First Drive: 2011 Chrysler 300

A Lot Newer Than It Looks From The Outside

2011 Chrysler 300 - Click above for high-res image gallery

"We basically blew the old car up. The number of parts we carried over from the last car you can just about hold in your hands," said Mitch Clauw, Chief Engineer on the 2011 Chrysler 300.

He was responding to repeated questions about the new sedan. Was it all-new, or just a heavy refresh like the 200 Sedan? You can't blame journalists for being confused. Chrysler's product onslaught is putting 16 all-new and significantly improved models on the road this year. But all-new is a very different thing from significantly improved.

Clauw supported his answer, "Every exterior panel is new. Every piece in the interior is new. With the underbody, just a few pieces of the front floor pan are carry over. The front and rear aluminum suspension pieces and geometry are different. So is the steering. The V6 is all new. While the internals of the Hemi are carryover, the intake, exhaust and accessories are not." Okay, we believe him now, but you'd need really big hands to hold the carried-over five-speed automatic transmission.

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2011 Chrysler 300
2011 Chrysler 300
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Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

The previous generation Chrysler 300 (2005-2010) sported bold, in-your-face styling. At the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, Ralph Gilles (Senior Vice President of Product Design and CEO of the Dodge Brand) told the press that, "The new 300 needed a more grown-up look." As usual, Gilles nailed it. The look is more mature while remaining handsome in a masculine way. However, some of the edge is admittedly gone. And it will be missed.

The new look is still more Armani than Abercrombie. The bodylines are simultaneously more crisp but less angular, softened by careful contouring. The car is marginally longer, wider and taller, but everything sits on a nearly identical wheelbase of 120.2 inches versus 120.0 inches.

Clauw explained that they didn't want to change the 300's character, rationalizing these subtle adjustments as opposed to a wholesale re-design of the car akin to the old Ford Taurus (err... 500) to new Ford Taurus. The team worked nearly three years to thoroughly re-engineer what they had in order for the car to hit their performance targets. Many of the targets were developed by measuring performance and customer perceptions of the Lexus LS460, Hyundai Genesis Sedan, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5-Series.

2011 Chrysler 300 side view2011 Chrysler 300 front view2011 Chrysler 300 rear view

Regarding outward visibility, for example, the old car wasn't as easy to see out of as its competitors. To remedy the situation, engineers made the A- and B-pillars thinner. The beltline was also lowered and the windshield raked back three inches. Every change contributed to improved outward visibility. This was a wise and practical decision, even though it helped spell the end of the previous 300's chopped-roof aesthetic.

The most noticeable exterior change is to the front fascia. The entire nose is more contoured, a decision made to improve aerodynamics, another area engineers needed to improve. In the process, the grille became more trapezoidal and the slimmer headlamps gained fashionable LED daytime running lights and halogen projector-type high- and low-beams. Look closely at the new grille and the contouring of the horizontal bars creates the appearance of an inner grille floating within the outer grille. Cool stuff.

2011 Chrysler 300 headlight2011 Chrysler 300 grille2011 Chrysler 300 wheel2011 Chrysler 300 taillight

While the exteriors of the 2010 and 2011 might confuse a casual onlooker, no such mistake happens once you climb inside. The new interior moves the 300 way upscale. The examples we drove sported two-tone cabins. There are also bright, brushed metal accents that surround the vents and center stack, giving the interior a rich feel.

The instrument cluster is especially good-looking. Compared to the flat, two-dimensional gauge cluster on the current BMW 5 Series, the 300's gauges are deeply sculpted and dimensional. Gilles' 2009 Chrysler Imperial Concept foreshadowed the look of these gauges. The new four-spoke steering wheel design also looks more modern and less truck-like than the old tiller, and higher trim levels manage rake and telescoping functions electrically.

Adding to the modernity of the 300's interior is the big, bright and crisp 8.4-inch LED screen in the center of the cabin. It handles communication duties for the audio system, HVAC, Bluetooth phone and brought-in device integration (via UConnect), and optional built-in Garmin navigation system. The gauges and monitor were easy to read, even in bright sunlight. However, polarized sunglasses did substantially degrade the screen's visibility.

