The Chrysler 300M Special car review
The Chrysler 300M was to be the company's challenge to European powerhouses, before Chrysler itself was swallowed up by Daimler-Benz. You can see the effort (and BMW 5-Series benchmarking) in the handling, in the 250 horsepower V6, and in most of the interior appointments. Though it still fails the Eurotest (no turbo option, no diesel option, no five-speed), it gives reasonably priced automatic-transmission Eurosedans a run for their money.
The standard (in North America) 250 horse V6 is deceptively fast in the base 300M, taking almost no time to reach illegal speeds without seeming to work very hard. The Special, thanks to different exhaust tuning, makes the engine's working more audible, though it is still smooth. Indeed, the full effect of the exhaust, with its muscle-car growl, starts from idle, but isn't very noticeable inside, thanks to thick sound insulation. Rolling down the windows transforms the audible nature of the engine.
Getting to 60 mph takes about 7 and a quarter seconds, without much torque steer. The engine sings a two-noted song: one tells how much it loves to be revved, the other wishes for a manual transmission, or at least a more efficient automatic. Normal shifts are subtle, while under hard acceleration shifts are firmer. Unique (we believe) to the 300M Special is the transmission programming, which both allows you to get much closer to redline than the standard model (unless you use the AutoStick), and keeps you in a low gear for a few seconds after you level out at a given speed (if you've gone full out), in case you need to suddenly accelerate again. We suspect the police would love this feature, since it makes darting through traffic much easier. Under normal acceleration, the transmission reacts normally.
Any number of cars can go fast; few cars of this size can handle with such aplomb around sharp turns, especially while the gas pedal is pushed to the floor. The 300M outhandled many small cars, and did it with full dignity and a firm sense of stability. Thanks to the good tires and capable suspension, there was a complete sense of confidence, even on wet roads. The 300M made fast turns, sudden lane changes, and hard acceleration seem calm and in total control. The smooth antilock brakes and traction control also helped, on those rare occasions when they activated. We found no torque steer on straight-line acceleration, and very little slipping even when slamming on the gas in the middle of a turn; the Chrysler 300M handles this abuse very well. However, while the low-profile tires are very good at grip, they do let squeals out, and transmit more road noise than the standard tires. We also found that the stiff suspension and high-performance tires tended to worsen handling on bad road surfaces.
The Special model raises the standards for handling, removing the big-car feel and increasing the 300M's ability to easily handle sharp turns. However, that comes at the cost of ride quality, perhaps because of the large wheels and low aspect ratio tires. For most people, the Special, like the handling package, will be overkill. Indeed, we wonder why Chrysler chose to water down its image with the Special, which flies in the face of the "separate the brands" philosophy supposedly coming to fruition with Mercedes leadership. This treatment would have made more sense with the Dodge Intrepid R/T (now cancelled) than the Chrysler 300M.
One exceptional feature on the standard 300M is the interior design. The instrument panel is, simply, beautiful. The black-on-white gauges (evenly backlit with Indiglo-like lighting at night) and analog center clock are extremely elegant, and set off nicely by chromed bezels. The Special diminishes this effect with a tacky black-and-silver applique that replaces the 300M's wood grain trim. The same trim is used on the Dodge Neon SXT, and it cheapens the interior of that car, too. It's sad for Chrysler to downgrade the interior at the same time they increase performance, especially since you see the interior of your own car much more than the exterior. Driving the 300M, especially with the wood trim package, gives a sense of luxury which is lacking in some real luxury cars.
Visibility is aided by well-designed sun visors, efficient windshield washers and wipers, mirror defrosters, and effective side window demisters. Heating and air conditioning are both powerful - we appreciated that, having the 300M during a heat wave with temperatures over 100 degrees - and the controls can be set by people wearing gloves. If you live in a hot climate, test drive a Chrysler on a sunny day before getting that Avalon!
The headlights were far better than on previous Chrysler models, and the foglights were clearly designed by engineers rather than fashion folk: they were placed low and focused so they could actually penetrate fog, rather than other drivers. The Special includes well-designed high-energy discharge lamps, the kind popularized by luxury cars, and imitated by ineffectual blue-tinted halogen bulbs. The 300M's are well focused, and supplemented - not replaced - by standard halogen bulbs when you use the brights. A sharp cutoff minimizes annoyances to other drivers.
The 300M is large inside, with a cavernous trunk that can handle pretty much anything you care to put in it - if it fits into the opening. (We put two girls' bicycles into it, for example). The cargo net ropes off a roughly Camaro-trunk-sized area for groceries or other items. If you need to carry a very, very long object, the rear seat folds down (with a 30/20 split in case you want to leave a passenger or child seat in place). The rear seats were on the overfirm side.
Luxury features include a navigation computer, two memory positions for the seats, mirrors, and radio, and a stereo with lots of speakers. Seat controls extend from the seat for easy reach and good visibility, even while you're seated. The navigation computer included a menu of options for programming some of the car's features. We really appreciate the ability to use our own preferences, in a variety of languages - we have our own ideas of how power locks should operate. The navigation computer now also tells you the pressure of each tire, in a single consolidated display, with real numbers so you can decide what "underinflated" means.
We were surprised to find that there is no "power memory" on a car of this class; most modern vehicles in the over-$20,000 class keep the accessories on after you take out the keys. Not the 300M. It did, to be fair, have a power outlet in the center console, as well as stereo controls on the back of the steering wheel. The large moonroof had good controls, with separate open and vent buttons, and a close button that worked from either position. This particular model also had turn signals on the outside mirrors, facing forward, and a thermostatically controlled climate control.
Another paradox: the sound insulation was excellent; you could hardly hear the horn, and there was barely any wind or road noise. On the other hand, the fan was very noisy, apparently having a hard time contending with small vent openings.
The 300M has some interesting driver-control touches. The headlights can be set on automatic or manual; if it is really dark out, as in night-time, they will go on regardless of what the driver has done, but only if the car is in drive. Likewise, the AutoStick transmission lets the driver shift if desired, but will override the driver if it means avoiding a dead engine. In short - you can decide when to go from first to second, but it won't let you do 100 mph in first! We tried the AutoStick, but with such a wide power band and a responsive transmission that learns how you drive, we generally preferred to ignore it.
One place the AutoStick is helpful is if you want the fastest possible acceleration; then you can just leave it in 1, and let it shift at redline. (Remember to put it back into Drive or 4 after you've reached your cruising speed!) This trick is not needed on the Special, but can come in handy on other models.
What we miss from other 300Ms is the elegant interior, the optional wood steering wheel and dashboard trim, the lack of road noise, and the smooth ride. This model also seems to have left out the ability for ordinary people to check for computer codes, though possibly it's just been well hidden. We have noted, again, that the transmission flare from the 2000 model is still gone (as it was in 2001), and that the controls seem of higher quality than when the 300M was first introduced.
With its strong performance, huge interior, elegant instrument panel, and many other positive qualities, it is no surprise to still (in 2010) see many 300Ms on the highway and around town, though sales were never particularly high. Quality is also built in, with the 300M taking honors as the most reliable American car by that famous consumer magazine. A seven/seventy warranty backs up the powertrain, as well.
Overall, the 300M remains a good buy and a very enjoyable car. We suspect that if more people test drove a 300M, they would refuse to buy anything else in its price range. Surprise yourself - maybe you won't get that Lincoln or Mercedes after all.