2008 Chrysler 300C AWD Car Review
The Chrysler 300C made a splash with its unique styling and Hemi™ power when it first came out, but quite a few buyers decided to look elsewhere when they saw the plain interior. Chrysler eventually answered, three years after the introduction, with added chrome, minor styling changes that greatly increase the interior appearance, and loads of options (such as rear seat video, second-row seat heaters, and distance-sensing cruise control). Gauge facings are perhaps the most noticeable upgrade, with a silver ring pattern that catches the eye and adds a sense of class to the previously-dull instrument panel. Our test car had a luxury package as well, replacing the tortoise-shell plastic with real wood, and that also helped.
(A full list of 2008 changes, including options: interior trim and gauge inserts; taillamps and deck lids; iPod interface with UConnect; MyGIG hard-drive radios; remote start; Sirius back-seat TV; new stereo system; wheels, on some models; packages and colors; 300C LED interior lighting; adaptive cruise control; MDS status indicator).
The mainstay 300C has a 340 horsepower V8 that manages to squeak out around 24 mpg on the highway, and around 15 mpg around town, but the base engine is a little V6; there is also a bigger V6 in the Touring version, and the 300C SRT8, with a 425 horsepower V8, for those who think only sissies waste more than five seconds and change getting to 60 mph. The price ranges from below $30,000 to over $40,000, and are thousands higher than the Dodge Charger, which is similar except for styling and trim.
We’d driven the 300C and, for that matter, Hemi Chargers and Magnums, but coming back to the platform for the 2008s was a revelation. The brute-force engine was still there, along with the sometimes-awkwardly-shifting Mercedes automatic; but it seems to us that the suspension has been tweaked quite a bit, at least on the all-wheel-drive 300C. The ride is firm, even stiff; it’s busy on rough pavement and, for that matter, on normal pavement, passing every imperfection through, albeit damped a bit and devoid of subsonic booms or rattles. In return for that, you get a suspension that can deal with the power of the engine without problem, can take 90 degree turns and switchbacks at surprising speeds, and in short can provide much of the sports-car experience without sacrificing passenger or trunk space.
We tried to break the car's control by the standard “full throttle while turning” maneuver and didn’t even get the stability control engaged; even on wet or dirty roads, this type of provocation was needed to break the huge tires’ grip, and then the stability control stepped in and kept the car going in the right direction. The 300C may look as though it’s a typical American muscle car designed to go in straight lines (or horizontally when the pedal is stamped on), but it can take just about anything a sane driver, or a marginally insane one, cares to throw at it. In our video, you can see us doing a tight circle at around 30 mph in a nice, safe parking lot; the stability control only activated when we kept the pedal down, but we could easily and consistently make high-powered turn-launches, not that we recommend driving like that in real life.
The 300C seems to have been designed to give a feeling of solidity, of being carved from a single block of steel. The high door sills, the feel of the switches, even the block shape all contribute; but the solid feel extends to the ride, which keeps occupants in close contact with the road. That can mean a fairly busy ride, but, again, the result is balanced handling, without oversteer or understeer; and shutting off the stability control doesn't make the 300 seem any less balanced. That said, stability control becomes more important in snow and rain, and Chrysler let us test under these conditions, both with and without it - full report. The 300C was stable in wet weather and experienced surprisingly little loss of composure. On the down side, the 300C always felt heavy, letting you feel all its two-tons-plus of weight, even as it blasted through turns it had no right to make without squealing tires and a swinging rear, neither of which was apparent.
The big engine starts easily and quietly, without a rumbly exhaust; show-offs can buy an SRT8 or a Charger. The Hemi engine is almost ideal, smooth and quiet under normal use, deeply when revved moderately. Hit the gas at highway speeds and the transmission quickly kicks down for instant passing power. With rear wheel drive, breaking out the rear tires can be an issue, but not with all wheel drive: floor it and you get instant breakway acceleration, even if the wheel is turned, with the heavy car going exactly where you pointed it, and (usually) no stability-control interference. It builds confidence for merging, though overconfidence is bad (and always wear your seat belts); best of all, even from broken concrete roads, only a brief squeal can be heard from the tires during launches that would attract considerable attention from other vehicles. Just in performance, the all wheel drive was more than worth the extra couple of thousand dollars and the slightly-lower gas mileage; and it provides a strong edge in rain and snow as well.
