by David Zatz in December 2011 (4.5)
2002 Chrysler 300M Special car review | Main Chrysler 300M car page
The Chrysler 300M was to be the fabled “five meter” LH car that would provide a huge interior while fitting within European boundaries. Originally badged as the second-generation Eagle Vision, it was hurriedly renamed when the Eagle division was dropped.
Many criticized Chrysler's use of the name 300M, because its engine was not rated at 300 hp, it was not rear wheel drive, and it did not clobber the competition as the early 300 series did. While the engine was probably capable of at least 300 hp in gross horsepower, which was used when the original 300s were made, the argument is fair; the original 300 series were world-beaters, almost regardless of price. The 1999-2004 Chrysler 300M cars did beat the competition in elegance, comfort, space, handling, and, often, acceleration, but they were not generally compared favorably to the best the world had to offer at any price.
Shortened to fit into European parking places and therefore lighter than the Dodge Intrepid, and tuned for performance, the Chrysler 300M had a luxurious interior as well, and was a fine car in its own right. Chrysler benchmarked the 300M against the BMW 5-series, and it shows in superior handling, with one of the best front wheel drive suspensions in the business. Given the light weight of the car and aggressive gearing, the 300M managed to do rather well in performance, with 0-60 coming in an impressive-for-the-time 7 and a quarter seconds (automatic).
Based on the same platform as the $20,000 Intrepid and Concorde, the $30,000 300M was smaller (though still quite large inside), faster, firmer-riding, and better-handling.
Though the 300M has a standard 250 hp V6 that runs on regular gas and has both manners and teeth, it was smooth in operation and rarely seemed to work hard. The Special (launched for 2002), with different exhaust tuning, was louder, but the standard 300M tended to keep the engine quiet most of the time, at least inside the cab.
The engine sang with two notes; it loved to be revved, and cried out for a manual transmission or a more efficient automatic. Under normal acceleration, shifts were subtle and gentle, but pushed hard, the transmission was firmer and quicker, giving a good feel; we prefer transmissions to eject the subtlety when our foot hits the floor. Still, the four-speed is called a slushbox for a reason; the engine clearly was spending some of its power spinning fluid around rather than spinning wheels around.
European buyers had a base 2.7 liter engine for better mileage and lower taxes. In the US, most people probably did not mind gas mileage rated by the EPA at 18 city, 27 highway (the 18 mpg was reasonable, the 27 was somewhat optimistic.)
Any number of cars can go fast; few reasonably priced 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 250 horsepower V6 pushed the front suspension to its limits, but there was virtually no torque steer.
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 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 tended to worsen handling on bad road surfaces; the Chrysler LHS, a larger car, had a much smoother ride, without bad cornering. Indeed, the base Dodge Intrepid, which was both cheaper and larger than the Intrepid, had a smoother, more comfortable ride, and both felt good on the road; the 300M had a definite edge but not all buyers favor that tradeoff. The LHS had the same deluxe interior as the 300M, while the Intrepid had a more generic, functional appearance inside.
We discovered that, despite a moderately low ground clearance, the 300M is a very good snow car. The traction control helps the car to get going, and the refined suspension helps it to avoid getting stuck or spinning out of control. We can't say that about the Honda Accord, based on the samples we saw spinning out in front of us and behind us - we were happy to be in the 300M, which serenely slowed at our request and quietly followed our request to go around the slowly spinning Accord. (The one behind us went into a spin when its driver tried to slow down). It might have been luck, but we found the 300M to be very good in the snow.
Our 2001 Chrysler 300M test car had an extra handling package, which made the suspension somewhat firmer than the stock model. For most people, the handling package will probably be overkill; it is more for the automotive press and a very small number of enthusiasts than for the general public. Along with the superior handling comes a stiffer ride, more like a BMW than a Cadillac. The stock 300M has very good handling as well. Steering effort was a bit high at low speeds, a minor issue.
The wide front tires contribute to a moderately “off” steering feel; it's tight, but tends to be a little slow to return to center, and doesn't have that small-car feeling of maneuverability. That said, the 300M, compared with its successors in the 2005-2010 LX lineup, feels much lighter and more nimble, even when it isn't. (The Challenger can probably easily outhandle the 300M, but it feels heavier and more solid. Some people like that, others don't.)
One exceptional feature on the standard 300M is the interior design. The instrument panel was beautiful and one still has to spend quite a bit to match it. The black-on-white gauges (evenly backlit with Indiglo-like lighting at night) and analog center clock are elegant, and set off nicely by chromed bezels. (The Special diminished this effect with a tacky black-and-silver appliques). Driving the 300M, especially with the wood trim package, gives a sense of luxury which is lacking in some real luxury cars. Starting in 2001, drivers could also get a partly-wood steering wheel.
Visibility is aided by well-designed sun visors, efficient windshield washers and wipers, mirror defrosters, and effective side window demisters. Heating and air conditioning were both powerful, and the controls can be set by people wearing gloves.
