Chrysler 300 — Avoiding a mid-life crisis

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Chrysler 300 created a much ballyhooed styling statement back in 2004 when it hit the marketplace as a 2005 model with a revolutionary blocky, masculine, gun-slit window retro look. The 300 is the Godfather as compared to the PT Cruiser’s soldier.

Although it’s now time for a complete makeover, the uniqueness of the original long since gone, Chrysler — not long out of bankruptcy and working to regain its footing as Fiat has taken operational control — elected to do only a refresh for the 2011 model year. And as refreshes go, this one is a dandy. It should serve the flagship Chrysler sedan well until the next all-new 300 arrives in a couple of years. By doing so it has avoided the feared mid-life crisis.

Chrysler has addressed most of the things that cried out for upgrading. The exterior styling has been tweaked for a somewhat sleeker, less bulky appearance. The interior has been completely reworked with the gauges and center stack getting serious attention. Most of the hard plastic has been replaced with superior materials.

The two 6-cylinder engines are gone in favor of the outstanding new Pentastar V-6 that makes an emphatic statement as the new base engine with 292 energetic horses. Out of sight, the 300’s structure has been stiffened, the steering is now electrically assisted, and the suspension has been reworked for more composed handling and a better ride.

Whether the exterior refinements — a new “Chrysler” grille, a slightly more rakish windshield, new headlight and taillight treatments, and an overall rounding of the lines — is enough to make the big Chrysler attractive enough again to draw in a new set of buyers remains to be determined. We definitely favor the new look over the old even as the original styling still dominates.

The highest praise though is reserved for the new interior, which we think is just right. Beautiful blue and white instrument lighting is exceptionally easy on the eyes and very legible. The large 8.4-inch navigation screen — the largest in the segment according to Chrysler — provides the best satellite radio read-outs in the business with lettering large enough to be read with a quick glance.

Our base model test car did not include the available Garmin navigation system although we had previously experienced it during the initial media drive. It is a spot on system, easy to program, and the terrific screen size with excellent color density made it easily readable. The voice directions seemed less annoying and we don’t recall ever having to scream at it to make a correction.

The controls are soft touch and the knobs and buttons in our base test car worked well. One minor sour note — the turn signals had a jarring, cheap sound, not the elegant soothing note one would expect from the otherwise upscale surroundings. The seats proved extremely comfortable with excellent thigh support.

Reaching an acceptable driving position was no problem through the use of the standard power driver’s seat and tilt and telescoping steering wheel. Outward visibility from the cockpit has improved with the increased use of glass, especially in the front doors. Rear-seat comfort includes scads of a leg room and comfortable seats. While there is adequate room to seat three across, the middle passenger will have to contend with a hump in the floor and a bit of a rise in the seat.

The new-found refinement also includes a quiet interior. Road, wind and tire noise have been well muted — for the most part eliminated — giving the 300 an upscale feel.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over the previous sedan is the addition of Chrysler’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine that makes 292 horsepower. That’s a 63 percent improvement from the previous base engine. And as a bonus, the new V-6 gets 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway on regular gas, which is better than either of the previous engines.
The engine is smooth and powerful and we can understand why it was recognized as one of Ward’s Automotive “Ten Best” engines for 2011.

It replaces two V-6 engines, a woefully inadequate 2.7-liter base engine with a non-luxury-like 178 horsepower, and a 3.5-liter V-6, which was good for 250 horses but still insufficient for the task at hand.

Since the much-improved 2011 model is actually $90 cheaper than the 2010 model, Chrysler had to find some cost savings somewhere. One place was in the transmission. The five-speed automatic is a carryover. While we wish Chrysler would have taken the extra step and outfitted all the new 300s with more modern six-speeds, we have little complaint with the five-speed setup except competitively. It provided smooth shifts, and it downshifted immediately upon command. Chrysler/Fiat management notes that seven and eight speed transmissions are on the horizon, maybe as soon as 2013.

By the numbers the new V-6 pushes the nearly two-ton sedan from 0 to 60 in a very respectable time of 7.2 seconds and completes a quarter mile run in 15.4 seconds at 94.2 miles per hour. And, perhaps just as important, the four-wheel antilock brakes pull the car down from 60 in a short 119 feet.

For the power junkies, the 5.7-liter 363-horsepower Hemi V-8 is still available and it continues to give the 300 muscle car performance measured at 5.8 seconds from 0 to 60. But it also raises the purchase price $7,000 and lowers gas mileage to 16/25.

In previous years, there was more of a definitive engine choice between the V-6 options and the Hemi. But the lines between the new, less expensive and more frugal V-6 and the big honking V-8 are blurred in 2011 because of the performance prowess of the new Pentastar.

The new Chrysler comes in four trim levels — 300, 300 Limited, 300C and 300C AWD.
All models come well equipped. Our base 300 very adequately appointed starts at $27,995 including destination charge. But we believe the Limited, with a base price of $31,995, will probably be the popular selection.

The base car comes with such standard features as keyless entry and start; automatic dual-zone climate control; cruise control; touchscreen infotainment interface with six-speaker sound system, CD player and satellite radio; and eight-way power driver’s seat. Standard safety includes a full complement of airbags, antilock brakes, and traction and stability control.

The extra cash outlay for the Limited brings 18-inch wheels, heated front seats, a rearview camera, and an upgraded Alpine sound system.

The 300C with the V-8 engine starts at $38,995, and the 300C with all-wheel drive begins at $41,145.

The styling improvements, especially inside together with the new fuel-efficient V-6 engine puts, for the most part, the 300 back on competitive footing with other sedans in the segment including the Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse.

Base price: $27,995; as driven, $27,995
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 292 @ 6,350 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 120.2 inches
Length: 198.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,961 pounds
Turning circle: 38.9 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19.1 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 7.2 seconds (MotorTrend)
Also consider: Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse

The Good:
• Excellent modern V-6 engine
• Quality-looking interior
• Spacious cabin
• All-wheel drive available

The Bad:
• All-wheel drive only in pricey trim level

The Ugly:
• Redesign tweaks did not completely hide bulky exterior