by David Zatz in December 2011 (4)
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When Chrysler was freed of Daimler, engineers were finally able to make the changes they'd wanted, tweaking or replacing interiors, suspensions, sheet metal, and powertrain combinations. The changes were enough to merit a new name — Chrysler 200 — since the two cars looked and felt about as different as the 200 does from some of its competitors. The ride and handling is different, and the fittings are in a different class. The little 2.4 liter four-cylinder is lively and responsive, and two people assumed it was the six at first.
We did a brief test of a Limited V6 using a loaner from Teterboro Chrysler (thanks, Dave Ancito and Ray Briggs). We recommend their service area.
We put the Chrysler 200 through its paces on the highways and byways of Detroit, which give many opportunities for high speed testing, and also used it for a road tour over broken roads, across numerous train tracks, and on deteriorated concrete roads that went by long-dead plants. Thus, we gave the Chrysler 200 a rare workout under very widely varying conditions, and we were impressed by its aplomb in every case. This is a well-rounded car; we could not find conditions it truly underperformed in.
The biggest new feature of the 2011 Chrysler 200 is the Pentastar V6 engine. It brought gas mileage to 19/29, while adding power; it's also easier to service, using a cartridge-free oil filter on top of the engine, and a timing chain instead of a belt.
The six-speed automatic, used on all models except the very base four (though four-cylinders are being made available with a dual-clutch automatic as well), is quick-shifting, responsive, and intelligent; the engine is rarely left to handle the load at the wrong speed. Driven normally, the six-speed is as smooth as any, with shifting noticeable only by the slight reduction in power and sound.
Most buyers will get the four cylinder engine with the six-speed automatic (5% or less of 200s will come with the four-speed). The smaller gaps between gears help the engine to be quickly and gently pushed back into its power band as needed. The lower first gear ratio provides better launches and more responsiveness, while the higher sixth gear boosts gas mileage and reduces noise on the highway. Overall, this is the transmission that should always have been packaged with the four cylinder, at least as an option.
If you ignore the engine noise, the four cylinder is surprisingly capable. When you drive gently, the powertrain responds gently; in stop and go traffic, the 200 can be very smooth. Driven moderately, the transmission shifts gently and easily, giving smooth, linear acceleration. When needed, the transmission lets the engine run up to redline, taking advantage of its full power band. Whether the car is running at street or highway speeds, a quick, moderate push to the pedal brings an immediate response and a quick downshift; while full throttle brings an initial push, then a firmer kickdown, then quick acceleration as the engine revs. Once you get past 4,000 rpm, the 2.4 can move the 200 with alacrity, and it's not that hard to get to 4,000.
We found the 2.4 liter four cylinder engine to work well no matter what we did or needed, partly due to the quick-reacting, well-programmed transmission. It was invariably in the right gear, and didn't hunt; when we wanted just a little acceleration, nudging the throttle brought us the extra speed without needing to downshift, even at Detroit highway speeds (which make New Jersey highway speeds seem pretty tame.) We were not short of power; having the air conditioner on didn't seem to affect matters, and gradeability (the ability to climb a hill without pushing down more on the gas) was good as well.
In short, we were practically stunned that the four cylinder, which we've admittedly criticized in the past, worked so well when coupled to the right transmission (we suspect it, or at least the engine computer, was tuned as well).
Driven gently you barely hear the engine's low muscle-car growl, and it's docile and responsive. Push the pedal down, and the lion growls, then screams as it passes 4,500 rpm. Tip-in is very soft; it's tuned for luxury, not a performance feel, and you can make extremely gentle starts or put on speed with almost no feedback. Push the pedal down, and you get near-instant power, not quite as fast (or abrupt) as the old 3.5, but still better than many cars in this class, which have a "rubber band transmission" feel.
There's enough torque to allow for driving on the freeway at 65 mph without having to break 2,000 rpm; you can go all day without breaking 2,500 rpm, or feeling the need to — which is how those high gas mileage ratings were earned.
If you're heavy on the pedal, the powertrain will reward your efforts, but your gas mileage will sink by a few miles per gallon. There's also a little torque steer, though not enough to cause trouble or be a nuisance.
