Chrysler 300C and 300 Limited Car Review
Chrysler 300 Limited car review
The main star of the 300 lineup is the 300C, whose more gussied-up interior is overshadowed by the eager and powerful Hemi engine. That 340 horsepower wonder is light, ready to rev, and tuned for delightful sound and speed. We tested the 300C and Limited models; the Limited which comes with the 300M's 3.5 liter V6 engine and four-speed automatic. (The Hemi and all-wheel-drive Limited come with a five-speed automatic originally designed for Mercedes.)
The 300 Limited is very different from the 300M in more ways than the striking styling, which turned heads everywhere we went - in a way we haven't seen since driving the Toyota MR2 and PT Cruiser (back when there were few PTs) unless you count the head-turning that followed the Magnum. Those of us who thought Chrysler had lost its mind with the redesign were missing a trend; Chrysler's out front and in fashion, with front and rear clips resembling 300s and Valiants of years past, and a straight side line that some say hails from Bentley, and others think was inspired by big SUVs.
The overall feel of the 300 is very different from any Chrysler in recent memory. It seems to have been designed to give a feeling of solidness, of being carved from a single block of steel. The high door sills, the feel of the switches, even the block shape all contribute to this feel, and for good reason. Market research showed that people associate the high sills and extended roof with safety, and the solid feel is associated with both safety and quality. Given the dings Chrysler has gotten for quality - largely from early-1990s minivan transmissions, the use of incorrect fluids in transmissions, and cost-cutting measures in early Neons - that can only be good for the company. We've seen the PT Cruiser's and Liberty's quality records and can only say that you may actually be better off buying a new Chrysler than a Honda.
Indeed, the 300 feels much more like a Mercedes E-Class than the 300M, and that's not surprising. Though most of the design was done in Auburn Hills, quite a bit was done under Mercedes supervision, which, as you may imagine, did not make Chrysler engineers especially happy. The situation has changed, but the 300 does beg comparison with the E-Class. American patriots may be happy to know that most of the comparisons are in the 300's favor - particularly the 300C. The price is far lower ($25,000, comparing V8 to V8), the styling better, and the reliability likely to be far higher in the 300. If all Chrysler did was modify an E-Class - we know the engineers will cringe at that suggestion - they did a mighty fine job of it, cutting the price dramatically and increasing the space while not seriously impacting any other positive E-Class attributes. We only wish they had gone one step further and replaced Mercedes' absurd cruise control stick.
The solid feel extends to the ride, which keeps the occupants in close contact with the road. On some roads, that can mean a fairly busy ride, with major bumps cushioned, but overall not as much isolation as a second-generation Chevy Malibu or a Mitsubishi Galant. The lighter side of this is the balanced handling, which makes the 300 feel much smaller than the 300M (it is about the same size but heavier). The 300 likes to be thrown around turns at high speeds, and its lack of understeer gives it more precision than the 300M. Unfortunately, it also lacks decent tires, which means that the tires are screeching and squealing as it gets thrown around the turns. The Goodyear Integrity tires are not anywhere near being up to the task; we'd recommend replacing them as soon as you buy the car. We wondered what Chrysler was thinking as we swung around turns, nowhere near losing control, accompanied with the loud squeal of tortured tires, and hoping there weren't any patrolmen nearby.
Shutting off the stability control - which is only an option on the base model - doesn't make the 300 seem any less balanced, probably because it has a nearly 50/50 weight ratio and was designed from the start for excellent handling with or without electronics. That's good news for those who aren't really into heavy-duty acceleration and would like the 300's size and heft without wanting to pay for a big, thirsty engine: the 2.7 liter V6 provides decent enough pickup.
Stability control becomes more important in snow and rain, and Chrysler let us test under these conditions, both with and without it - (full report on the 300C and Magnum in the rain and snow). The 300C was very stable in wet weather and experienced surprisingly little loss of composure. In the hands of a professional driver, the 300C and Magnum are simply stunning with or without stability control.
