Test Drive: Chrysler 200 reboot scores

Test Drive: Chrysler 200 reboot scores

June 21st, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Business Diary

The new Chrysler 200 is a revolutionary improvement of the midsize sedan.

Photo by Mark Kennedy/Times Free Press.

FAST FACTS

* Model: Chrysler 200 Limited

* Exterior color: Bright White

* Interior color: Black

* Engine: 2.4 liter, four-cylinder

* Horsepower: 184

* Transmission: 9-speed automatic

* Fuel economy: 36 miles per gallon highway, 23 mpg city

* Dealer: Moss Motor Company in South Pittsburg, Tenn.

* Price (as tested): $23,996

Sometimes new-car upgrades are evolutionary, modest tweaks to an already refined product.

But sometimes they're revolutionary, huge leaps in quality and performance designed to vault a middle-of-the-pack model into the upper echelons of a class. The new Chrysler 200 midsize sedan, a clean-sheet redesign by Fiat Chrysler, is definitely in the revolutionary category.

Chrysler has transformed a plain-Jane fleet car into a worthy competitor for the traditional heavyweights in the class: the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.

In a recent comparison test involving midsize cars by Motor Trend magazine, the 2015 Chrysler 200 placed ahead of both the Camry and Accord but behind the Mazda6 and Kia Optima. Having driven all except the new Kia, and not accounting for predicted reliability (a big caveat), I would slot the 200 just behind the fun-to-drive Mazda6.

The Chrysler 200 comes in four trim levels, and this week we drove a mid-trim 200 Limited from Moss Motor Co., in South Pittsburg. Sales manager Shawn Henson says Chrysler has pinned high hopes on the 200 and priced it to move in big numbers. Our economical test car stickers for $23,996. By comparison, the top-of-the-line S and C trim 200s can drift well north of $30,000 when loaded with safety and luxury options.

STYLING AND COMFORT

First a couple of quirks of the new Chrysler 200: It has a rotary electronic gear shifter (a space-saving feature often seen in luxury brands such as Jaguar), but it has no CD player -- a brave move that may encourage other car-makers to ditch the Old School technology. After all, most American's have long since converted their music libraries to iPods and other MP3 digital-music players. It's just a matter of time until CD players in cars go the way of eight-track and cassette tape players.

The exterior of the 200 has been completely resculpted and now has nicely rounded corners and a wind-swept profile. Our test car has attractive 17-inch, aluminum wheels, a gift when it comes time to replace the tires. (Ask car-owners with 2o-inch rims how much their replacement rubber costs and watch them wince.)

The 200 has a prominent shoulder line that pulls the design together horizontally. The low roof does intrude some on cabin room -- I like to drive with the driver's seat pushed forward and the headliner felt curiously close to my forehead.

Otherwise, the interior is best-in-class. Even in a mid-trim Limited equipped with cloth seats, the interior has a near-luxury, Audiesque quality. The dash and door materials are first rate. Available wood-grain accents in the higher trims would look at home in cars costing $20,000 more.

Chrysler has taken great care in designing-in plenty of cubbies and storage pockets. The center stack has a deep storage compartment and a nearly hidden shelf under the shifter console that contains a rubber liner embossed with the skyline of Detroit -- an interesting design flourish. The dash features a gauge cluster with three-dimensional dials for the tachometer and speedometer, which are conveniently labeled in case you get them confused. (Hint: If you think to yourself, "Wow, I'm going 2,000 miles an hour," you're looking at the tach.)

Our $24,000 test car comes with such premium standard equipment as keyless entry, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, LED tail-lights and active grille shutters -- one of the ways Chrysler squeezes 36 miles per gallon highway out of its four-cylinder engine. A full suite of cutting-edge safety options is available if you're willing to pony up. Formerly unattainable in this class, the 200 can be equipped with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with active braking and a rear backup camera.

DRIVING IMPRESSION

Our test car comes equipped with a 184 horsepower, four-cylinder engine (a 3.6 liter, V-6 is optional). For most drivers the lively, inline-four should be powerful enough, especially when you factor in the outstanding fuel economy. A nine-speed automatic (yes, you read that right, nine-speed), also helps boost gas mileage. For comparison, it was only a few years ago that five-speed automatic transmissions were the standard in this class.

In our test drive, we dipped down into north Alabama, my favorite place to test suspensions on bumpy roads. The 200's steering is spot on and the suspension keeps body lean to a minimum. This car is a lot more fun to drive than you might imagine, and it operates quietly, too.

All-wheel drive is available on the 200, making it one of the few mainstream midsize car's with that option.

BOTTOM LINE

If the whole "imported from Detroit" marketing pitch intrigues you, the new Chrysler 200 is a good example of how a domestic auto-maker has caught, and in some instances passed, the best-selling imports. The 200 can be configured to fit most any new-car buyer's budget. At the top trim levels, it offers top-of-the-line features at down-to-earth prices.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.