Though the Hemi is strong, it is also controllable; like the original, power builds as the engine revs, and the tip-in was well adjusted by the factory, so that you can drive very smoothly and calmly. That’s not just good for your passengers, but also for driving in bad weather or on dirt roads. Not to name names [cough/Volvo/cough], but some automakers seem to think that they need to emphasize the power of their engines by making a slight touch on the gas jerk the car forward; the 300C is eminently driveable partly because it gives you a choice. Drive gently and you have a nice boulevard cruiser; hit the gas and you have a sports car.
The five-speed automatic transmission shifts firmly, without hesitation, to move the Hemi into its power band. The multiple displacement system, meanwhile, shuts off four of the cylinders on a regular basis, in a manner so subtle few, if any, people can tell when it's operating. (An indicator now shows up when the engine is on four cylinders; at idle, it is always in V8 mode [thanks, Craig Chambers].) It is quite possible to confuse the engine and we did get frequent bump-shifts down up to higher gears as we coasted after hard acceleration, but to a degree, that's the price for instant response when we hit the gas.
Braking is, as one would expect given the cornering and power, more than adequate, stopping the 300C quickly and without fuss or noise.
Purists tend to criticize American cars for their tendency to have gauges marked with imprecise measures such as "Hot" and "Cold," and the 300C is not immune to this rather pedantic critique (One company takes it to the opposite absurd extreme, with gas labelled from “0/1” to “1/1.”) However, those who want exact numbers can get them easily enough through the trip computer, which reports on the oil pressure - in exact numbers - and the antifreeze temperature - again, in exact numbers, Centigrade or Farenheit. It also provide tire pressures for each tire, and when the cruise control is on, the exact speed locked in (and whether the adaptive cruise system sees another vehicle ahead).
The steering column no longer has the absurd Mercedes cruise control, at least not if you get the adaptive cruise system; it’s still an odd-looking wheel but at least now you can hit cruise and turn signals without confusion or mistakes. Dashboard buttons have also been moved out of the Mercedes systems, so you can press them on the top or the bottom and they work either way. These are both substantial usability improvements over the 2005-07 models. The turn signal stalk still requires considerable effort; and the wipers still make one go through all the intermittent settings before hitting the regular speeds. That said, our 300C had rain-sensing wipers (standard on the 300C), so we generally used the rain-sensing settings which had various degrees of sensitivity, using the same range of motion as the intermittent wipers (drivers can select intermittent wipers instead of automatic wipers by changing a preference in the trip computer.) The wipers worked well with this system, accurately sensing rain on the windshield and clearing it as appropriate.
Gauges are clear and highly visible in all light conditions thanks to the solid indiglo backlighting; the new design both adds a sense of precision and a greater sense of elegance, as subtle chrome circles (hard to capture photographically) catch the light, and the larger chrome circles in the middle break up the big dials. While the speedometer goes up to a probably-unnecessary 160 mph (140 on V6, 180 on SRT — thanks, Craig Chambers), the dial is large enough to make it easy to maintain any desired speed. As before, the gas gauge also shows what side the gas cap is on; but, on our over-$45,000 test car, there was no remote release or lock for the gas cap, as one would find on a base Toyota or Hyundai. The gas cap cover looks as though it has a remote, but it's operated by simply pressing on the outside.
The trip computer, activated by buttons on the steering wheel, provided more than just precise readings of engine temperature and oil pressure. The default was showing the compass heading and temperature; and the system could page through average gas mileage since the last reset, time since the last reset, distance to empty, and two trip odometers. Flipping the key from OFF to RUN three times brought up error codes - or would have, had there been any - from the computer. Finally, the trip computer can be used to set preferences, such as locking all doors at once or just the driver's door, honking on lock or unlock, keeping the headlights on after locking, and numerous other settings, taking advantage of every car's computer controls. If you don't get a trip computer, you can set some of these through control sequences that are described in the owner's manual.
