REVIEW: Chrysler 200 reveals Alfa Romeo genes
New 200 pretty outside, gorgeous and functional inside, with advanced technology all over.
With the about-as-all-new-as-it-gets 2015 Chrysler 200, the company fills the biggest gap in its product line, mid-size family sedan.
This is the largest passenger-car market segment in the U.S., and a good-sized one up here too, so success is critical.
The previous-generation 200 (in earlier times known as Sebring) and its discontinued-last-year Dodge Avenger sibling, were, contrary to general journalist opinion, not totally horrible cars. The convertible Sebring in particular was one of the few room-for-four convertibles available, and as such was a mainstay of sunny-climate rental agencies.
But their roots dated back to a mid-90s Mitsubishi platform, still used on various Mitsus, and shared to this day with various Citroens in France.
As such it just couldn’t cut it with more modern cars from well, from just about everybody.
The new 200 is available in four trim levels, starting at $22,495. Chrysler’s web site claims this makes it the most affordable mid-size sedan in Canada.
It is based on an Alfa Romeo platform; Alfa, like Chrysler, is owned by Fiat. The guts of said platform are also shared by the compact Dodge Dart. The wheelbase is stretched but only by 40 mm over its little cousin, so a roomy compact becomes a somewhat snug mid-sizer in the back seat.
I find it a handsome car on the outside, although I can’t help but think of the second-generation Ford Taurus with its swoopy four-door coup-like profile.
The steeply-canted front windshield posts and the fast-sloping rear roofline extract compromises when getting in. Especially in the rear seat, you have to remember to duck.
Fat windshield pillars are also rather prominent when trying to see into the corners on a twisty road.
If you haven’t been in a Chrysler in the last year or two, you won’t be prepared for the quality of the interior.
“Did I just step into an Audi?”
OK, maybe not quite.
But it is an attractive place to be, nicely designed and well-executed with what appear to be top-rank materials.
My test car was the S trim level, second from the top of the range. It had the one-up 3.6 litre Pentastar V6 engine which justly garners all sorts of ‘best engine’ awards; a 2.4 litre four-cylinder is base engine on all 200s.
The vehicle also had the part-time four-wheel drive system that is offered only on S and top-level C trims with the V6.
The transmission is an automatic nine-speed (yes, you read that right) designed by the German ZF company, which is also used in the new Jeep Cherokee.
The shifter is a Jaguar-esque rotary knob on the centre console which, as in Jags, takes a few minutes to get used to, but which works fine and saves space.
Steering column paddles allow for manual override should the mood strike.
The electronic dash is attractive and reconfigurable to display whatever information you feel is relevant.
My vehicle had SatNav, which brings Chrysler’s 8.4 inch Uconnect centre dash screen with a host of connectivity, entertainment and customization features.
It is probably the best multi-function control system out there, orders of magnitude better than Ford’s SYNC nonsense.
To address the distracted driving issue, you can’t do most of what you want to do while driving unless you use the voice activation system.
Now, the software must have been updated, because attempts to find common street names using this system in previous Chrysler products have had laugh-out-loud funny results.
Me: “Dundas Street.:”
The car: “Do you mean Belleville?”
I wish I had taken notes.
But this one found a complicated address in Cobourg on first crack, easy-peasy.
It can also read text messages to you, and allows replying via pre-recorded messages. Research suggests this is actually no safer than doing it manually, but at least it is not illegal.
One big black mark you can’t shut off the damnable automatic door locks. Your dealer can, but if this feature is programmable, why can’t we make that decision ourselves?
For a feature that is so widely (if admittedly not universally) hated, this makes no sense. At least it can be disabled. GM won’t allow that under any circumstances, which makes even less sense.
Under the centre console is a big Volvo-like cubby bin accessible from either footwell. The rubber lining of this bin contains a graphic of the skyline of Detroit – the tag line of the 200’s ads is ‘Imported from Detroit’, suggesting that this car is as good as any import.
A colleague pointed out that said graphic somehow manages to leave out the most prominent feature of Detroit’s skyline, the Renaissance Center. RecCen was built under the impetus of Henry Ford II, and is now the headquarters of General Motors. Coincidence that’s it’s missing from a Chrysler, I think not.
The ‘S’ stands for ‘Sport’, and as such gets a firmer suspension. My test car had the optional 19-inch wheels (called ‘hyper black’, even though they were distinctly silver in colour) with low-profile tires.
The car corners decently, and turn-in is crisp, although the electronic power steering doesn’t deliver the sort of feedback that makes sporting driving so much fun.
The 200 is also the heaviest car in this segment, and with the V6 hanging a lot of mass out over the front axle, it further dulls the nimbleness.
The firm suspension also compromises the ride quite dramatically.
I suspect most shoppers in this target market will prefer the softer ride of the other trim levels. The sportier driver should probably look to the Mazda6.
The transmission is a mixed bag. Nine ratios (more than anybody) means one for almost any purpose. In Drive, you can feel the ratios swapping around quite frequently, as it searches for the most fuel-efficient one. ZF is a world-class transmission company, so I was a bit surprised that some shifts were less than perfectly smooth.
If you rotate the shift knob one notch further right you engage ‘Sport’ mode. This automatically switches off the Electronic Stability Control system; I can’t recall any other car that does that, leaving you unprotected. You can manually switch it back on though, and you should.
Sport also firms up the steering and changes the shift points to a more aggressive program, but leaves the suspension alone. In Sport, from rest the transmission will shift automatically from first to second at about 6,000 r.p.m. well below the red line. From then on, shifts are all up to you and the shift paddles.
But even the manual shifts are annoyingly slow for something called ‘Sport’ mode.
The paddles also work in Drive mode; this is the only way to see what gear you’re actually in. Interestingly, it won’t shift to ninth until you reach exactly 100 km/h.
The Pentastar engine is strong and reasonably frugal. It sounded a bit noisier in this application than I recall from others though.
The four-wheel drive system is primarily a poor-weather add-on, although it does get engaged when Sport mode is selected. Otherwise, unless it detects front-wheel slippage it disconnects the rear axle for improved fuel efficiency, although by Transport Canada’s rating system, the four-wheel drive version is about three to ten percent thirstier.
Interesting again how four-wheel drive has taken over the luxury car market, but only Subaru Legacy (standard) and Ford Fusion (optional) offer it in mid-size sedans.
My test car had the optional Blind Spot Warning system (as always, totally pointless) combined with Cross Path Detection which bails out people too stupid to back into their parking spaces at the mall. While in Reverse, sensors in the rear bumper detect approaching cars and warn you of them.
I would say “Let Darwin rule!”, except for the poor schnook you run into.
Just back in, people.
In sum then, the Chrysler 200 is an interesting new entry into this vital segment. It is pretty outside, gorgeous and functional inside, if a bit cramped in the rear seat, with advanced technology all over the place.
The suspension and transmission both need some fine-tuning though for it to really challenge the leaders in this class.
But the new Chrysler 200 doesn’t really need to make you forget all about the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Mazda6, Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry.
All it needs to do is make everyone forget about the old Chrysler 200.