One reader commented, "Very docile for parking lots, maneuvering, etc. For you who are used to the old turbo 4s and the 2.5 and 3.3, and their instant throttle response, the first 1/4 of the throttle is very gentle "on" and then smooth, and the rest is highly linear."
In the end, you have a car that does 0-60 in around 6.5 seconds (faster than many of the old muscle cars), gets good mileage, and can be driven quietly and without fuss, like a basic economy car. It's hard to argue with that.
The 200 is well cushioned, seemingly more so than the Avenger, damping bumps and jolts, and pushing bad pavement to the background; but it is still surprisingly easy to throw around corners, and sticks to the road with a strong grip.
We took it around a highway ramp at dizzying speed, then crossed potholes that were punishing in our 300M to find barely any discomfort, and a total absence of that subsonic "boom" that most cars used to make on bad pavement. Route 46, hardly the best road one can find, seemed better paved than Route 80 did in our 300M or 2006 Town & Country. The 200 is, in short, more capable of giving a luxury ride than anyone would have a right to expect.
In short, the cabin feel is like that of a luxury car, whether it's on concrete, bumpy patched/potholed roads; yet the 200 sticks to the road like glue, even on quick launches. We found that deep pot-holes and railroad tracks failed to throw it off course; flooring the gas while going around a tight turn failed to have any effect, though the 2.4 is no slouch and the transmission downshifted quickly and we immediately started putting on speed. A sharp curve on an old, broken cement factory overpass also failed to overcome the 200's fine grip — or cause the interior to be jittery. Our respect for the 200 grew more as we put it through more punishment. That's not to say it's floaty, though at 70 mph it did seem less precise and looser than it did around town; you do feel bumps and bounces, but they are cushioned.
The interior was quieter than most cars; road noise was minimal regardless of surface. Wind noise was barely evident. Cruising at 70 mph was little different from 40 mph. The four-cylinder engine made a considerable amount of noise when pushed, not pleasant noise, but quiet enough to be ignored. If anything is "unrefined" about the four-cylinder, it's the noise — something one can't say about the V6 — but it's probably only objectionable to critics and particularly sensitive people.
Cornering was quite good on all surfaces; the similar Dodge Avenger handled rain, snow, and slush easily as well, sticking to wet roads, with the stability control rarely coming into play. The stability control was subtle, and acted immediately but without seeming intrusive. We would expect the 200 to have similar characteristics.
The Chrysler 200 is sometimes slammed as being "barely enough" or "now competitive, at least," — damned with faint praise. But it feels tighter than the Camry, smoother than the Accord, and is quieter than either. The longer we drove the Chrysler 200, the more we liked it and realized what an accomplishment it is; in a crowded field, despite having been created on a three year old base, it stood out as an excellent choice with either engine.
The Camry an edge in gas mileage, but there's comfort to give up, not to mention the satisfaction of buying a car that was not only built in America, but largely engineered here as well.
The upcoming dual-clutch automatic, used only on the four cylinder, should provide another boost to gas mileage and performance when it arrives midyear.
Below: comparing the Chrysler 200 gauge cluster with the "more refined" Camry. Which would you rather see every day?
The Chrysler 200 front seats are far more comfortable than with the prior model, but are still firmer than we'd like. The driver's seat had a manual lumbar support that was hard to reach, with power up/down and fore/aft controls; we had plenty of headroom. Rear seats are firmer and less supportive. The trunk is generous, and unintrusive hinges help usability, but the opening may not be large enough; we could easily get a cooler into it, but not a large (speaker) box. The rear seats fold forward (in a 2/3 arrangement), so we folded down one of the seats and put the box onto it.
The instrument panel is attractive, with the real attention-getter being the clock, a dazzling chrome piece with sharp-pointed hands and, at night, Indiglo™ backlighting. The main gauges are clear and attractive. The leather seats use contrasting stitching. The door is fairly plain, but the armrest in our test cars — both the car with leather and the one with cloth — was leather-covered and soft-touch, with a soft-touch black cloth insert above it. On the passenger side, a chrome-surrounded vent interrupts the black plastic, which is still less obtrusive than it could be. The back seats present a somewhat less upscale view, but as good as that of most competitive cars. Rear headroom is good.