Visibility is generally good from the inside; it's hard to tell from the inside that the windows are relatively small, since visibility is unimpaired. As with many current vehicles, the high trunk may lead to danger for toddlers and other little people in driveways; the optional radar backup alarm, an option we highly recommend, greatly reduces that risk. The rear backup alarm was designed without apparent cost-cutting, relying on five sensors built into the rear bumper, and indicating an obstacle with increasingly strident beeps coupled by lights coming on, first in amber and then in red, in an indicator above the rear window which can also be seen in the rear-view mirror. Our 300C automatically tilted down its mirrors to allow us to see the stripes of the parking space as well (this can be shut off in the preferences); and it had optional high-intensity discharge headlights, which banished the darkness quite effectively. Sun visors are also highly effective and can be swung all the way into position without hitting the driver. Headlights — we had the optional, $695 HID system — were quite strong and well-defined.
Our 300C had a power telescoping and tilting steering wheel with a fairly broad range, and the ability to stop anywhere, not just in designated detents. The driver's seat travel is quite good, with over ten inches or movement, allowing easy use of a laptop from behind the wheel; there is an option to automatically have the seat go back when the engine is stopped. Front seats have seat belt height adjusters, but rear seats do not; rear-seat passengers do have optional seat-warmers.
There are many places for storage up front, including map pockets, an overhead sunglass bin, a nicely sized rectangle by the shifter (with a removeable liner), and the center console, with its well-designed, built-in change holder (now featuring a place for pennies!) and mini-tissue holder. Front cupholders adjust to the size of the cup via plastic thingies near the bottom. Back seats have somewhat less storage, with just map pockets, but there is plenty of room for passengers. All seats in our test 300C, with luxury package and leather, were comfortable - front and rear - a substantial improvement since our last 300/300C test, when we say “you sit on them, rather than in them.”
The trunk is large, though access is limited by the height of the rear bumper; 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 door lock, which means that customers should either keep spare remote batteries or check the single mechanical lock now and then.
There is plenty of sound insulation to reduce outside noise and cut wind noise to nearly nothing. The exhaust does not make a tiring dull rumble, but is almost completely muted at idle. Unfortunately, the stereo in our test car, equipped with MyGIG™, had an overactive subwoofer, but that can be unplugged or simply not ordered.
MyGIG™ brings us to gadgets, and our 300C had plenty of those. First, there were the built-in gadgets: the trip computer, activated by two moderately hard to learn controls on the steering wheel is a new take on an old Chrysler feature (which first appeared on the launch of the Plymouth Horizon, rather than on a luxury car). The trip computer provides average gas mileage, distance to empty, and a timer; allows the driver to easily change numerous locking, lighting, and other settings; and provides the compass, temperature, and radio station in the window with a press of a button. Unfortunately, one of the buttons used for the trip computer doubles as a radio control button; but the system is learnable, if not as easy to use as Chrysler’s earlier trip computers. In the 300C, the range of options is far greater than in most cars, including Chrysler’s other cars and trucks.
New to the 300 is a “keyless key,” which hides the metal portion of the key (and the exterior locks); if you absolutely need to get into the car and the battery is dead, you can slide out the “real key” to unlock the driver’s door manually. Inside, the radio control is used to determine whether you have the real key, saving on an ignition lock; and even if the battery is dead, you can start the car (presumably there’s still enough power to active the radio enough to communicate with a receiver that's an inch away). It should help all those drunks who can't get the key into the lock, too.
As with most new Chrysler vehicles, the 300C now has an optional remote starter that’s integrated directly into the key. Press the button twice, wait a few seconds, and the car starts. Then unlock the doors, hop in, put your key in, and turn it. It’s less complicated than the GM system, which makes you lock the doors first, and it doesn't call attention to itself by honking the horn.
With the luxury package comes the ultimate in bling, turn signals integrated into the exterior mirrors; there is also a strong, white LED light built into the mirrors, which activates when you lock or unlock the car. (The picture shows the white LED; after it shuts off, the whole area blinks amber when the signals are on).