Power and economy: Chrysler 300 Limited RWD
Power from the 3.5 V6 is good, with a wide torque band that starts just over 2,000 rpm and continues to near redline for instant movement. The four-speed automatic (shared with the base model) is, as always, responsive and ready to downshift, but also smooth and refined. It adjusts to driver needs and internal transmission conditions, and requires a special fluid which is available on the aftermarket as well as from Chrysler.We found acceleration and passing to be effortless, albeit not quite as quick as the 300M, which had more performance-oriented gearing and slightly lower gas mileage. The torque management may also have lowered our acceleration: even highway-speed downshifts under full throttle caused no commotion, jerking, or noticeable shifting lurches. This was one of the smoothest transmissions we've ever used, though it's sometimes prone to keeping the engine at high rpms for a moment. The early 3.5 liter V6 we tested first was a bit noisier than the Hemi, with a less refined sound, but it was not intrusive or harsh; the second one we tested was quieter, to the point where we could hear the fan belt.
Power and economy: Chrysler 300C RWD
The rear wheel drive coupled to the power of the Hemi means that it's fairly easy to break the rear tires loose on a turn; this usually results in only a little loss of traction, but the loud squeals can bring unwelcome attention. Going easy on turning starts helps, but you can easily chirp or squeal the tires even on a straight, despite the traction control. Perhaps a quieter set of rear tires is called for, because, generally, the Magnum grips the road quite well. Unpowered turns are no problem and no fuss, and the car's balance is surprisingly good.
Acceleration is, as one would expect, extremely good. The engine makes good power in low rpms, but really comes into its own at a fairly low 3,000 rpm. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts firmly, without hesitation, to move the Hemi into its power band. While the transmission feels ever so slightly less smooth and silky than the Chrysler four-speeds, it makes better use of the engine power and helps to contribute to the 300C's surprisingly good gas mileage (17 city, 25 highway). So does the multiple displacement system, shutting off four of the cylinders on a regular basis, in a manner so subtle few, if any, people can tell when it's operating.
The Hemi engine may be strong, but it's also quiet, with a near-silent idle and an almost perfect sound under full power. It doesn't emit a constant bass burble or drone, but it's there when you need it, and it sounds and feels terrific. The 300C always seems ready to leap forward at a moment's notice without any effort.
Acceleration comes immediately; then the transmission downshifts, and the 300C shoots forward. Often, transmissions can get confused by brief full-throttle bursts; the 300C's does not. Nor does it allow engine flare.
Noise control is surprisingly good, which helps given the tire squeal, but also means that there is little wind noise at highway speeds - an annoyance that rates high in owners' impressions of their cars. The windows seem better at sound insulation than in earlier cars.
The navigation system is a bit underused: you set personal preferences through the trip computer instead of through the huge nav screen. Fortunately, the stereo and climate control are handled by real knobs and buttons; though the radio information is displayed in the nav screen (absent such niceties as the radio station name and type, the song name, etc.) and on the trip computer, and the various audio adjustments are shown on the screen. You can adjust bass, treble, and midrange. The Boston Acoustics speaker system is good but the sound in the Magnum RT with the $300 optional CD changer was better.
Every time the car starts, of course, you have to wait for the nav system to start up before pressing the inconveniently placed ENTER button to agree not to be distracted by the system. Then, if all you want is to see a map, you have to press CANCEL to get out of the main nav screen. It would be nice if they'd make you agree to not be distracted by reading a warning that you might be distracted only when you use the various menus, and not when you just show a map or audio information, but that's par for the course. One nice touch is that when the map is showing, you can change the scale just by twiddling a knob - no need for buttons and such. Changing the orientation from North to "you're going up" takes the press of a single button. Those are both common features and it's good that they've been made easier to use.
We also used a car without a navigation system, but with an optional stereo upgrade. The stereo sound was simply superlative, and the system was easy to operate, with large knobs and clear controls.
