American eyes piece of shrinking big car pie
The second-generation Chrysler 300C, goes on sale in New Zealand this month, and while you can tell instantly from the front at least that it's a new car, it still has that hunkered, mildly sinister look of the original that attracted so many on its first time around.
But the changes are more than merely a new seven-vane grille to replace the post-office sorting shelf egg-crate look of before, and some nice C-shaped driving LEDs. Someone in the design studio has given the car's main sculpture lines an extra run of his clay knife, as the ridges along the bonnet line and the C-pillar to boot area are much crisper and have a chamfered top edge, while the side-crease just below the car's high waistline, drops to the front wheel arch, giving much-needed horizontal tension.
It's even more of a new car inside, too. Softer-edged shapes and better ergonomics are immediately obvious, while some nice wood and metal details are worthy of comment. A gorgeous wristwatch-like cabin clock shaped to match the car's grille sits atop a central information panel that's packed with graphics dedicated to the sound system, music and phone connectivity and in some models, a 8.4 inch satellite navigation screen.
The 300 really is an "all-American" car now, as unlike the previous models, all 300s are made in the United States and Canada.
The platform is still traceable to a generation-old Mercedes-Benz E-class – born of a marriage long ago between Chrysler and the German firm, but the 300's powertrains are very much Chrysler/Fiat's own. The VM Motori 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel produces 177kW/550Nm replacing the old Benz unit, and the all-new 210kW/340Nm 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 is complete with a Chrysler-made ZF eight-speed transmission.
The VM Motori diesel is a honey, especially when compared with earlier offerings from the Fiat Powertrain company. After the Benz-supplied V6 it had a hard act to follow, but the 177kW unit's torque peak range is deliciously flexible. Having to satisfy fans of the original 5.7-litre V8 powered 300C would be a hard job for any V6, but the Pentastar unit makes a fine fist of it. It's a creamy smooth unit, with a pleasingly smooth relationship with its transmission, so much so that try as I might I could never tell which of the eight gears it was in at any one time. I snatched a peek at the dash readout, only to prove how wrong I was. Upper echelon versions of the 300C have paddle shifters for the Pentastar V6, but it's quite flexible enough in most driving conditions for you not to have to bother interfering with the unit's shift patterns.
The "ordinary" hemi V8 may no longer be available in the 300, but for those with a bit of gasoline in their veins, an SRT8 high-performance model is on the manifest with a massive 6.4-litre 347kW/631Nm Hemi V8. With a thundering great repertoire of sounds ranging from a grumbling low-speed murmur to a basso profundo thrum as revs build, the big Hemi has all the performance such a sound track suggests, with an ability to snap to 100kmh in five seconds. That's quick.
You can get sharper handling than the 300 in the large car class by going German or perhaps to the high-performance Ford FPV and Holden HSV , but you'll pay more for the privilege than the Chrysler's $87,990.
Although the car tended to tramline on its 20-inch rims and slip a tad on the wet, greasy roads of its launch drive route, it's a predictable enough beast.
The steering is well-weighted and accurate and the SRT8 seating is supportive against the car's considerable side forces when cornering.
Both the diesel and petrol V6s use electro hydraulic steering in the name of saving on fuel use by not being a drain on the engine. They feel quite meaty, and when on 18-inch rims are less able to be diverted from their course by bumps and rills and the ride quality is vastly better. They appear also to offer just as much grip as the SRT8.
Inside, the 300 offers the world in terms of space, comfort and equipment up front, though rear passenger space is nothing to write home about, and the luggage space of 481 litres is not as good as it could be if Chrysler had a more vertical tail rather than the canted forward design it has retained.
From a driver's point of view the car's parking brake – a double action foot-operated device – requires a very deliberate lift and press of the left leg. Also, it protrudes quite alarmingly in the footwell. I'd hate to see the kind of shin and ankle injury possible in a head-on impact.
