2016 Chrysler 200 LX Touring: Time to deal?

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(May 22, 2016) I’ve driven a lot of vehicles in the past 30 years, but none has been more perplexing than the Chrysler 200. Sleek, but bordering on too subtle, Chrysler’s mid-size sedan has not set the sales charts on fire since its 2015 launch. Then in January, the 200 took a broadside from Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) CEO Sergio Marchionne when he said both it and its smaller Dodge Dart sister would be killed off and replaced by more desirable crossovers with higher profit margins.

This led to a dramatic drop is sales for both models. It also led to weeks of Marchionne trying to extricate himself from the minefield he’d created with ruminations about having another car company build the next 200 and Dart, and admitting that it would be a couple of years before the planned crossovers replaced the 200 at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Michigan.

It was typical of the “open mouth, engage brain” antics we’ve come to expect from him, but the real problem for the 200 is one of perception. It doesn’t look as big as its competition, and the styling — though blandly handsome — gets lost in the crowd. What the 200 really needs are charts like this one at right that compare it to the competition; in this case the latest Chevy Malibu and Ford’s Fusion.

Based on the three-to-four inch difference in wheelbase, you’d expect the 200 to cramped inside, but it isn’t. The largest dimensional difference is the 1.7-in. rear hip room deficit to the Ford Fusion, but most other measures are within tenths of inches, and in a couple, the 200 is slightly larger. So all the talk about the 200 having a tight interior package with poor rear seat ingress and egress is untrue, right? Not exactly.

If you want your first impression of the car to be positive, make sure the height-adjustable front seats are in their lowest position. This will make it easy for tall folks to get in and out, and will impress shorter drivers and passengers with the space above their heads. If you don’t, you might have an experience like mine where a (shorter) driver dropped the car off with the seat a couple of inches (it felt like feet) off the floor and close to the steering wheel.

Getting in felt like trying to wedge yourself into a mail slot while carrying a full backpack and cradling a child. Ratcheting the handle beside the seat brought it down quickly, and eliminated the vertical claustrophobia, while pushing the seat back took care
of the horizontal variety. It was possible to raise the setback to a more upright position without brushing against the headliner, and tilt and telescope the steering wheel to the proper position. But while this made the front compartment more comfortable physically, nothing could eliminate the visual bulk of the A-pillar as it transitioned from its near-horizontal starting point to overhead, and back to the rear of the car.

Mix in a high beltline and short side windows, and you have a recipe for a cabin that makes you feel as though it would be bank vault safe while skidding down the back straight on the car’s roof during the “Big One” at Talladega, but — especially in darker colors — could have been used to film the bunker scenes of any World War II movie.

The rear seat has a slightly different — and more profound — problem. Exiting the rear cabin is relatively easy. It doesn’t require that you contort yourself in order to exit the space, but does require that you do so to enter it.

The culprit is the lower seat cushion, which has raised outboard supports to keep rear seat passengers in place. When leaving, you are turning and raising yourself up from the flatter section of the seat whereas, when you are entering, you are trying to get your behind into that spot. Doing so requires lifting up and ducking at the same time, and your head inevitably will make contact with the door opening. (When seated, the roofline arcs though a line that passes through the bridge of my nose, placing my eyes just above the top of the window.) In short, the room is there, but getting to it requires the prowess of an Olympic gymnast. You’d think they'd have encountered this problem with the seating bucks before the design was locked in.

Perhaps the interior designers were too enamored with the two-tier center console design that places the climate and radio controls, rotary shift knob and electronic parking brake switch on a sloping surface that bridges the area between the center console and instrument panel. This leaves room below for phones, tablets, etc., and that area is nicely finished with a removable rubber pad that has a detailed skyline and Walter P. Chrysler’s signature. It’s a nice little easter egg, but in the time that it took to come up with and implement that idea, couldn’t someone have seen the problems with the rear seat/roof intersection? Or were they too busy creating the tunnel that leads into the cubby below the sliding cupholders that contains the USB, Aux and 12-volt charge port? Or was that the job of the designer who thought it necessary to put the words “Tachometer” and “Speedometer” on those gauges?

The reason I’m being so harsh is that the Chrysler 200 is a nice car that could have been even better. The seats are supportive, the driving position is comfortable, even with the thick A-pillars the view forward and to the side is good, and you have plenty of space for your electronics and other items nearby.

You can seat five inside (the missing hip room compared to Ford’s Fusion will become apparent if you do), but most sedans like this carry four at their most crowded and usually only one. You can regale your friends with tales of how the rotary shift knob is similar to that in a Jaguar (though the Jag’s feels much better), and mention how it controls a nine-speed automatic transmission. Nine speeds!

Well, maybe nine speeds. If you go into the driver’s settings, you can bring up an icon that lets you know which gear you are in. Do that, and you will be more likely to see the Tooth Fairy than that indicator show “D9”. You might also wonder why the transmission slurs its shifts slightly and holds gears longer than expected at times, but you won’t wonder what it does for fuel economy. That’s because, when mated to the standard 2.4-liter Tigershark inline four, the 200 returns an EPA estimated mileage of 23 city/36 highway/28 combined, and is more than capable of doing the same in the real world. That’s fuel economy you would have expected from a subcompact car not too many years ago, not a mid-size sedan.

The engine produces 184 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, and 173 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,600. It’s reasonably torquey, and capable of accelerating the 200 briskly to freeway speed. It’s not a Top Fuel dragster by any means, but the combination of nine relatively close-coupled speeds and a broad torque curve make the powertrain quite flexible and, obviously, fuel efficient.

Unfortunately, the engine feels a bit rough on initial start-up and at higher revs, but never makes too much of a nuisance of itself. It’s almost as though the engineers could have used one more pass through the development in order to get everything working optimally. This lack of ultimate refinement puts the 200 at a disadvantage compared to competitors, but you get used to it.

I could go on about how the Chrysler 200 comes indifferent trim levels (the LX is the base version), offers a 295-hp 3.6-liter V6, the option of all-wheel drive (V6 only), and more. Or how, in some of the upper trim levels, the interior can be made less claustrophobic and dreary through the use of two-tone leather and upgraded trim. However, this is true of every car in this class. What stands out about the Chrysler 200 is that, even in near poverty spec, it’s not the car you expect it to be. It is roomier, quieter, more comfortable, more fuel efficient and — at $23,485 with the Touring Preferred Package and destination charge — more affordable, especially now that the buying public expects it to be an orphan.

If the Chrysler 200 fits your needs (and any back seat passengers you might transport), now may be the time to do a deal.

The Virtual Driver