Friday, November 30, 2012

In Eminem's Footsteps - Chrysler 200

With early holiday lights reflecting off the front hood as we oozed down West Erie, I couldn't help calling up an Eminem track on the iPhone, for a Made in Detroit moment. Only I chose We Made You instead of Lose Yourself, because that hook by Charmagne Tripp is irresistible. And it was Chicago.

The Chrysler 200 is a refreshing of the Michael Scott Chrysler Sebring, the notorious punching bag of the automotive press. In its swan-song iteration, the FIAT folks joined with Chrysler to infuse a little—anything—into its driving experience, while freshening the look and bestowing it with its new numerical moniker.

I've never driven a Sebring, so I don't know how low the bar was prior to the 200's debut. But after going through my 10-month new car journey, I did drive a few cars that could be considered competition to the 200. And frankly, the 200 stood up much better than I had expected.

Looks-wise, they really tidied up the exterior of the Sebring in creating the 200. Gone are the ridiculous striations that used to run the length of the front hood. And the Jaguaresque taillight treatment looks great. There's no hiding the Sebring's roofline, however, which helps make for an out-of-proportion rear-end common to lots of front drive cars. I didn't check the wheel size, but they looked like 16's with a lot of black sidewall around them. Maybe it's just big tires.

Kudos to Chrysler on the interior treatment. Black leather with light stitching, piano black accents, and chrome do a good job at creating an upscale interior. The trim level seemed aimed at an older demographic, what with the lack of bluetooth connectivity and a USB port. I was grateful for the auxiliary jack on the face of the radio. My research shows that better audio systems are available options. Four of us rode quite comfortably on an hour-long journey to Lou Malnati's for our favorite deep dish experience yet. And two of us continued the fun with a late night sprint to explore the steamy nightlife on North Halstead. That much fun just isn't in the rulebook. Lucky I threw the rulebook out years ago.

Did you know that the only people in Chicago who eat deep dish are tourists?

Above all else, the 200 is a very smooth and comfortable cruiser. Seats are great. It's quiet as hell. And those big sidewalls minimize thumps and lumps on streets and highways. It's surprisingly powerful, too. The 283HP Pentastar V-6 provides serious thrust. That's 13 more HP than our beloved Buick Regal GS. The trouble is, there is too much power for the front end to handle. Rather than enjoying the forward boost, you spend your time wrestling the steering wheel in order to keep a straight line. Torque steer on blue ice. Fuel economy in the late twenties/early thirties is another cost of the Pentastar. There are lots of turbo fours out there that do considerably better while providing similar power.

Upon returning to the east coast, I did a 20-30 hour round trip stint in my 2006 Lincoln Zephyr (MKZ). Ouch my ass still hurts. While seat ventilation provided some relief, the Linc's seats are like a park bench. Ride is not as quiet and smooth as the 200. Hopping into our 2012 Buick Regal Turbo felt more like coming home. The 200 simply can't touch the Regal's refinement and performance.

Chrysler took its lumps with the Sebring and turned it into something absolutely drivable for a daily commuter and highway cruiser. For those who want comfort, power, and a dreamy highway ride, all for a bargain price, it's worth a look—especially if you're shopping late in 2013, when they will want to unload their inventory of 200's. But if sporting intentions are on your mind, you might want to wait for the 2014, which will be a ground-up joint with FIAT—or look at the competition from GM (Cruze, Malibu, Verano, Regal), Volkswagen (Passat), and Kia (Optima).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

3-2-1 IGNITION! The Chevy Spark

Enterprise gave me a choice this time: Spark or Corolla. I pictured the most probable outcome of renting a Corolla: numbness; heart stops from boredom after the first quarter mile; the cold smear of conductive jelly on my chest; full reset of my everything from the defibrillator shock. I won't go into the hot paramedic part. What IS it about uniforms? But my little mental sojourn brought me back to the intent of this part of the Rentalist: bargain basement cars. I mean, if I can endure two FIAT 500s (FIRST | SECOND), why not the Spark? Ego be damned.

Gas prices (and the fear thereof) have the car companies racing to provide diminutive offerings to the American public. GM has produced the Spark offshore for some time now, so it was a logical choice for them to bring Spark to the U.S. One of my developer buddies is from the Caribbean and is quite familiar with the product. I remember seeing lots of them when in Bermuda and Mexico. 38 mpg (combined) is good enough reason for many to look seriously at the Spark.

From the outside, the Spark's oddness is a bit jarring. The front end is stubby. The back end is... not there. The wheels are small. The greenhouse is tall. On our first excursion, the same dev completely overlooked the back passenger door, missing its hidden handle and thinking it was a 2-door. So much for "quite familiar". Yet in all its cartoonishness, it works, visually. In fact, compared to many offerings in this class, it has a surprising number of upmarket design cues, unlike the Mazda 2 and Yaris, which reek of base model blues.

The inside yields even more surprises. The Spark is available with a LOT of equipment for this class. OnStar, 10 airbags, height-adjustable driver seat, XM radio on a MyLink touchscreen interface, power everything, USB and AUX inputs. And it's all in a fun package with tastefully playful design, lots of bins and holders, and intuitive controls. The three of us were able to get pretty comfortable in it on our daily drive to work, Target runs, and some carousing with paramedics.

The MyLink proved easy to use for audio, settings, pairing, and other functions. I recognized a lot of functionality (though served up in a different interface) from my Regal Turbo. The only major qualm I had was that I couldn't engage a voice interface. So each call required use of the touch screen and therefore significant eyes-off-the-road time.

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite.

So how did it drive? 84 horsepower can only do so much. And laden with 500 pounds of adults, it does even less. But the point here is it got it done, and it did so with good comfort and enough amenities to make up for its performance shortcomings. Though tall, it doesn't feel tippy. Though anemic, it eventually gets up to speed. And once you're there it cruises along making blender sounds (sufficiently muted in cabin) while sipping slowly from a tank that took about $30 to fill. And parallel parking the Spark is pure joy. Could you ask for more in this class?

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite. The looks grow on you, it had the right equipment, and it's easy on gas. By comparison, the Mazda 2 was a better driving car, at the cost of fuel economy. My particular 2 fell short in two categories for long haul driving: no cruise control and not enough seat adjustability. And the Mazda's price for entry is a couple thousand steeper (base Spark starts at $12,500). The FIAT, well... previous blogs tell that story. You buy a FIAT for style. And nothing else. That leaves the Yaris, which clearly takes the prize for Best-Microwave-Imitating-a-Car. 

I turned the Spark back in at Enterprise, only to hear it was immediately rented to my developer boys for a weekend of fun. That was days ago and I haven't heard from them. Let me know if you see a red Spark on the side of the road somewhere in Illinois, probably close to a volunteer ambulance.

Enthusiasts would agree with my other developer, who summed up the engine sound and ego equation by saying "it purees one's dignity". But Spark isn't an enthusiasts car. It's a pragmatists car. And from that perspective, Spark ignites.