Also new for 2008 is an adaptive cruise control, which we first saw on, of all vehicles, the Toyota Sienna. This is a fairly straightforward device: like any cruise control, it’s activated, in this case from the end button of a Toyota-style stubby-stalk. Once activated, though, the differences start to show up — the first being that the cruise control takes over the trip computer display, showing its readiness and three spaces which indicated the maximum, and recommended, distance to the next car. Pushing the cruise stalk lowers the distance to two bars and then one bar, and then back to three again. More to the point, when activated, the system shows the speed that’s locked in, and maintains that speed — within reason. When you reach a slower car in front, the system slows you down by letting off the gas and letting your car slow down, hitting the brakes if needed; if the car in front slams on its brakes, your brakes will activate in time as well. It’s a nice feature for those who drive huge distances on quiet highways, given that even those who have cruise control seem to rarely use it; and the system seems well programmed. It shows another car on the display when one is detected; ignores parked cars and oncoming traffic; and generally acts as one would expect.
We had the MyGIG™ stereo, with satellite radio and a 30 gigabyte hard drive for music storage. It can be fed from CDs (it labels songs and artists using a built-in database), DVDs, and the USB port, and with the premium sound package in our vehicle, had excellent sound. Copying a CD takes a few minutes, and is easy to do even for the true novice. Choosing CDs is done from a pushbutton interface, using a touch-screen - not necessarily something we want drivers to do on the road, but easy for a passenger to manage (or to do from a traffic light). It's much more distracting than the old mechanical-button stereo, but better than trying to deal with an external music system. Likewise, the direct-dial feature for radio stations can be a real time-saver but requires a lot of eyes-off-the-road.
Everything worked well, including the satellite radio, which had few dropouts (odd since the same system in the Dakota was very prone to dropous); it took a bit more time to switch stations than some competing systems. Another knob would have been particularly helpful to avoid distractions from the road; it's easier to use a knob for tuning and quickly setting bass and treble than going through several layers of menus (all the same color though it’s a color screen and they could have color-coded them). As time went on and UConnect arrived (two buttons), the CD slot got hidden behind the screen (one button), and the USB was added (one button and one former knob location), the number of physical controls dwindled. Now you get a single button for menus, one to get to navigation, and one to switch between AM, FM, satellite radio, satellite TV, hard-drive, hard-drive in jukebox mode, and iPod. You're going to get a lot of fingerprints on the MyGIG, and spend a lot of time not looking at the road, if you drive by yourself with a MyGIG. Unless, of course, you put in 30 GB of music, and then let it play in jukebox mode forever.
Our test vehicle had a navigation system and UConnect built in; UConnect uses the owner’s Bluetooth-enabled cellphone with the car's speakers and microphone, and allows voice dialing, albeit after pressing a couple of buttons (one real, one touch-screen). The navigation system had a 3D mode and convenient touch-screen controls, but some options seem to have been well hidden, such as the volume of the navigation voice, and we think someone economized a little too much on physical buttons. As usual, though, you can dial in addresses, phone numbers, point of interest names, and the like.
Our test vehicle also had rear seat video, which can play - get this - two DVDs at once, using a split screen and separate signals sent to each pair of headphones; you can also play a DVD and watch it in both front and back, if you're parked, with sound coming over the speakers. The system can also play satellite TV, if you like cartoons — there are only a small number of channels, including Disney and Cartoon, and quality of broadcast video is about what you'd expect, with some dropouts as you pass under trees, and some fuzziness and image-reduction quirks, but overall quite watchable. The system easily folded out from the center console, out of toddler-kicking reach, but invisible to most other cars on the road, taking up little space when folded, and not interfering with rear vision in any position. A remote is included and stored in its own little slot.
The 300C comes standard with four-wheel antilock disk brakes, stability control, traction control, brake assist (helps to make sure that when you slam on the brakes, you slam them on), and tire monitoring. The remote start, normally optional, is actually standard on the 300C; while side airbags, standard on many cars, are optional on the 300C. Other standard amenities include rain-sensing wipers, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, power adjustable pedals, dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows, locks, and brakes, wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise, universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 276-watt stereo, heated power front seats, and the always-handy floor mats. Fog lights, automatic headlights with full manual control, and SmartBeam headlights that automatically dim the high beams are also standard. The warranty is 3 years or 30,000 miles plus a conditional lifetime powertrain warranty. All that comes at a cost of $37,865, a bit stiff compared with a Dodge Charger but downright cheap compared with many other cars of this class (such as, say, the Mercedes equivalent.)
