Test Drive--2013 Chrysler 300
Can a handsome young man with a fondness for light, agile cars and manual transmissions find happiness, or at least contentment, behind the wheel of a luxury battlecruiser with a slushbox? Or is the very proposition madness?
I'll confess that my initial reaction to the 300 was something along the lines of "this is gonna suck." I prefer smaller cars to larger ones, tight suspensions and directness to a soft ride and isolation, and it is a basic teaching of my personal catechism that if God had meant me to drive an automatic, He would not have given me a left leg with which to operate the clutch. I'm also not much of a fan of Chrysler's "urban badass" design language--the slab sides, big wheel wells, high beltline, squat greenhouse, and general burliness.
After about six blocks behind the wheel, I was starting to think this maybe wasn't going to be quite so bad after all. By the time I had to turn the car back in two days later, I was--well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I was sorry to see it go, but I'd grown to respect it.
My loaner was a base-model Chrysler 300. It is 198 inches long and rides on a 120-inch wheelbase, and has a "conventional" front engine-rear drive layout. The prime mover is a 3.6L "Pentastar" DOHC V-6 with variable valve timing which produces 300 HP at 6,400 RPM and 260 pounds of torque at 4,800 RPM, mated to an eight-speed--yes eight, count 'em, eight forward gears!--computer-controlled ZF automatic. While the torque peak is fairly far up the tachometer, Chrysler claims that 90% of the engine's maximum torque is available at 1,600 RPM--and I believe them. It's an engine with a lot of bottom-end pull.
The outward visibility and basic ergonomics of the driver's position are good. My only complaint is the shifter for the transmission. It doesn't move back and forth in a slot like we're used to, it's more of a three-position switch spring-loaded to dead center. To go from "park" to "drive," you put your foot on the brake, push the little latch button on the lever, pull it back, watch the electronics step through "reverse" and "neutral" on the screen in the center of the dash, and then let off when it gets to "drive." This is a most unsatisfying interface, with no tactile feedback, and it takes quite a bit of getting used to before you can shift from, say, "drive" to "reverse" without ending up in either "neutral" or "park." There is a "low" gear setting, but no manual override, so you're pretty much stuck with the shift pattern the software serves up.
Which is actually a pretty good shift pattern, I have to say. Stomp on the accelerator to merge into freeway traffic or get around some slowpoke on a country road and, after the merest hesitation while the eight-speed's computer brain executes the code for the KICKDOWN subroutine, the torque-happy V-6 adds to the two-ton car's forward velocity vector at an impressive rate. I didn't do a stopwatched 0-60 run, but if Chrysler's claim of 6-and-a-fraction seconds zero to sixty is an exaggeration, they're not exaggerating by much. An informal full power dash, from a standing start, through one of Northeast Ohio's more entertaining S-curves was nearly as much fun as it is in the GTI, and that's saying a lot. Truth be told, it was exciting enough that I thought the car had a V-8 until I looked under the hood.
The steering is a lot better than you'd expect in a Detroit luxury car. There's not as much road feel as I like, but there's enough to get the job done in spirited driving. The brake feel and modulation is good. There are plenty of lateral Gs available to keep you out of the ditches, and when the car is tossed through the twisties in aggressive fashion, it maintains its composure and doesn't feel anywhere near as big and heavy as it actually is. The suspension soaks up the bumps and delivers up a ride worthy of the car's "luxury" ambitions without isolating the driver so much that you can't tell what the wheels are doing while blasting through the aforementioned S-curve.
This may be a "300," but there's nothing Spartan about it. The excellent driving dynamics are paired with a plush interior fitted out with most every Jim-dandy electronic gadget known to modern science. Between the big color screen in the center stack and the electric blue lighting on the instrument panel, sitting in the front left bucket seat of the 300 felt a little like driving one of Deep Space 9's Danube-class "runabouts", especially at night.
The seat itself--power-adjustable eight ways from Wednesday morning--was reasonably comfortable and supportive, and the under-cushion electric heater is nice to have on crisp fall Ohio mornings. The satellite-capable stereo was more than suitable for singing along with the Black Keys, though the touchscreen interface was not always completely user-friendly (and the owner's manual was missing in action).
The absolute coolest gadget was the back-up camera, which automatically switches on whenever you shift into reverse. This was my first direct experience with one, and I'll confess I thought it was so awesome that I found myself finding excuses to go backwards, just so I could play with it.
The dog liked it too. We had her in the car with us when we ran an early evening errand, and as I was backing into the driveway, Cookie was standing between the front seats, facing forward. When I put the car in "R," she stared at the screen for a moment, and then looked out the back window, and then back at the screen, and then back out the window. You could just see on her face that she was trying to figure out how something over there could be over here at the exact same time.
To sum it all up, the 300 was surprisingly competent, surprisingly capable, and surprisingly fun to drive. Unlike with some post-bailout Detroit vehicles I could mention, you get the impression from the 300 that the folks at Mopar learned something from their company's near-death experience and are throwing themselves into their new lease on life with a will. It's not my kind of car, not even close, but it's a darned good car.
See what I'm talking about?
Okay, let me spell it out for you. It's a "Chrysler," it has a "300" name badge on it, and it goes like the proverbial bat like it should--but there are no tail fins! How can you possibly make a car called "Chrysler 300" and not give it genuine Virgil Exner tail fins? That's just wrong.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The photos are either Chrysler publicity images or low-res cellphone snapshots. Can you tell which is which?