top of the instrument panel and softer, leather-like surfaces lining touchpoints like the door and center armrests. Interesting color packages not unlike those on the Grand Cherokee, are said to be inspired by cities: New York's Fifth Avenue for the blacks, Sausalito for the two-tone line and black, Detroit for the black and Ambassador Blue that's reserved for the 200S.
The driver grips a new, thick steering wheel, behind which is a dash cluster awash in blue light that's either got a five-inch or seven-inch reconfigurable TFT screen. If you've ordered all of the options, you'll find that steering wheel awash in buttons to control the dash screen, phone and cruise control on its face, with audio controls on the back of the spokes. For the first time, if you check the correct box, you'll also find paddle shifters for closer control of that nine-speed automatic.
The materials, fit and finish are all very good, with the layout of controls easy to comprehend.
The default engine is the 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque, and the whip cream motor is a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with 295 hp and 262 lb-ft. Aided by aerodynamic advances and the nine-speed transmission with adaptive shifting, the Tigershark is said to be good for a 13-percent improvement in fuel economy over the current 200, with estimated highway fuel economy ringing in at 35 miles per gallon. The Pentastar goes better by seven percent in the mpg department compared to the six-cylinder offering in the exiting car.
Every trim will feature a standard nine-speed transmission at its disposal, with power sent to the front wheels unless all-wheel drive is chosen. The AWD comes into play on an as-needed basis, sending up to 60 percent of torque to the rear wheels when necessary. The system utilizes the same principle but simpler mechanicals than the Jeep Cherokee, with both the one-speed power transfer unit and a rear-driveshaft module disconnecting when the situation allows, decreasing parasitic losses. Sport mode on the 200S and 200C takes advantage of the AWD with the aim of better traction and handling, and it's able to send almost half the torque to the rear wheels while sharpening the steering, shift points, yaw control and stability control.
Every trim will feature a standard nine-speed transmission at its disposal, with power sent to the front wheels unless all-wheel drive is chosen.
Take your place in the driver's seat and head down the road, and the 200 feels like a proper offering in the segment. The 200S was fine, but didn't distinguish itself with noteworthy sportiness. Chrysler says the 200 features a quicker rack than its competition, but it's not quick enough that it was appreciably happier on the region's Kentucky roads. Further, for a sedan specifically being sold as the line's athletic proposition, the nine-speed transmission took longer to downshift than I would have expected and it was always a two-step process, kicking down one or two gears before realizing you really wanted to get on it, then kicking down one or two more. Gently curving back roads in and around the suburbs are not the place to test Nth-degree handling, so if the Sport has deeper handling tricks, I wasn't able to explore them. Using the paddle shifters enhanced its responses, but you could do the same thing on the 200C and get the extra luxury (yes, for the extra price).
The LX doesn't have Sport mode, a low-range mode takes its place. Nor does it have the special suspension tuning, but all 200 models benefit from the stiffening measures applied to the Alfa Romeo-derived Compact US Wide platform: the body that's 60-percent high-strength steel, with a massive aluminum cradle crossing under the engine between the front suspension points and the rear multilink suspension being held in its own isolate cradle. There's enough room in its footwells to raise a family. The LX I drove with the Tigershark engine was a scrappy puncher, with less power than the V6-powered 200S, yet it felt almost as sporty because it was so eager, so game to make the effort. It's got a good exhaust note under acceleration, but under partial throttle it sounds a little... how do I say... Dustbuster-y. Those are the only darker notes, and it's a fine entrant at the bargain end with an efficient ride and pleasant control of wind noise. To have an MSRP $95 cheaper than the sedan it replaces is nothing short of shocking.
