Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Test Drive: 2015 Chrysler 200S

Let's be honest, the last generation Chrysler 200 was just plain. Plain awful. It really had no redeeming qualities as the interior was a dreadful place to be and it was so boring to drive, I was surprised that I managed to complete that trip without ending up in a ditch somewhere after falling asleep at the wheel. Luckily, the folks at the new, post-Fiat acquisition, Chrysler saw fit to replace the soporific old 200 with a brand new sedan that not only looks fantastic inside and out, but they also built it on a brand new chassis and added some new drivetrains that should help the 200 finally be a genuine competitor in the crowded mid-size segment.

From when I first laid eyes on the car at the New York International Auto Show earlier this year, I knew that I had to find the chance to take one for a spin. During a recent trip to the DC area, I had the opportunity to pick up a relatively new (just over 2500 miles on the clock) Chrysler 200 as my ride for a weekend.

Covered in a layer of gleaming graphite grey paint and fitted with a set of attractive satin silver 18-inch wheels, the 200 that I picked up was an S version, lacking many of the fancier options that are available, but still coming surprisingly well-equipped. The exterior design feels very European inspired, looking like a combination of VW CC with the Dodge Dart, but decked out with Chrysler's signature winged badge. Everything about the car is clean, the character lines executed nicely and the coupe style roof line flowing smoothly into the blunt tail. Despite being FWD based, the stance is surprisingly aggressive and gives the car a sporty character without a ton of tacked on embellishment, a la Pontiac in the early 2000s. While it is certainly not the most exciting looking car in the segment (that honor is a toss-up between the  Aston Martin lookalike Ford Fusion and the sporty yet elegant Mazda6), it is a very handsome car and the Fiat influence is clearly evident.

Hop inside and the memories of that drab, boring interior of the last generation car are completely washed away. The center console cascades down the middle, dividing the front half of the cabin and providing a well sorted set of controls easily within reach of the driver. Sitting atop the cascade is a rather tiny 5.0-inch screen that feels a bit out of place in this otherwise nicely laid out interior. The instrument cluster, ringed in a soft blue glow, resembles a mix of the digital display of the larger 300 sedan with the sporty analog gauges of the smaller Dodge Dart. Framed through the thick-rimmed steering wheel, the cluster is easy to read, if a bit difficult to use while driving. One aspect of the interior that I was not a particularly big fan of was the blue leather accenting on the seats. I realize that this was intended to be a unique touch, but it seemed somewhat out of place in an otherwise well executed interior. However, to be fair, I barely even noticed it the first time I got in the car and the color is dark enough that in certain lights, it is barely discernable as blue.

Fire up the 2.4L naturally aspirated I4 motor and the 200 settles into a quiet idle. Twist the dial to set the transmission into drive and the car pulls away from a stop smartly. The 184-hp motor is plenty of power for this 3,400 lb sedan, especially mated to the seemingly overkill 9-speed automatic transmission. I was initially concerned that having so many gears would result in a lot of hunting around, but the programming has actually been well-sorted and the car really treats the transmission as more of a 7-speed with two extra tall overdrive gears to be used for highway cruising only. In fact, I found it difficult to even get the car into the tallest gear without traveling at freeway speeds. The noises coming from under the hood were mechanical, but not particularly harmonious. This motor, while competitive in power, certainly fails to offer the same aural quality as that of the comparably powered Honda Accord. It also fails to deliver on the promised fuel economy numbers as a weekend of mixed driving turned in a rather paltry 25 mpg combined over the course of nearly a full tank.

Dynamically, the car also falls short of the top contenders in the class, offering only a trace of the sportiness that the dynamic appearance would seem to promise. It is not a bad drive, as the ride is actually quite supple and well damped, but the car, even with wide 235mm tires, understeered heavily anytime a corner was taken with any gusto and did not inspire the confidence one would expect of sportier cars. At more normal paces, however, the 200 complies well with commands from the wheel, though there is definitely a vagueness to the steering that left me a bit cold. This is certainly not as bad as the heinously vague steering of its predecessor, but it definitely is a step down from the crispness offered by Mazda and Honda, the sport leaders in this vehicle class. At least the brakes, which could be a touch grabby at initial travel, felt solid when it was necessary to lay into them, hauling the car smartly to a stop, absolutely free of drama.

Spending the weekend with the car, driving all over the DC metro area, I got a chance to nearly directly compare this new 200 with the car that it replaced. There is absolutely much to like about the 200, including its unique appearance, sporty intentions, and well-executed interior. What still needs work, however, are the little details to give it the substance to back up what this car offers on the surface. It has the potential to be a great car and Chrysler's efforts to apologize for foisting the mind-bogglingly bad predecessor on us have not been in vain. This new 200 is in every possible way a better car that the one it replaced and puts Chrysler solidly mid-pack among the current ilk of mid-size family sedans. With a little bit of tweaking, there is the opportunity to make this a serious contender for top honors.