Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Test Drive: 2012 Chrysler 300

The Chrysler 300 has always inspired mixed feelings from me. When it was first introduced, the pill-box shape and slightly retro-charm of the overall profile felt sort of cool and unique, while the re-introduction of a Hemi branded motor inspired thoughts of tire-smoking hilarity. However, the garbage interior combined with the sheer number of rappers and posers driving around in the things sporting the fake chrome Bently style grilles and ginormous blingy wheels quickly quashed any desire to be seen within 10-feet of one. Yet, post acquisition by Fiat, the revised Chrylser 300 has managed to somehow shake off its reputation and has been subtly re-imagined as a proper gentleman's sedan. The changes throughout the car, inside and out, offer an opportunity for this once maligned bling-mobile to shed the image and once again enter the ranks of respectable businessman's sedans.

Starting at the front, probably the most eye-catching change is the headlight cluster, which sport a set of LED daytime running lights, flanking a revised front grille. While the overall design language continues to channel a slightly sinister mobster-friendly undertone, the overall look is somehow dramatically refined, lending the car a more upscale appearance and giving it a much better road presence than the previous generation. In profile, the car retains that same chopped roof line and slit-window pillbox look as the old car, but in the rear, much light the front, subtle adjustments have been made to class up taillight clusters and the overall impression is a very positive one.

Under the hood, Chrysler now offers a 3.6L Pentastar V6 with 300 horsepower mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. This transmission is similar to the one offered in Audi's flagship A8 sedan and even shares the same boating-inspired shifter in the cabin. This drive train combination is theoretically good for up to 31 mpg on the highway, which is impressive considering this car weighs in at just over 2 tons. Power is adequate, if not exactly neck-snapping, but is delivered in a smooth wave that seems appropriate for the type of driving that this car will likely see. The body structure is stiff, but the chassis is definitely tuned quite soft, allowing the rather large car to understeer significantly when pushed hard, but to deliver a fairly pleasant and comfortable ride that is occasionally interrupted by the introduction of some shudders when a particularly large bump or pothole is hit. Steering is nicely weighted and offers decent feel would certainly not be classified as sporty. However, put this car on the interstate and it offers a planted ride and easily gobbles up the miles with the greatest of ease.

Inside, the car feels both cavernous and fitted at the same time. There is a tremendous amount of interior shoulder and headroom mixed with slightly snug hip room that is the result of the contouring of the seats as well as the intrusion of the center tunnel. Most materials feel relatively nice, though the "wood" that covers much of the center console does both look and feel plasticky and should be swapped for something else. The centerpiece of the interior is the U-Connect infotainment system, which is one of the better touch-screen based systems currently on the market. While it does still exhibit many of the driver-distracting shortcomings of these types of touch-screens, this one at least does not share the laggy response times, poor accuracy, and excessive layering of options that many of its competitors seem so fond of. Climbing into the back seat and one enjoys a surprisingly comfortable set of rear seats with excellent available space.

On the road, one would expect the somewhat upright pillbox shape to induce unbecoming levels of wind and road noise, but both seem to have been fairly well managed. While the cabin is hardly serene, it is easily quiet enough for casual conversation and the car never feels unpolished. Add in the fact that keyless ignition and remote start are standard features along with exceptionally adjustable seats (though no memory function was available on the car we tested) makes for a very well-optioned car at a reasonable price.

Overall, I am rather impressed with how far the Chrysler 300 has come. It went from one of the cars with the worst interiors on the market to one that is not only quite livable, but is actually rather pleasant. Gone is the anemic V6 motor of the past, replaced by the Pentastar V6 that offers decent power and good fuel economy. The overall feel of the car has gone from wannabe's favorite to businessman's proper and would be a legitimate competitor for someone looking at the Hyundai Genesis sedan, Toyota Avalon, or other large family sedan. For a businessman, the Chrysler 300 suddenly makes an attractive option that offers a solid value that is competitive in its class.

It definitely lends some credibility to the Chrysler slogan "Imported from Detroit."

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