The 200C is a welcome ride, notably when loaded up with goodies. Its electrically assisted power steering is light on feeling but accurate, acceleration is chirpy and the controls all operate as someone who enjoys driving would want them to. Throw in the linen leather with bronze accents and Uconnect, and you've got a car that has many of the same features found on the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class I drove a few weeks ago, save for seats that look a lot more huggy than they actually are. Strangely, the model I drove had two cruise control systems – when you order Adaptive Cruise Control, it gets installed on top of the regular version. Press the large button on the right steering wheel spoke to set the speed and you get 'dumb' cruise; use the small buttons at the bottom of the right spoke and you get adaptive cruise. I actually liked this a lot – regular cruise control was perfect for high-speed highway driving, while morning rush hour was great for adaptive cruise control; the Chrysler can brake itself to a complete stop in stop-and-go traffic.
Throw in the linen leather with bronze accents and Uconnect, and you've got a car that has many of the same features found on the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
On top of that, there's available automated parking assistance for parallel and perpendicular parking, Forward Collision Warning that can brake the car to a full stop, blind spot monitoring, rear cross path detection and lane departure warning. You can even send custom text messages via voice commands. There's an available backup camera that is better than nothing if you like them, but its resolution isn't impressive.
To help make its case, Chrysler brought four competitors to the event: a Ford Fusion Titanium AWD with a price of $38,470; a Honda Accord EX-L V6 costing $32,910; a 2014.5 Toyota Camry SE costing $25,215; and a Nissan Altima 2.5 SV for $25,500. I drove them all, and this is how I determined that they are the Chrysler's peers, not its betters. From worst to first, the Camry was regrettable – the first note I wrote after my drive loop was "Ugh." With feather-light controls, the Toyota struggled to get out of its own way under power, and it offered the worst wind and tire noise of the bunch. Even as basic as the Altima was, the Nissan's deep blacks and shiny chrome came across as a positive compared to the blandness of the Camry.
The Altima suffers from rubbery controls and some terrible plastics, but the cabin stays behaved when on the go. Still, for my (imaginary) money, neither it nor the Camry can touch the 200. Even in its most basic black, cloth-filled LX state, you still get the most important features of the highest-trim 200 – the stiffer platform and suspension tuning, the nine-speed transmission, the cabin roominess, the thick steering wheel, better materials and storage space, and an interior that is simply in another dimension compared to the Toyota and the Nissan. The LX is not a luxury car, but it doesn't force you to make all of the compromises the others do when you're on a very strict budget. Step up to the Limited and it's game over.
Being able to drive the competitors back-to-back proved that the 2015 Chrysler 200 very much belongs in the ring.
For me, the Fusion came second, its anemically thin and rock-hard steering wheel immediately forgiven by the solidness of its ride – it felt like a vault. But its MyFord Touch infotainment screen washed out completely in direct sunlight, and the flat bank of controls beneath it needed to be deciphered before use. Yes, it's handsome and roomy and rides well, but it didn't feel like Ford was trying as hard on the inside.
The Honda was the revelation. Even with its monochrome dash cluster and a lower screen that washes out completely in direct sunlight, it offered the best, gimmick-free interior among 200 competitors, the smoothest ride, the softest leather on its thick steering wheel, the best exhaust note and the best transmission responsiveness; you barely needed Sport mode because the Accord was always on alert for kickdown, even in Drive. Among the five midsize cars at the event, to my eyes, the Honda was the standard, but being able to drive all of them back-to-back proved that the 2015 Chrysler 200 very much belongs in the ring.
The looks will work for some people and not others, but if considered for its interior, refinement and available options, it stands tall on its own two feet.
Having recently started production, the 2015 200 will reach showrooms in Q2. As I said in the beginning, I've never been in a 200 before this press drive. That being the case, and driving its primary competitors on the same day and on the same roads, this first-timer's impression is that the 2015 Chrysler 200 is the sedan it finally needs to be. Yes, the looks will work for some people and not others, but if considered for its interior, refinement and available options, it stands tall on its own two feet. I give the Chrysler project team full credit for not just making a car better than the one before (which wouldn't have been that hard, based on what colleagues have said), but for also realizing they needed to make a car that could fight the competition and its own terrible reputation.
Even better than that: it can win.