Each gauge has a dark area underneath the sweep of the gauges – PRNDL and odometer on the right, trip computer/EVIC on the left – with the speedometer in center, a full-sized tachometer on the right, and the gas and temp gauges on the left. The electroluminescient backlighting, attractive as it was, has been dropped in favor of conventional backlights — bold ones on the Dodge, elegant ones on the Chrysler. The tachometer, unusually, goes up to just 7,000 rpm, the next round number up from the four-cylinder's readline.
The black interior had shiny chrome highlights on the gearshift, around the cupholders (lit at night), around the climate control knobs and vents, and in other strategic locations. The overall result is nicely upscale. All surfaces are soft-touch now, with no sharp edges. This was true for both the leather and cloth interiors.
Sun visors are well sized and slide on their supports to cover a large area. The optional (depending on trim level) garage door opener is part of the driver's visor. The auto-dimming rear-view mirror is ineffective at dimming; these things never really do an adequate job, compared with a manual day/night mirror (in other words, this complaint applies to every car we've had with an autodimming mirror).
A critical review spent several sentences on not being able to dim the center screen. In fact, it can be dimmed... by turning the rheostat.
At night, an "oo" features is the use of LEDs instead of traditional bulbs for interior lighting. With practically no heat waste, these bulbs provide bright light with little power; Chrysler has them on swivels, with push-switches so you just have to find the light and push on it to turn it on and off (our preferred way of doing it). There is a map light for each passenger, as well as a bright dome light. The result is a brilliantly illuminated cabin with that distinctive pure-white cast.
Controls generally looked and felt good; while we preferred the old stalk-based cruise control, using the new one on the steering wheel, using four identical buttons, can become a matter of habit. Headlight controls are on the left-hand stalk. You can choose between automatic headlights or manual, and unlike the GM choice, it sticks when you start the car again — unfortunately, being on a stalk, the headlight control isn't backlit.
Climate controls felt good, were easy to learn, and were functional; we hope the three-dial system continues at Chrysler, though we aren't optimistic. It's our favorite climate control system in all the cars we've tested. They are just as functional if you wear gloves.
The temperature dial works like a standard thermostat, instead of putting you through digital perambulations; and each dial doubled as a pushbutton for a different function (recirculation, air conditioner compressor, and rear defroster), each to press and easy to figure out.
A row of buttons above the dials controlled the heated seats, ESP, and trip computer. Overall, everything looked fairly well planned out. The fan was generally quiet except on the highest setting; fan, vents, and temperature all had independent automatic functions, allowing the owner to customize just one of the three.
Both front windows have auto power up and down – a single press of the switch sends them all the way in either direction, a nice time saver for tollbooths and the like. The sunroof has the same feature, saving the driver from distraction as the glass slides open (or closed).
The trip computer provides average gas mileage, distance to empty, and a timer; allows the driver to easily change various locking, lighting, and other settings; shows the tire pressure in each individual tire; and provides the compass, temperature, and radio station in the window with a press of a button.
The stereo on our Avenger was good, with clear and strong bass that you can dial down easily, and a built in 30 gigabyte hard drive that lets you record from DVDs or from USB thumb drives with MP3 files. This stereo takes audio commands if you press the Audio button (top right). Our 200, though it had what appeared to be an identical stereo (minus the navigation and iPod connector), was disappointing: the sound was overly laden with bass, not unlike that of the Sebring, and not especially well defined. The bass could at least be turned down, especially handy with AM, but bass/treble settings are not saved with the station presets (a feature we've seen in some GM units), and it's hard to do while driving. The stereo only allows
Photos below are from the Avenger; the same stereo is available in the 200.
While the stereo in our car would not transfer music (including MP3s) from an iPod (not surprisingly), it did control the iPod quite easily, letting us search for tracks, use playlists, and, in general, use the iPod as though it was part of the device's hard drive, after a decent interval of "reading" the device (which to be fair has 60 GB of music on it; reading an iPod Nano was, while still a bit slow, much faster). Reading USB thumb drives seemed pretty quick, and the system was smart enough to read the metadata within MP3 files so it knew the artist name, song name, album, and such. That is very helpful when importing — though there is a feature that lets you identify music the system doesn't know about yet.
There is an optional auxiliary jack on the face for iPods and other such devices, as well as a USB jack on the stereo face. More conveniently, with the remote-USB feature (optional on Touring, standard on Limited), both a USB port and a power port are available at the bottom of the center stack, with a padded area for holding iPods or generic players. As part of the new attention to detail, not only is the bin lit, but the USB port itself has a lighted border (see inset, below).
