2015 Chrysler 200

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The big hole in Chrysler's lineup is the mid-sized sedan, which just happens to be one of the largest and most profitable segments in North America. Its only entry until now was an aging Chrysler 200 — formerly known as the Sebring — and the rather bland sedan has not been competitive in recent years.

Sales of the 200 totaled only 122,000 in 2013 in a segment where 150,000 copies a year is considered the threshold of competitiveness and elevation from a second-tier brand. To the rescue is an all-new 200 that is so much better in virtually every way than the outgoing model that comparison is an exercise in superfluity.

To improve on the outgoing 200 was not even close to enough to an adequate goal when Chrysler stylists and engineers began developing the new sedan. It needed to be competitive with such mainstream vehicles as the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

After spending a day with several versions of the 2015 Chrysler 200 on roads in and around Louisville we can report that Chrysler has achieved its goal.

Chrysler calls the 200 a clean-sheet design, but there's an asterisk attached and it refers to the fact that the sedan is based on Fiat's "Compact U.S. Wide" platform that also carries the Dart. Whatever, it works, offering a solid, well-planted driving experience that should win over more than a few buyers who show up at a Chrysler store for a test drive.

From a design standpoint, the 200 is conservatively attractive and, while not as extravagantly stylish as some of its competitors such as the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata, it stands out in the crowd, with a streamlined elongated body, artfully sloping roofline, large wheels, and what  we particularly like, "the new face of Chrysler," a very attractive front end.

Even more impressive is the completely reworked cabin. The design is elegant, set off by a large (optional) 8.4-inch infotainment screen and a first-in-the-segment rotary-style shifter. The optional Premium Group package brings striking real wood inlays. But regardless of trim level, materials are first class and the fit and finish in our test cars was first class.

One of the few downsides to Chrysler's new mid-sized entry also involves the cabin — it is on smallish side for a mid-sized sedan. We think most people will find the front-seat accommodations and driving position more than adequate, but rear-seat legroom is on the tight side for a car in this segment. Taller folks will probably have to negotiate with the front-seaters for enough legroom to be comfortable.

We figured Chrysler would get it right when it came to exterior and interior styling, so the biggest surprise to us was how well the car handled on the twists and turns of backroad driving, and we were rewarded with a considerable number of miles of winding, elevation-changing roads on our test drive. Particularly adept at serving up grins and giggles on our route was the 200 S with its sports-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels and tires. We found it one of the best handling family sedans we've driven. Very impressive.

The front-driven 200 comes with two engine choices and a first-in-class nine-speed automatic transmission across the lineup. Standard on the sedan is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 184 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque. Optional is a 3.6-liter V-6 that makes a best-in-class 295 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Our hands-down choice would be the brawny V-6, but we found the four-cylinder more than capable of handling all the duties of driving life. For those living in colder climates with occasional bad road conditions, the 200 can be purchased with all-wheel drive with the V-6 engine.

Gas mileage is another area where Chrysler lags slightly behind the segment leaders, but, that being said, mileage is OK and shouldn't be a factor in most peoples' decision. The four-cylinder is rated at 23 city, 36 highway, 28 combined, and the V-6 is rated at 19/32/23. All-wheel drive models are slightly lower at 18/29/22.

The 200 comes in four trim levels: LX, Limited, S and C. Standard equipment across the lineup is generous and includes 17-inch wheels, keyless ignition and entry, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and a four-speaker sound system with USB/iPod integration. Navigation is optional across the lineup.

The 200 can be loaded with safety as optional equipment including blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, frontal collision warning, lane departure warning, an automated parking system, automatic high beam control and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Regrettably, a rearview camera is only available on the S and C models and as an option. We think all cars in 2015 should have rearview cameras as standard equipment.

— Jim Meachen