There are few other criticisms of the 300's interior, save for the very cheap-looking cloth trim used in the entry-point 300 Limited model and the plasticky textures of its dash top. The mid-range 300C and the top-end 300C Luxury have respectively, leather and nappa upholstery and it's possible to upgrade the 300C's trim to the nappa in a special package. But you can't upgrade the base Limited model, which frankly doesn't have the delightful atmosphere of the 300C and Luxury cars and never feels as special.
But it's not hard to like the 300. I find the subtle external changes convincing and tidy and the car's behaviour on the road shows the chassis people have really put the car through finishing school – there's little bump-thump, the car slices into curves it used to bounce through and its initial impact damping imparts a very calming ride demeanour indeed.
The Limited costs $57,990 in V6 petrol form, and $62,990 with the turbodiesel. While the cloth trim might disappoint, the equipment list reads pretty well, with rear park assist radar, hill-start control, stability control, a raft of airbags and of course traction control and ABS. It also has cruise control, solar control glass all round, acoustic glass at the front and a useful U-connect radio CD, MP3 and Bluetooth unit with a touch screen and six speakers.
For another $5000 with either engine, the mid-range 300C adds automatic wipers, leather and real wood trim, another three speakers, full streaming, heated and cooled cupholders and satellite navigation.
For $67,990 and $73,990 respectively, the petrol and diesel 300C Luxury model tops the lot by including gorgeous nappa leather trim an up to 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio if you option it, paddle-shifters, a leather-rimmed steering wheel, blind-spot monitoring, platinum shards in the grille, adaptive cruise control and 20-inch alloy wheel rims (they look great but are a tad firm in the ride).
The $5000 difference between the base Limited model and the more plainly-named but well equipped 300C is money well spent.
You end up with a car that is effectively the sweet spot in the range, and while I love the flexibility and frugality of the lungingly flexible diesel, it's another $5000 again over the Pentastar-power petrol car, and you could take years and years making up the difference in fuel costs if our arcane road user charges ever allow you to.
As for the hot-to-trot 300C SRT8, it also has its niche and will appeal to those who care a little less about fuel reserves, emissions and disturbing the neighbours, but I for one couldn't blame anyone for being attracted to it.
Turbodiesel V6 – 3.0-litre 24v Quadcam, five-speed automatic, RWD.
Petrol V6 – 3.6-litre 24v Quadcam, eight-speed automatic, RWD.SRT8 Petrol V8 – 6.4-litre 16v OHV, five-speed automatic, RWD.
Turbodiesel V6 – 177kW at 4000rpm, 550Nm at 1600-2800rpm, max 144kmh, 0-100kmh 7.4sec, 7.2L/100km.
Petrol V6 – 210kW at 6350rpm, 340Nm at 4650rpm, max 149kmh, 0-100kmh 6.6sec, 9.7L/100km.
Petrol V8 – 347kW at 6200rpm, 631Nm at 4800rpm, max 178kmh, 0-100kmh 4.8sec, 14L/100km.
Chassis: Independent short and long arms at front, five-link independent at rear, rack and pinion steering with electro hydraulic power assist (hydraulic on SRT8).
Safety: ABS, ESP, traction control, park assist, blind-spot monitoring, cross-path detection, multi-stage driver and front-passenger airbags, front and rear side-curtains, driver's inflatable kneebag and driver and front-passenger pelvic-thorax airbags.
Dimensions: L 5066mm, W 1902mm, H 1488mm, W/base 3052mm, weight 1950-2117kg, fuel 72.3L.
Pricing: 300C Petrol V6s from $57,990 to $67,990. V6 Turbodiesels from $62,990 to $73,990. SRT8 $87,990.
Hot: Mid-range models loaded; lusty diesel; brisk, smooth high value Pentastar; materials, finish; chassis improvement.
Not: Base car has cheap cloth interior and tacky dashtop plus no leather upgrade.
Verdict: A much classier, better behaved car than the original with a petrol V6 that's as quick as the old Hemi V8.