FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Chrysler 200

Chrysler goes for a fresh start - does it succeed?

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March 20, 2014

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Chrysler 200

If it were our money, we'd definitely spend the $1,950 for the V-6.

Introduction
When an auto-industry observer talks about the issues that drove Chrysler into federally-managed bankruptcy in 2009, the late, unloved Sebring mid-size sedan is often mentioned. To be clear, one bad product did not deliver Chrysler into dire straits - it was a perfect storm of careless ownership from Cerberus Capital Management (which followed a bad marriage with Daimler), a horrendous economy, and several bad product/design decisions (Dodge Caliber, anyone?) The Sebring was just one element in that mess.

As it scrambled for survival, Chrysler hastily rebadged the Sebring as the 200, gave it newer (admittedly much better) sheetmetal, and dropped in an available 3.6-liter 'Pentastar' V-6. But it was still a Sebring underneath, even if it was much-improved.

Knowing that it needs a strong entry in the mid-size class to compete, Chrysler is looking to rectify that with the all-new 2015 200, a clean-sheet redesign. Not only is the company looking to shed the 200's previous image as a car best suited for rental fleets, but it's looking to leap-frog up the mid-size class to try and top cars like the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

Chrysler intends to do this with a standard nine-speed automatic transmission (also seen in the Jeep Cherokee), a revamped interior, and a completely restyled exterior - and that's just for starters.

Beyond the new design, Chrysler is hoping that giving the 200 a value price (the base model starts at $21,700) will motivate buyers to its Web site and dealer showrooms. Those who do shop the 200 will find four trim levels: base LX, mid-level Limited, sporty S, and top-level C. Chrysler employees told us that they expect the Limited to be the volume model, with up to 70 percent of sales.

Those seventy percent won't be availing themselves of V-6 power or the available all-wheel-drive system. The base engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but S and C buyers can opt for a 3.6-liter V-6, and those who opt for the six can get all-wheel-drive, too, if they so choose. As for the LX, Chrysler says they expect that trim to account for only five percent of sales.

Other goodies exclusive to the S and C include the available 8.4-inch UConnect touchscreen display for the infotainment system (a five-incher is standard on all trims but LX, where it's optional) and navigation itself (strikes us as odd that the 'volume' model isn't available with nav, but whatever). The C also has what Chrysler calls a 'premium' interior with more upscale materials, while the S trades chrome trim for black trim.

Available safety features include the expected slew of airbags, a blind-spot monitoring system, a rearview camera, rear cross-path detection, and a lane-departure warning system that uses steering wheel input to subtly keep drivers on track. That's in addition to Adaptive Cruise Control Plus, which can stop the 200 without driver intervention under certain circumstances; and Full-Speed Forward Collision Warning Plus, which can use autonomous braking to slow or stop the car (at low speeds) when it detects an imminent frontal collision. There's also a Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist system to aid in parallel parking and a system that holds the car in place should the driver open the door and unlatch the seatbelt when the transmission is in 'drive' or 'reverse.'

Chrysler's been looking for a credible mid-size sedan for a long, long time. To determine if the new 200 fits the bill, we headed to the rolling hills of northern Kentucky, where winding roads and wandering stray dogs (and turkeys) awaited.

2015 Chrysler 200 Performance We first sampled the 200S with all-wheel-drive, and we can tell you that when Chrysler says it's the sporty trim, it's actually believable. The S isn't just a badge slapped on the outside: it gets sportier suspension tuning and available 19-inch wheels. The V-6 snarls in a sinister way (it sounded similar in the other V-6 cars we drove, but seemed more pronounced in the S), which lends it some sporting chops.

As for steering and handling, we found it to be mixed. Like the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee, the 200 is based on the Alfa Romeo Giuletta platform, and it does handle better than the Dart, with tighter steering. Unfortunately, the steering doesn't feel quite engaging enough (perhaps it was a tad overboosted), and the 200S doesn't match the Ford Fusion or Honda Accord for sheer handling prowess. It felt sporty and competent, but there's some tweaking to be done.

Mostly pristine Kentucky roads made it difficult to fully judge ride - we need to hit a few more potholes for that - but on the rough stretches of pavement we did encounter, the 200 seemed to absorb bumps fairly well.

If it were our money, we'd definitely spend the $1,950 for the V-6. Its 295 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque were noticeable, with plenty of punch for merging and passing, and the aforementioned exhaust note sounded good, although it might get tiring over time. The nine-speed auto offers paddle shifters in S models, for those who must shift themselves.