The steering column is exactly the same as the one used by Mercedes, except for the pattern on the wheel. We would have preferred a Chrysler column, because the controls are inconvenient: the cruise control has six different movements and is placed just above the turn signal for maximum annoyance. The "cruise on" light is in the stalk, rather than on the dash, and the whole setup is unnecessarily different from what most drivers are used to. The Toyota style stalk - stubby, on the right, and going up, down, and forward rather than in to turn on, forward to set, back to cancel, up to speed, down to coast - is easier to use and doesn't get in the way of the turn signals. Likewise, Chrysler's horn-mounted buttons are easy to hit with the thumb without looking or thinking.
Another annoying Mercedes-like feature is the wiper control, which makes you go past every intermittent wiper setting before getting to the settings most people use most often: slow and fast. Other vehicles have a separate intermittent setting. And, finally, all the dashboard buttons are hinged on top, so that if you press the bottoms they work fine, but if you press the tops, nothing happens. On the lighter side, you could pay another $25,000 and get a car with the same annoyances.
On the horn itself, instead of those cruise buttons, are enigmatically labeled buttons which turn out to control the stereo volume and mode, and the trip computer in the instrument panel. Controlling the trip computer is quite different from, and harder than, past Chrysler models, but once you figure out how to get there, it shows the compass and outside temperature or the parameter of your choice (distance to empty, gas mileage, etc.) with fewer options than in the past. Audio information is also displayed in the trip computer readout. Confusingly, the thermometer on our test car took quite a long time to react - holding the temperature for about five mintues before suddenly zooming up or down to the real outside temperature.
You can set personal preferences, such as locking all doors at once or just the driver's door, using the trip computer and steering-wheel buttons. If you don't get a trip computer, you can do it through arcane control sequences that are described in the owner's manual, instead of going to the dealer to have them set. We're glad that customers can still do it themselves.
The switches are all heavier and quieter than in the past: not in any way an indicator of quality (how often do switches break in any car?), but it does give us fallible humans a perception of quality and safety. None are hard to move, and you can do pretty much anything while wearing gloves. The gauges are very clear and highly visible in all light conditions thanks to the solid indiglo backlighting. While the pointers are not as elegant as in the 300M, they are still "good enough" to convey an air of luxury. The 300M's clock, minus clever shaded effect, takes its place in the center of the dashboard.
Speaking of safety, visibility is good in all directions except for the rear quarter, where the 300M also had a large blind spot. The Magnum actually seems better there. The high trunk may lead to danger for toddlers and other little people in driveways, but that's true for most cars and just about all SUVs now. We were surprised by how good the visibility is: we expected something more along the lines of the Celica or Audi TT, the "peeking out of a bathtub" experience. It's hard to tell from the inside that the windows are relatively small, since visibility is unimpaired. Indeed, we'd say that the 300M is less friendly to a good 360 degree view than the 300 and 300C are.
The roof overhang in front can be good for blocking out the sun and teaching drivers not to go too far into intersections with traffic lights. Sun visors can be swung all the way into position without hitting the driver, which is fairly unusual. However, it would be good to have seat belt adjusters or guides for short passengers in the back seats.
The front provided many adjustments. Our Limited had a freely telescoping and tilting steering wheel, and pedal adjusters are available though not standard. The driver's seat travel is simply amazing - over ten inches.
There are many places for storage, including map pockets on all doors, an overhead sunglass bin, a nicely sized rectangle by the shifter (with a removeable liner), and the center console itself, with its well-designed, built-in change holder and mini-tissue holder. The backs of the front seats don't have pockets, and the fold-down rear armrest has two simple cupholders but no storage. The front cupholders are hidden by a lid and mechanically adjust to the size of the cup via plastic thingies near the bottom. The trunk, though a bit smaller than the 300M, is still quite large, and the rear seats fold down for larger items. There is no mechanical trunk lock on the outside, and, like most new cars, no passenger side trunk lock. That means that if your only mechanical lock freezes or breaks, you'd better have fresh batteries in the remote.
Head, shoulder, and waste room are all very good. We found the seats a little less than comfortable, with a very firm surface; one observer noted that you sit on them, rather than in them. Both front and passenger seats on our Limited had manual bolsters. The passenger seat had a manual recline as well, with a power front-back control.
