Chrysler’s 2004 Crossfire is a beauty with sporty muscle

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Head-turning two-seat sports cars for less than 35 grand have made a comeback over the last few years. One of the newest of this desirable breed of exciting transportation is the Chrysler Crossfire, a rear wheel-drive car so exotically styled that it will literally grab your attention the first few times you see it on the street.

Not many cars have this kind of alluring quality. This one does. Of course there are other new sports cars that demand a second look – the Audi TT, the Nissan 350Z and the Mazda RX8 come to mind.

But the Crossfire, with its long hood, sweeping roofline and short tucked-in rear, offers the classic sports car look in modern dress. You just can’t help yourself – it demands that you look. Go ahead – take a peak. See one in a parking lot, walk around it. It’s a testament as to what modern car designers can do if given a free hand.

The new Crossfire is the first wholehearted joint venture since Benz and Chrysler merged into DaimlerChrysler several years ago.
Manufacturing for the most part, with the exception of the Crossfire, has continued to be Mercedes on one side of the Atlantic and Chrysler on the other. But even as we write this growing cooperation in component sharing is moving rapidly ahead – damning the lawsuits that say the company was not a merger of equals.
The gorgeously shaped sheetmetal came from the Chrysler arm in Auburn Hills, Mich. Much of the hardware was derived from Stuttgart, Germany, and the wonderful build quality comes courtesy of limited-production specialist Karmann in Osnabruck, Germany.

The Crossfire is built on the Mercedes SLK roadster platform.  Dimensions of the two sports cars – both with a sports car-like wheelbase of 94.5 inches – are nearly identical.

The Crossfire has two seats and enough storage under a hatchback to satisfy most free spirits who decide that this Chrysler must not only grace their driveway but carry one’s stuff, even enough for a vacation trip.

Outfitted with a 3.2-liter V6 generating 215 horsepower, the Crossfire has slingshot power in second and third gears and the ability to hug the road like a slot car in the twists and turns of rural America. The Crossfire, which comes outfitted with 18-inch rubber front and 19-inch in back, is not only fun to look at, but fun to drive as well.

In fact it was on some of my favorite back roads of eastern North Carolina – the kind that dip down and then rise up in a different direction - that we worshiped the Crossfire for more than just its looks.

For a couple of delightful hours this was ‘the devil with a blue dress on.’ The Crossfire scores big time in styling, but at the same time it also falls short in styling, both outside and inside.

With a high beltline creating small windows and a large B-pillar, sightlines to the rear are severely hampered. The tiny window in the hatchback creates another visibility problem. And to make matters worse, when speed reaches 57 miles per hour a retractable rear spoiler deploys covering the bottom third of the window.

Inside, the sloping roofline makes for tight headroom for taller drivers. And some drivers have complained about the lack of legroom. If you are shorter than 6-feet, it’s not a concern.

The dashboard is handsome with a satin finish center stack and quality-looking material in other places. The leather-clad seats remind us of those in a Mercedes vehicle, pleasing to the touch. But, some of the switchgear is needlessly hard to use. Colored and lighted dots - blue for cool and red for hot - are used in the two temperature wheels, but are hard to read in the sunlight.

Likewise, the stereo readout nearly washes out under strong sun. It’s simply impossible to read. But you shouldn’t be changing stations while driving anyway.

Oh yeah, don’t forget the lone cupholder. Cupholders are normally a Chrysler strong suit, but it looks like an afterthought in this Mercedes-engineered car. You’re guaranteed to spill something as the flimsy holder is directly under your right elbow. But you shouldn’t be drinking while driving anyway.

But all these niggling nitpicks can be forgiven the instant the key is turned in the ignition. Redemption is in the driving. And in the gorgeous looks.
We do wish for some more horsepower. The 215 ponies under hood do a very creditable job taking the Crossfire from 0 to 60 in about 6.5 seconds with expert rowing. We figure the 5-speed automatic will be close to that figure, too. But some of the competition is way ahead, including the Nissan 350Z. And to tell the truth we enjoyed the ride and handling in the Crossfire over its German cousin SLK which sets its suspension a bit stiffer than the Chrysler.

If its exquisite looks, impeccable handling, and satisfying performance don’t do the trick, price may keep the Crossfire competitive for years to come. Our test car with the 6-speed manual carried a base price of $34,495 including destination charge. And that’s exactly the price on its window sticker.

Options, which are few, are not needed on the Crossfire. Standard equipment includes four-wheel antilock brakes, side impact airbags, brake assist, traction control, electronic stability control, tire pressure monitor, leather heated power seats, dual-zone climate control, 240-watt Infinity stereo with compact disc player and power windows and doorlocks.

Add on a three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a seven-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty and the deal even looks better.

So what if the Crossfire has a few minor design glitches. Who cares with this kind of balanced performance and head-turning beauty? And just wait until you see the convertible!