2011 Chrysler 300 interior2011 Chrysler 300 gauges2011 Chrysler 300 multimedia system2011 Chrysler 300 door

The seats, front and rear, were comfortable and offered the room one expects in a full-size sedan. These first impressions were taken during the course of just a half-day, recognizing that even a park bench is comfortable for short while. A more thorough evaluation will come with a full review.

On the road, the first impressions generated by the interior were amplified. Thanks to a myriad of new noise-abatement features, the new 300 drives quietly. The front side windows feature sound-deadening lamination, while the doors are triple-sealed. There are also two eight-foot belly pans under the chassis to help reduce road noise.

2011 Chrysler 300 front seats2011 Chrysler 300 rear seats

Extensive use of high-strength steel and aluminum helped keep the weight between 2010 and 2011 models close even though the new car is slightly larger and carries more equipment. Comparing V8 300Cs between years shows a weight gain of about 230 pounds. We did not drive 2010 and 2011 models back to back, so we are unable to ID any negative impact due to the porking affect. What we can relay is that Chrysler's new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 is a fine engine.

The 292-horsepower V6 and "proven" five-speed automatic motivate the base 300 ($27,995) and 300 Limited ($31,995). (You know a component is getting really, really old when PR literature refers to it as "proven.") Having nearly 300 horsepower is plenty. The big sedan never felt slow and the powertrain never felt taxed. Driven hard, the V6 remained composed and refined even when revved to redline.

At times, the throttle felt lazy, requiring lots of pedal travel to summon the desired level of thrust. We believe that engineers purposely mapped the throttle in this manner to elicit the best fuel economy possible. As equipped with the V6 and rear-wheel drive, the new 300 earns EPA ratings of 18 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway, which trails the BMW 535i at 19/28 and 528i at 22/32.

2011 Chrysler 300 engine

More gears will help the 300 go farther on a gallon of gas and could improve acceleration. Mercifully for Chrysler, a new eight-speed rear-wheel-drive automatic transmission from ZF arrives later during calendar year 2011. This will make Clauw's comment about "a handful of parts" carried over even truer.

Currently, the 300C ($38,995) is the only model available with a HEMI V8. An SRT8 300 is likely in the car's future, but for now, the horsepower top dog is the 363-hp 5.7-liter V8. As with other cars we've recently driven with powerful V6s, you don't know you're missing any power until you drive the V8.

Yes, you feel the 71-hp increase over the V6. But what you feel more is the additional torque (394 lb.ft. compared to 260). Cubic inches matter, and the power differential between a naturally-aspirated 200 cid V6 and 345 cid V8 is real. Fuel economy for the Hemi is 16/25 for the rear-wheel-drive version, and 15/23 for the all-wheel-drive model. The Hemi also features fuel saving cylinder deactivation. Unlike in Ram trucks where engineers made the transition more noticeable, it was completely transparent in the 300.

2011 Chrysler 300 rear 3/4 view

We drove a 300 Limited and 300C (rear-wheel drive) over the course of an afternoon. On both sedans, the fully-independent suspension handled Southern California's highways and back roads with ease. Over notoriously rough freeway pavement, the big 300 rode serenely. Road, wind and tire noise seemed distant while body motions were well controlled and never floaty. When the asphalt narrowed and got twisty, the 300 hustled with verve, feeling smaller than its physical size. You'd never mistake it for a Lotus, but it sure didn't feel like a Lincoln Town Car.

Engineers also did a solid job on the 300's electrically assisted power steering (EPAS). Steering effort is spot on (not too heavy or light) but the wheel lacks the level of feel and feedback of our favorite vehicle with EPAS, the 2011 Shelby GT500.

The Chrysler LLC team in Auburn Hills has been very busy the last few years. Surviving Cerberus mismanagement, the bankruptcy and the takeover by Fiat has been no easy task. Thankfully, the all-new 2011 Chrysler 300 line is more proof that Chrysler is on the right track. To this we can say, "Welcome back."

2011 Chrysler 300
2011 Chrysler 300
View 17 Photos

Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

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