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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?

"Madness? ... THIS. IS. MOPAR!"

The GTI needed to go into the shop for some brake work the week after Thanksgiving, and due to a surge of business combined with a shortage of service techs, the shop couldn't get to it before the end of the day. The manager arranged for a loaner through one of the rental companies, a big, imposing Chrysler 300. This one, to be precise:

"Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty... For tonight, we drive in ... this thing???"

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 "Spartans! Prepare for glory!"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.

"My good king! My good king! The oracle has spoken. "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).

A song called "The Perfect Drug" playing on the "Lithium" channel. Mere coincidence?  I have my doubts.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 "rangefinder" bars tell you how close things are to your back bumper.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.

"We are with you, sire! For Mopar, for freedom, for tail fins!"There is one major deficiency, though. Just look at the rear quarter photo above.

See what I'm talking about?

You don't?

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?

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Interesting...

I just happened to be watching an episode on "EverydayDriver.com" (http://everydaydriver.com/reviews/dodge-charger/)and viewed their video of the Charger SXT+. Their takeaway seemed to be similar to yours.

It seems Chrysler has been making some significant progress especially compared with GM and Ford. This breed of cars (300 & Charger) seems to stand alone. What once were the mainstay of the domestic auto industry (large rear wheel drive) is now down to the these 2 domestic offerings.

That said, I think there is a lot of life in these left in this segment. It's unfortunate that many ppl, especially younger buyers who never experienced these, will never consider them as you observed at the beginning of your piece.

For about the price of fully loaded Accord, Camry or similar you get an amazing car (albeit large) with exceptional dynamics for their size. I'm more impressed with how Chrysler could squeeze over 300HP out of a six and get the mileage they do.

I'm also glad you had the chance to drive the "300" and share your experience with us... maybe it will help Chrysler sell a few more and possibly make a few ppl curious enough to take a test drive who might never had considered one.

Cars like this are worth saving and show they can be as "green" as other models and definitely deserve to exist...

Personally I really dig the 300 and Charger, they represent a slice of Americana that Ford and GM don't offer anymore (and doubtfully ever will again).

Regarding your last blurb about the 300 not having tailfins reminds me of those that (still) complain about the Charger not being a 2-door... oh well. I personally think both nameplates are well represented in today's market with the cars that they've become.

And regarding those that still complain about the Charger being a 4-door, ever notice they never seem to complain about the Charger being a FWD 4-cyl econobox hatchback back in the 80s? I'll take today's 4-door Charger any day of the week and twice on Sunday over one of those slugs (although the Shelby Charger was at least somewhat cool). And technically Dodge DOES make a 2-door Charger, it's called the Challenger.

Sorry, rant over. Please carry on.

I think the rear view camera is an excellent idea. When I switch from driving the Miata to the 4-door F-150, it's like going from a Cessna 152 to a Boeing 747; backing up becomes a nightmare. I'm looking for an aftermarket camera system that won't look too "tacked on," which should also be much less expensive (and much less embarrassing) that the alternative crunching noises.

Everything about it sounds and looks good, now how about making it in a 2-door hardtop, and offer a manual trans?

I love this car, the rear end while not having tail fins is pretty close to the 62 and 63 "Plucked Chicken" look of the Imperial,so it has a touch of Exner DNA, which is pretty good to me.

I love the general design of the 300. I hate the back end though. It is like it was an afterthought and they put little time or effort into it. Someone said can we steal the lights from the Navigator, and they had a trunk lid from an old Intrepid sitting around so they slapped a big Chrysler emblem on it and called it a day.

And don't even get me started on the rear bumper. Blech.

But overall the design is 80% win, so it is better than nearly everything that has come from Detroit in quite a few years.

I guess it's a "Bad boy's car," which Mopar seems to love to make (And bad boys' trucks as well).

Several months ago I scored a Charger as a rental car in Philly and was very impressed. I would definitely consider buying one. This from someone not generally impressed with anything Mopar from 1981 on, and someone not frequently left wanting to buy an example of the random rental cars one gets through Priceline.

The design change a couple of years ago that dropped the cowl and forward beltline a few key inches is the best thing that Chrysler has done in a while. In 2009 I considered buying a Magnum, but I couldn't get over the feeling of being in a tank turret peering out through a slit.

The Charger also passed my other rental car acid test. I was visiting a friend who usually has something negative to say about the size, ride or handling of my cheap-ass rental cars. She LOVED the Charger.

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