Our test car was a moderately shocking $45,370, which is a lot unless you're cross-shopping a big, dull SUV, in which case it's really not bad at all (far, far less than a typical Escalade or Navigator, and far, far more fun). However, we should probably tell you how it got there. First, there was the Navigation and Sound Group II, at $1,475 — that added the MyGIG system with satellite traffic reports, a subwoofer, and a bigger amp. Next, we added Protection Group II, at $1,080, with side curtain airbags for everyone and seat-mounted side airbags for the front; cabin air filter; backup alarm; and UConnect hands-free cellphone system. Then there was the luxury group II, at $945, making the 300C look well over $945 more expensive: it replaced the faux tortoise shell with real wood, added heated seats for the second row and a partly-wooden steering wheel, and put turn signals and courtesy lamps onto the exterior rearview mirrors.
Finally, the sunroof added about $1,000; high intensity discharge headlights added $695; adaptive cruise control added $595; and the rear seat video added $1495. The headlights and adaptive cruise are somewhat expensive, but probably worth it for those who travel long distances in relatively unpopulated areas; for ordinary city or suburban dwellers, they're overkill.
Gas mileage is rated at a fairly poor but realistic 15/22 with the all wheel drive; the 2009 models are supposed to eliminate the AWD’s mileage gap, so that both AWD and RWD models will get the same mileage.
With the big fast V8 under the hood, a moderately roomy interior, and a surprisingly well balanced chassis, the 300C does very well for its price,
Most competitors suffer in comparisons if you demand a V8 and rear wheel drive. You can of course compare a 300 to a Mercedes E Class; but why embarrass Mercedes any more? (The Pontiac G8 GXP will provide rather substantial competition soon, to be fair — though it appears it will be rear-drive only, with no AWD option.)
The area where the 300 falls short is in a V6-to-V6 comparison, where sprint times and gas mileage show the two-ton-plus weight of the 300, without having the multiple-displacement Hemi to compensate. For that reason, and also because the décor is more attractive, the most attractive 300 is the 300C. The base and Limited models provide the same interior space and exterior styling, and both have excellent, well-balanced cornering, but they lack the Hemi’s effortless, gleeful acceleration. For those who aren’t into fast turns and don’t care about (or care for) the unique styling, the Toyota Avalon and Saturn Aura are worthy adversaries to consider.
The sensible evaluation part is over — now, let’s talk feelings. The 300C is brute force in a soft leather glove, a hard-hitting, high-performance machine that now looks good enough inside to merit the price increase. Enough has been done to the interior, especially with the luxury or wood package, to address the 300C’s primary deficiency — the spartan interior. If you’re looking for a performance sedan that feels as strong as it is, it’s hard to beat the Chrysler 300C, unless, of course, the styling doesn’t appeal to you — in which case the Dodge Charger Daytona offers even more of a performance feel, at a lower price. But the 300C also has all the luxury gadgets and doo-dads a normal person could want.
What really works with the 300C is not just the performance; lots of luxury cars provide more performance, at a higher price, while there are sports cars that can outrun the 300C (at least in a straight line) at a lower price. The combination of factors is what makes the 300C really attractive. It has a unique, stylish exterior which we suspect will remain popular for many years to come; an interior that finally lives up to expectations (save perhaps for the view from the front passenger seat); and it lets you feel the performance in a way that makes the 300C seem faster than a Lexus that can make it to 60 mph a full second faster. Likewise, compared with sports cars that are cheaper and faster, the 300C has a massive, relatively comfortable interior, with room for four to sit in comfort and five to sit without pain; with a traditionally American-sized trunk. The 300C is hard to resist; with the 2008 revision, everything has come together. The only real issues are the heavy feel, which is not for everyone; the firm, tight ride, which, again, is not for everyone; and the gas mileage, which is par (or better than par) for the course.
Until next year, at least - when we expect a variable-cam Hemi and a fuel-saving new AWD system to show up. But those will just be icing on the cake.
See the video!