So when it came time to attend the 2014 New York Auto Show this past April, I thought, "Why not drive?" Typically, the route from downtown Detroit to Manhattan is something like 10 hours, but I decided to bake some extra time into the journey and planned for the vast majority of my travels to be off the beaten path. Doing the "avoid expressways" route allows you to see parts of America you've never encountered before, and to meet people with stories and opinions that you've never heard. It's a great way to travel if you have the time. There's something uniquely serene about seeing the country in a great car on a great road.
Let's talk about that "great car" line for a moment. Ideally, long stretches of backroads are best done in something fast, comfortable and involving – a Porsche 911 comes to mind. Or, another school of thought says to pick some fun little spitfire like the always-lovely Mazda MX-5 Miata, for top-down, sun-drenched fun. But for this trip, I chose the 2015 Chrysler 200, in fully loaded S guise with all-wheel drive. Now, settle down; I'm not about to compare it to either the Porsche or Mazda. The point I'm making is this: after 1,500 test miles under my butt, I can emphatically state that the new 200 is indeed a great car in its own right.
In the interest of moving things along, I'll direct you over to my colleague Jonathon Ramsey's First Drive of the Chrysler 200, where all the nitty gritty specifications and details are listed, as well as his dissection of the car's design. To sum it up neatly, we think the 200 looks killer – especially in white with the dark accents of this S model, including the large, 19-inch Hyper Black aluminum wheels. I really dig the sloping roofline and almost Volkswagen CC-like rear end. That rear three-quarter view is my favorite, with the strong character line that extends over the back wheel wells, dropping off before the bumper. The front fascia is the one part of the design I'm not totally sold on; not because it looks bad – that's hardly the case – but because while the rest of the vehicle has plenty of defined shapes and lines, the schnoz just sort of all flows together to form one big round mass. Sleek, sure, but not as much so as the car's sides or rump.
We think the 200 looks killer – especially in white with the dark accents of this S model.
But man, does this thing turn heads on the road. Perhaps it was the fact that the 200 wasn't yet for sale – so it hadn't yet proliferated the roads of middle America like the outgoing model – but this sedan garnered a ton of attention from practically everyone who got a look at it. People honked and offered thumbs-up on the highway, older women and younger dudes ogled the Chrysler while parked at rest areas, and one particularly enthusiastic group of mildly intoxicated teenagers (yep) in rural Pennsylvania astutely summed up the 200's visuals as, "f*cking nice, dude." God Bless America.
There's one downfall to that swoopy design, though: interior space is compromised, mostly in the rear. Take the Honda Accord, for example – it offers 103.2 cubic feet of passenger volume compared to the 200's 101.4. That's not a huge differential in and of itself, but take a look at the rear headroom. In the Japanese sedan it measures out to 37.5 inches, while the Chrysler makes do just slightly less, 37.4, yet it feels significantly tighter, more like a Mercedes-Benz CLS (36.1) or Audi A7 (36.6), both cars renowned for their cramped but stylish rear quarters. That's because outward visibility and ingress and egress to the rear seats is tough, with even normal-sized passengers like your five-foot, seven-inch author bumping my head while climbing into the rear compartment. Rear legroom is fine, about an inch less than what's offered in the Honda, but because of that lack of perceived headroom and visibility, the rear seats feel decidedly cramped and un-family-sedan-like. Suffice it to say that the 200 will likely be purchased more by those with small children or no kids at all.
Interior space is compromised, mostly in the rear.
There's no shortage of space up front, though, where there's plenty of room for both driver and passenger. The steeply raked windshield and expansive dash sort of reminds of the cab-forward cars that Chrysler was famous for in the 1990s and early 2000s (you could all but sleep on the dashboard of a Dodge Intrepid), and thanks to its a relatively low beltline, the front compartment is spacious and airy. Comfy, too – after about a billion hours of seat time, I never grew tired of the driver's perch – an endlessly adjustable power chair that's nicely bolstered and trimmed with leather. Those front seats are both heated and cooled, too, and the steering wheel offers heat if you check the right option box. There are nooks and crannies everywhere for storage, and the cockpit's layout is easy to navigate while being quite stylish. Materials all feel great to the touch, with no glaringly cheap plastics or odd fit-and-finish issues to speak of, even in this pre-production tester.
The 200's ever-lovely UConnect infotainment system with its 8.4-inch touchscreen is great as ever, with a clean, nicely designed interface that's quick to respond to inputs. I firmly believe that, pretty as these new touchscreen systems can be, responsiveness is perhaps the most important factor for user engagement. MyFord Touch sure looks the business, but with its laggy response times and occasionally confusing menu structure, it makes for an infuriating setup. Not so in the Chrysler. And I have to say, I couldn't help but feel there was a funny juxtaposition of having all the in-car tech one could ever need while cruising through rural Amish country, carriages triggering the Chrysler's blind-spot monitoring system. The 200's massive amount of onboard technology and safety systems would indeed blow the minds of my horse-drawn road-mates; for folks who choose to embrace the full suite of gadgetry, the car boasts a setup that's immensely capable, functional and simple to use. Thus, it was a piece of cake for me to input my Manhattan hotel's address, and in the navigation options menu, select "avoid expressways."
Pretty as these new touchscreen systems can be, responsiveness is the most important factor for user engagement.
Full Disclosure: I didn't avoid all the highways on my journey, for a couple of reasons. First, Northern Ohio is already tremendously boring enough on its own, so spending more time hanging out with my Buckeye friends wasn't really high on my list of things to do (y'all are super nice, but man, your scenery is the pits). Second, traversing the area around metropolitan New York City was going to be a pain in the butt on its own, let alone having to navigate exclusively down side streets in an effort to finally get to my destination. But the entire state of Pennsylvania and most of New Jersey was all traveled off the express grid.