As for the four, well, it needs a bit of work. Unsurprisingly, it feels weaker than the Pentastar, with its 184 horsepower and 173 lb-ft feeling not quite up to snuff for passing. It also sounded far coarser than its bigger brother. Chrysler is promising an estimated 35 mpg highway with the smaller engine (EPA numbers aren't out yet), but unless fuel economy is paramount to you, we'd suggest opting for the six.

What about opting for the all-wheel-drive? Chrysler says it's not just for inclement weather, that it's meant to increase handling performance, too - it's supposed to make the car feel more like a rear-drive vehicle. That may be, but had we not known which car we were in, we probably wouldn't have noticed much handling difference. It didn't really feel like a rear-driver to us. It's $2,200, so might be an option to pass on unless it snows a lot in your town
2015 Chrysler 200 Exterior The last 200 was an attempt at getting rid of the Sebring's hodgepodge of weird lines and design elements. Sadly, the result was a blander look that was quite soulless, if not ugly.

Thankfully, the redesign solves all of that. It's sleeker and wedgier, with a grille that tapers off into upturned lines as it meets the headlamps. It's a smooth look that avoids blandness. Chrysler didn't get as aggressive with the 200 as Ford did with the Fusion or Hyundai did with the Sonata in 2010, but that's OK, it's an attractive car. One Chrysler presenter called it 'stunning,' which we think is a step too far, but you won't be bored looking at this car, nor embarrassed to drive it. When was the last time that was said about a mid-size sedan designed by Chrysler?
2015 Chrysler 200 Interior This is where the 200 really shines. The customizable driver's info center and the 8.4-inch UConnect screen feature designs that are by now familiar to those who have been in other Dodge and Chrysler products lately, and we appreciated the huge fonts and easy-to-use knobs and buttons. Even the touch screen is responsive, although we didn't like digging for certain commands. We also found the gauges to be artsy-looking while still readable.

We really dug the center console, which slides easily, giving access to a floor-mounted parcel shelf. The USB port is easy to reach, and the rubber mat beneath the console offers up an embossed sketch of the Detroit skyline (minus GM's headquarters at the Renaissance Center, which struck us as petty). Chrysler gave the 200 a rotary shifter (like the one in Ram pickups) in order to save space, which is a good solution until you accidentally turn the air-conditioning fan up while reaching for the rotary dial.

Overall, interior materials on the pre-production cars we tested seemed class-appropriate, and Chrysler did imbue the 200 with a lot of soft-touch material, including on the dash. Only some cheap plastic undermines the look and feel, but Chrysler seems to have kept that to a minimum in the S and C. Speaking of the C, its materials did feel a tad bit nicer, and we liked the look of those interiors that had contrasting colors.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the 200's cabin is the rear-seat space, or lack thereof. Leg room is tight for taller adults, and the swooping roofline cuts off head room. Chrysler measures it at 37.6 inches, compared to 38.5 in the Accord sedan and 38.3 inches in the Fusion. Chevy's Malibu is even tighter, though, at 36.8 inches.

Kids will fit fine, but it might be hard to maneuver carseats around for those tots that haven't outgrown them yet.
2015 Chrysler 200 Final Thoughts Chrysler folks talked about how they wanted to make a 'spectacular' car and how they started from the ground up to do so. The good news is that the 200 is worlds better than what it replaces (granted, it was a low bar to clear), but the bad news is that the company didn't leap to the top of the class.

If you want sporty handling, the 200 is good, but not good enough to oust the Fusion, Accord, or Mazda 6. Its projected fuel-economy is nothing to sneeze at, but it's not top of the class. The four-cylinder needs some refinement, and the tight rear seat will scare some buyers off.

That's the bad. The good is that the car is attractive inside and out, priced right (although options bump the MSRP up quickly. Our fairly loaded S AWD tester was $33K.), and rides well. It's on par with the Sonata or Kia Optima, which places it somewhere above mid-pack. Certainly, it's more attractive than Chevy's Malibu, and perhaps more fun to drive, too.

Chrysler didn't dethrone the kings of the mid-size class (we haven't even mentioned the Toyota Camry, which still sells like gangbusters despite being on the boring side), but it didn't have to, it just needed to get people to buy the 200 in bigger numbers, while also backing up its 'Imported from Detroit' bluster about building good cars. It's too early to tell about the former, but on the latter, the company seems to have walked the walk.

'Spectacular' or not, the 200 is pretty good. Just take our advice and spring for a C or S with the V-6. You'll thank us later.
Specs, Features, & Prices Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder or 3.6-liter V-6

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Drive Wheels: Front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy: N/A

Base Price: $21,700 (excludes $995 destination fee)

Available Features: USB port, navigation, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, infotainment system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, blind-spot monitoring, remote start, rearview camera, parallel-parking assist, forward-collision warning, rear cross-path detection, fog lamps.

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