Anyone looking for a comfortable, roomy sedan with rear-wheel drive, good ride and handling and lots of trunk space
Comparable models in this class:
No rear-wheel drive or V8 powered sedans in this price range. Front drive V6 models include: Buick Le Sabre, Chevrolet Impala, Ford Five Hundred, Mercury Montego, Pontiac Bonneville (The Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego are available with All-wheel drive)
I have to admit that I began this road test with low expectations. When I first saw the prototype for the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum, I didn't like them at all. I was a big fan of the Cab Forward look that Chrysler has been promoting since the 1993 model year. They were, to my eye, some of the nicest looking cars on the road. Now, along comes this new design that totally scrapped the cab-forward look to go back to the old school styling of boxy looking sedans and wagons with long hoods and squared off rooflines.
Well, all of those reservations and objections dissolved when I took delivery of the shiny new 300C that you see pictured above. Not only did I change my opinion on the looks, but other people seemed to agree. Everywhere I went with this car, I was greeted with thumbs up and questions about what it was, or how I liked it and, oh yes, "Does that thing have a Hemi?" to which I replied "Absolutely!"
For those uninitiated, let me explain what all this Hemi hoopla is about. During the mid ,50s, Chrysler along with the other American manufacturers, were looking to replace their aging flathead engines with the new technology overhead valve engines. An overhead valve engine meant more power and better fuel economy than anything that was possible with the old flathead design.
Chrysler, being known as the engineering car company, wanted something more. They were looking for an advantage beyond simply moving the valves into the cylinder head. They thought that, instead of lining up the valves side-by side in a wedge-shaped combustion chamber, they would arrange the valves one above the other in a combustion chamber that was hemispherical in shape. In case you haven't figured it out by now, Hemi stands for "hemispherical combustion chamber".
This arrangement had the effect of placing the intake valve above the exhaust valve which allowed gravity to help move the fuel-air mixture through the cylinder and out again. The net advantage of this design was more power and efficiency, but the layout had a downside as well. The problem was that this design required a much more complicated valve arrangement which included two rocker shafts per head and a considerably larger head casting which contributed to a heavier engine that cost more to produce.
Chrysler actually began design work on the first Hemi engine in 1939. This engine was for a fighter aircraft and had 16 cylinders. In 1951, Chrysler put the first Hemi V8 engine in a passenger car. It had a whopping 180 horsepower and found its way into the pace car for that year's Indy 500 race. Race drivers quickly made the Hemi their engine of choice for a variety of races from the 24 hour race at Le Mans to powering top fuel dragsters. Today, the hemispherical combustion chamber is commonly used in many engines, but not quite in the same way that Chrysler did.
The new Hemi V8 is a thoroughly modern engine using lots of new technology and processes. The most significant of these technologies is cylinder deactivation This works by keeping the valves closed on four of the cylinders when they are not needed, like during light-throttle cruising and coasting. This has the effect of switching between a 4 cylinder engine and a V8 in the blink of an eye. When you are cruising on the highway, you are being powered by a "4 cylinder" engine, but as soon as you tip into the gas, you have the advantage of a powerful V8. The transition between 4 and 8 cylinders is seamless and virtually unnoticeable.
The Hemi provides you with a considerable amount of power without resorting to the use of multiple valves and overhead cams that are found on the more upscale vehicles these days. This went a long way toward helping Chrysler keep the costs down.
Well, the proof, as they say, is in the driving. Tipping into the throttle on this new Hemi was an interesting experience. This car really goes. The engine was as smooth as any of those exotic multi-valve DOHC engines found in the upscale sedans that start at 50 grand and go up from there. The smoothness is there, the sound is superb, and the power is awesome. The Hemi is coupled to a smooth 5 speed automatic transmission with a Mercedes-style shifter that allows manual control by nudging the shifter side to side.
We had an opportunity to drive a 300C on an Autocross course and found out just how good the handling of this large sedan is. It had some body lean when we tossed it mercilessly around the cones, but overall, the car felt very controllable and predictable.
We also drove the all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive cars back to back in order to compare their winter capability. The all-wheel drive model, coupled with its traction and stability control systems surprised us by how well it performed in the snow and rain, but the rear drive model was no slouch either. While it certainly didn't have the capability of the all-wheel drive model, it handled predictably and competently in the slippery stuff with the aid of the electronic stability controls.
Unlike Chrysler vehicles of the past, road noise on the 300 is very well controlled and on a par with some of the quieter cars on the road. Wind noise is virtually non existent at any legal speeds and the cabin is, overall, a relaxing place to wile away the miles.
Getting in and out of the 300 is a snap. The seats are high and firm, just sit down and swing your legs in. The eight-way adjustable driver's seat and the tilt and telescopic steering wheel (power adjustable in our 300C test car) allowed us to quickly find a comfortable driving position. If the adjustment range of the steering wheel is insufficient, you can opt for power-adjustable pedals as well.
Visibility is a tad claustrophobic with a windshield header that is quite far forward. Much of it has to do with the low, chopped-top roofline. This has the effect of making it sometimes difficult to see overhead traffic lights if you are the front car. The Homelink garage door buttons, which are located in the overhead console just ahead of the sunroof, are a bit of a stretch. If you are coming from last year's 300M, this is as different a cockpit as you can get.
On my initial walk-around, I had to keep reminding myself that the base price of this large sedan was under $24,000. The top-of-the-line 300C started at just under $34,000. This car comes off looking like it should cost thousands more. That will change when people start seeing lots of them on the road, but for now, early-bird buyers will experience what it is like to drive an upscale sedan.
The interior is well trimmed out and quite a bit richer looking than the 300M that it replaces. I especially like the "tortoise-shell" upper steering wheel rim and shifter knob insert. If you prefer wood in place of the translucent plastic on the steering wheel and shifter, it is available as an option.
A car's reputation for safety isn't just how well it can protect you in a crash. It is just as important to have a car that can avoid that crash in the first place. The handling capability of the Chrysler 300, coupled with powerful 4-wheel disc brakes with available ABS helps you to avoid accidents in the first place. To keep the costs down, Chrysler chose to make ABS a $775 option on the base model, which I think is unfortunate. All cars should have this important safety feature as standard equipment. Brake assist, traction control and stability control are also standard on all but the base model where this package is available as an option as well.
If you are not able to avoid an accident with all that available technology, you will be happy to know that Chrysler recently received a 5 star rating on the government's crash test which means that the driver and front passenger have a 10% or less chance of serious injury in a 35 mph frontal crash. In another sacrifice to the bottom line, front and rear side curtain air bags are only available as an option package on all models. All-wheel drive is available as an option with either the 3.5 liter V6 or the Hemi V8. It is not available on the base model with the 2.7 liter engine.
Chrysler has a winner on its hands with the new 300, and that also goes for the station wagon version of this car, the Dodge Magnum. The Dodge dealers do not have a sedan version yet and they are not happy about it. These cars replace the Dodge Intrepid, which was a popular seller for the Dodge boys and they want a comparable car to the 300 for their showrooms. Their wait is almost over. Dodge will soon introduce the Dodge Charger which will have a look all its own and, from what I have seen in the teaser pictures, it looks good indeed.
I don't know of any large rear-wheel drive sedans that can be had for anything near the price of the Chrysler 300. For now at least, it is in a class of it's own.