To put it plainly, the previous-generation 200 is perhaps one of the last cars I'd want for a backroad journey through Appalachia. This new version, on the other hand, is an infinitely better product all around. On the powertrain front, this 200S uses the same 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that's been offered before, putting out a healthy 295 horsepower at 6,350 rpm and 262 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm.
The previous 200 is perhaps one of the last cars I'd want for a backroad journey. This new version is an infinitely better product.
The newest feature here is the use of Chrysler's somewhat finicky nine-speed automatic transmission – a gearbox that, while smooth and well-matched with this powerplant once you've settled into a speed, can be a bit much at times. Basically, with that many gears all controlling the engine's power delivery, there's often a lot going on, especially in the mountains. The transmission never really seemed to find the correct gear for uphill and downhill jaunts. Using the steering wheel-mounted paddles helped things a great deal, as did the Sport mode found by turning the gear selector one notch over from "D" to "S," and it was really only on these hilly stretches that I found issue. When the road smoothed out back on highway, the trans snapped into action and kept the 200 cruising at low revs. There's something really gratifying about running at 80 miles per hour and having the engine turning over at less than 2,000 rpm.
On backroads, the powertrain was a joy – with only smaller hills to work through, the transmission's occasionally odd shift points weren't an issue, and while those paddles aren't super responsive, they allow you to hold gears through bends and make the most of the available power – something there's actually quite a lot of. I imagine the four-cylinder 200 wouldn't suit these roads quite as well, but honestly, 295 hp is more than enough for a vehicle of this size. I wouldn't deem the 200 as being a fast (or even quick) car, but among mainline midsize sedans, it's certainly no slouch.
These more engaging stretches of road through Pennsylvania also showcased one of this 200's best features: its all-wheel-drive system. Unlike other vehicles in the class equipped with full-time AWD, the 200 uses a variable setup that actually disconnects the rear axle from the driveline when the added grip isn't needed. But once the car detects a need for it, power is sent back to the rear wheels in the blink of an eye. That decoupling maneuver is done for the sake of fuel economy, and AWD V6 models like mine are estimated to achieve 18 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg highway, the latter of which I had no issue achieving, even in the mountains.
The 200S uses the same 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that's been offered before, putting out a healthy 295 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque.
What this active AWD means for the driver is that when entering a corner, the rear end comes alive and sends power to the back two wheels, allowing the car to quickly rotate around a turn without fear of understeer. Combine this added cornering prowess with the larger, grippier 235/40R19 Nexen tires that quite literally round out the S model's 19-inch wheels, and this Chrysler honestly felt planted and well-sorted on the nice roads that wound through trees and hills. While I connected the dots between quaint little coal mining towns, pedestrians stopped to gawk at the sexy 200, a vehicle that looked downright futuristic against the backdrop of old-timey general stores where the clerk is on a first-name basis with everyone who comes in.
Suspension tuning is nice, too, with a setup that's both comfortable for boring highway duty and engaging enough to keep body roll and vagueness to a minimum while enjoying b-roads. Even the steering is pretty good, with a linear feel through the bends and no overboosted or vague tendencies like in some of the competitors. It's not quite as good as the Accord's rack, and the sweet Mazda6 will out-steer and out-handle this 200, but aside from those two, the Chrysler is an easy pick for one of the better-driving cars in its segment.
Make no mistake, this is not a sports car, but with plenty of power, a transmission that's willing to play along (as long as it's not left to its own devices) and a well-judged chassis, it's easy to like the 200. There's a lot to enjoy about the whole package, really – sleek style, an interior with outstanding refinement (even if it's cramped in back), and class-leading in-car technology. And considering this pretty-much-loaded 200S AWD came in at $34,465 as-tested, it's got the pricing thing nailed, too. Spec a Ford Fusion with AWD and the 2.0-liter EcoBoost to the same level, and you're spending nearly $38,000.
The Chrysler also easily stands with the better choices in this class.
In his First Drive, Mr. Ramsey summed up the 200 by saying, "if considered for its interior, refinement and available options, it stands tall on its own two feet." I'm not going to disagree with that one bit. I don't see the Chrysler pulling many people out of Honda or Toyota showrooms anytime soon, sure. But to me, the 200 sort of lives in that second tier of more stylish, more emotional midsize sedans; stuff like the Mazda6 or the aforementioned Ford Fusion, vehicles I would consider to be really good, or even great. So I'm going to up the ante on Ramsey's assessment and say that, if judged by driving dynamics, the Chrysler also easily stands with the better choices in this class.
After an extended test of Chrysler's new midsize sedan, I'm optimistic about its prospects in the market. On highway and byway, the new 200 excels. It's not a wildly involving machine, but it's far above par for the course, plus it's sleek and offers compelling technologies not found elsewhere in its class. In the highly contested midsize sedan segment, this well-rounded package is certainly a thing of greatness.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Honda Accord had a rear-headroom measurement of 54.7 inches. The real Honda-provided Accord figure is either 37.0 or 37.5 inches, depending on specific trim level. That makes the Honda either right in-line with, or smaller than the 200's rear headroom figure of 37.4 inches. For the sake of context, that puts the 200 on the small side of average for the class, where the Toyota Camry offers significant 38.1 inches, and Ford Fusion (37.5) and Chevy Malibu (37.8) are very subtly larger, too. The text has been updated and we apologize for the confusion.