If you get the rear seat video, you can control it with some practice from the front stereo, by pressing Setup and then using the right-hand knob (turn and press) to start and stop the rear video and such. An auto-start feature is built in. You can put the rear video over all speakers, or use the two sets of supplied wireless headphones; rear seaters also get their own remote. Sirius satellite radio, with over a hundred largely commercial-free stations, is also available, and well integrated into the stereo.
The navigation system is the big news for this stereo, which otherwise is about the same as the prior units in operation. The system now uses Garmin software, and it's like moving from a tape-drive computer to a hard-drive rig (if you remember back that far). Suddenly, instead of having to wait seconds between each keypress, the system responds instantly to typing of addresses or other spots; screens pop up far more rapidly than with any system we've used before; and routes are calculated with surprising speed. The graphics are better — less cluttered, more user friendly — and everything moves faster. This is a major improvement.
That's not even including the various gee-whiz feature, like showing your current speed (in red, if you're speeding), showing the next intersection (on highways, the exit number and description) in big print, and a variety of display styles. The default is overly cartoonish on big highway clusters, but is great for around town; no longer does the driver have to squint and stare to figure out what to do. Key data is big and easy to see or read.
Storage compartments include map pockets on all four doors, the glove compartment, a dual-level center console with padded bottoms (and padded sides on the top level), and the padded area under the center stack.
Most people have decided that the Chrysler 200 has an attractive exterior, except in the side view; that roofline plunging into the back is just not attractive. Still, from any three-quarter view or from the front, the 200 is generally acknowledged to be a looker. The rear is still a little odd — instead of completely mismatched lenses on the trunk and body, now the top lens continues but the bottom lens stops — but an almost identical tail is present on a current Jaguar, indicating it's at least joined in its overall look.
One item that came up for frequent criticism on Allpar's own forums was the black plastic piece in the rear doors, where normally a piece of glass would be. Chrysler had an interesting way of defusing that: the chrome numbers, italicized, reading 200. The result is elegant and some have grudgingly admitted that it does the trick.
The Chrysler 200 is, like the Dodge Avenger, made in Sterling Heights, Michigan; most of the components (81% with four cylinder Touring) are made in the US or Canada, with an American transmission and engine from either Michigan and Mexico. The V6 is officially a dual-fuel vehicle, accepting E85 (85% ethanol), so it should run fine on E15 if it ever comes to that.
The Chrysler 200 Touring, which most people are likely to get, starts at just about $22,000, which is a highly reasonable price considering what you get: six-speed automatic, side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, active headrests, stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, alarm, cruise, power locks and windows, rear defroster, automatic air conditioning, trip computer (EVIC), power windows, auto-headlights, LED lighting and tail lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, tilt/telescoping steering column with audio controls, floor mats, power heated fold-away mirrors, eight-way power driver seat, six-speaker satellite-ready CD stereo with aux and USB jacks and steering-wheel controls, thermometer and compass, tachometer, 17-inch wheels, and universal garage door opener.
Our test Touring model also had the cold weather group, with heated front seats and remote start, for $385; and the hard-drive stereo, for $300. The total: a still quite reasonable $22,680.
The Chrysler 200 Limited starts at $23,545, and also includes voice-command audio and phone link, remote start, better-sounding hard-drive stereo, heated front seats, auto-dim rearview mirror, fog lamps, and 18 inch aluminum chrome clad wheels.
The V6 engine adds another $1,800 to the Limited, and Garmin navigation adds $400.
We liked the comfortable, shock free ride, cornering, and powertrain. We didn't like the seats or rear corner visibility, and the steering could have been more precise and given more feedback. The back seat space and trunk room is more generous in some competitors, as well, but if they're big enough, they're big enough.
We have driven the Camry and many other mid-sized cars, and put the Chrysler 200 fairly high up on the list. If you don't like its looks, the Dodge Avenger is an alternative; if you want a hard-riding sports car, it's not right; and if you want higher mileage or more speed, then you have alternatives. But this is a well balanced car that is easily competitive in the top third of the class, and certainly a nicer car to drive than the best-selling Toyota Camry.
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