The 300 is, in general, an easy car to drive once you train yourself to use the nonessential features and to avoid hitting the cruise control instead of the turn signals. The smooth automatics help in calm driving and heavy traffic, while providing instant access to engine power. The small-car feel is very nice considering the interior space, too.
The 300M legacy
Most of the annoyances of the 300M have been dealt with. The door handles pull out rather than lifting, making them easier to use and less likely to pinch; the ignition key goes into the dashboard so it's more visible and easier to use; a navigation system is available; accessories keep power until the door is opened; and there is an active suspension and all-speed traction control, with all wheel drive as an option. Torque steer and understeer have largely been eliminated as well, with the move to rear wheel drive. Torque steer was never a big problem with the 300M despite its 250 horsepower, but understeer sometimes intruded. The 300's four-speed automatic transmission, used in V6 models, is far smoother than the very similar unit used in the 300M.
The 300M still has certain advantages. It feels lighter and more eager to move than the V6 equipped 300; the 300 feels more dampened, good for luxury but not for enthusiasm. The 300M also has a more elegant interior, especially when equipped with the lighter (two-toned tan) interior.
Both 300s have a massive area underneath the windshield, a sizeable blind spot in the rear, and nearly identical lengths. The 300M is a bit wider inside, with a larger trunk, and is lighter; but visibility actually seems less than with the 300. The 300 is expected to be safer in an accident, and has much more in the way of optional features. Both anger old-time Chrysler enthusiasts with their misuse of the 300 name, though the 300C is closer to the original series than the 300M, thanks to rear drive and the use of the highest-power V8 in Chrysler's stable.
Most buyers are not moving from a 300M. The new Chevy Malibu, which competes with the base model, is quicker and has a more comfortable ride, but feels less substantial and balanced; the Camry and Avalon are considerably sloppier in handling and have looser powertrains, albeit with more cushioning. Most competitors suffer in a feature to feature comparison, especially if you really want a V8 or rear wheel drive - there are precious few vehicles in the 300's price range with either of those. You can of course compare a 300 to a Mercedes E Class; but why embarrass Mercedes any more? They already seem to be smarting from the ME-412, a Chrysler-designed supercar designed in record time, with a small staff and mainly American suppliers, that apparently wipes the floor with Mercedes' McLaren SLR. The area where other sedans tend to do well is in a V6-to-V6 comparison, where sprint times and gas mileage rather than horsepower are measured. The weight of the 300 shows itself then, as does the relatively inefficient four-speed automatic. The Hemi's main advantage is not just its overwhelming power, but also its relatively thrifty gas mileage in that power range.
The most attractive 300 is the 300C, the top of the line, and it shows in the product mix that's been sold so far. The base and Limited models are not bad, and the styling is the same across the line, but the Hemi seems to actually have better real-life gas mileage than the 3.5 V6, with undeniable bragging rights and effortless, gleeful acceleration, not to mention a hefty complement of standard features. No wonder so many German luxury cars are being traded in. But for those who don't care whether they get front or rear wheel drive, and don't object to a V6, the market's considerably more crowded. Indeed, many may wish to wait to see what Chrysler brings out as a Sebring/Stratus replacement.
The 300C and Magnum R/T provide great performance without much of a penalty in gas mileage. The base and Limited models are nice when ordered with appropriate options, but should undergo a mandatory tire change, and are competing in a market that has many fine cars. All versions feel surprisingly stable, safe, and secure, and we have been told to expect full ratings on crash safety tests.
The Chrysler 300 has become an overnight success and a major hit, with desirable styling and an unbeatable top-end powertrain. If you were waiting for rear wheel drive, it's here. If you are concerned about rear wheel drive in snow and rain, we've been surprised at how well the 300C and Magnum RT do - and both will soon have all-wheel drive options. These are unusual vehicles, priced to sell, and most people have a harder time actually finding one to buy than making up their minds.