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).

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