The Indiglo lighting of the gauges, coupled with the black-on-white scheme, helps the gauges to remain completely visible regardless of the light; they do not get drowned out by sunlight. The gauge cluster is cleverly encased in a matte black surround under a heavy brow that arches up over them, which also keeps direct sunlight away and reduces reflection while being much subtler than in many other cars. The plastic shield between driver and gauges was less reflective than usual.
Gauges have three-dimensional pointers that sharpen at the ends, an effect which remains unusual and classy. The later Chrysler 300 had a similar center clock with stubby pointers, and it failed to carry the same effect. (The clock uses a gradient effect along with the Indiglo lighting, which heightens its attractiveness.)
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' eyes. Over time, the headlights tend to fog; this can be fixed. Newer cars tend to have better-focused, brighter headlights and also tend not to cloud over, due to advances in plastics.
One fairly hefty annoyance at night was the standard electrochromatic rearview mirror. The auto dimming mirrors, as on every car that uses them, tend not to be nearly as effective at reducing glare as manual day/night mirrors. However, they seem to be de rigeur on this class of vehicle — annoying but unavoidable.
Another gap, depending on where you live and how you park, is the lack of a gas cap lock; the gas cap simply swings open, with no internal release. Given that you get a standard gas-cap remote in the basest of economy cars from some automakers, this is an oddity on the high-end Chrysler 300M.
Rear is Altima-like, probably making Nissan feel better when they copied the 2000 Neon's rear for the Maxima.
The 300M is large inside, with a cavernous trunk; 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 five-meter overall length makes it relatively easy to park though the excessively curved edges make it a little hard to figure out where it ends.
Seating is far more comfortable than on just about any following Chrysler car; one sinks down into the front seats, then is cushioned in a firm grip. These seats are almost the opposite of those used in the Chrysler Aspen; they do not feel stiff or firm, but grip the driver (regardless of size) for comfort hard cornering. The seats in both front and back feel luxurious but they are quite functional as well.
There aren't many uncovered bins for things such as coins, spare cash, and sunglasses. On the other hand, it did have a navigation computer, and two memory positions for the driver's seat, radio, and mirrors. The navigation computer on 2001 and newer models included a menu of options for programming the car (automatic headlight delay, door locking and unlocking features, etc.) similar to the one in the Grand Cherokee.
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 have thermostatic climate control, a power outlet in the center console, and the large moonroof had good controls, with separate open and vent buttons, and a close button that worked from either position.
Rear seat passengers do not have a substantially lower level of luxury than front passengers; they too get woodgrain on their doors, door lights (so when you open the door, people can see both a light and a reflector), their own tweeters in the doors, overhead dome lights, and map pockets on the doors and the backs of the front seats. Cupholders come from the fold-up console in the middle of the back seat; these are fairly simple but they work. There is no center shoulder belt for the rear seat.
Up front, passengers had a standard navigation computer, two memory positions for the driver's seat, mirrors, and radio, and a stereo with lots of speakers — Infinity woofers and tweaters in the doors. The stereo had a three-slider equalizer, for bass, treble, and midrange; the sound quality was excellent, though early models (through to mid-2000) tended to skip CDs. Later models did not, and the CD changers can be swapped out. A cassette player was standard with the unit, which used separate balance and fader knobs for easier adjustments.
Seat controls extend from the seat for easy reach and visibility. Front cupholders ratcheted to hold cups firmly in place, a nice touch, and could be shoved back into the center console.
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 noisy, and the automatic temperature control tended to turn the fan up high. The air conditioning was good enough to keep the fan at lower levels (any part of the climate control could be adjusted manually), but this was a puzzling anomaly. The climate controls were fairly traditional for the most part, having a button for each vent position and separate buttons for air conditioning, recirculation, and automatic mode. The rear defroster was intelligently placed by the front defroster vent position, but the yellow light was hard to see from some angles.
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!) In Drive mode, the automatic shifts before you reach redline, even if you're flooring the gas, for smoother shifts and less noise.
With its strong but refined performance and many other positive qualities, it is no surprise to still (2010) see many 300Ms on the highway despite sales that never rose above “slow.”
From 2000 to 2001, brakes improved somewhat; the steering wheel had real wood, a new feature for 2001 with the wood dashboard option. Transmission flare disappeared; indeed, the transmission seemed much smoother as a whole. (Part of this may have been due to the use of a new fluid, Type 9096). We suspect there were other changes, but those were the ones we noticed.
Overall, the Chrysler 300M remains a strong contender when you are looking for a car; admittedly they are now all used. We recommend the standard 300M over the pricier Special, which has more powerful headlights but an overly stiff ride and cheap-looking faux carbon fiber dashboard appliques. 300M owners seem to be a dedicated crowd, and one often sees groups of 300Ms at car shows; but they are also daily drivers, and can still be seen around town, often clean and shining. This car is hard to part with.
Our long term test car was purchased in 2004 with 38,000 miles on the clock. Originally selling for nearly $30,000, we purchased it for $15,000. Standard features on this base model were power locks, mirrors, driver's seat, and windows; cassette player and CD changer with Infinity speakers; thermostatic-control air conditioning; chrome-plated wheels; cruise; remote trunk lid; automatic day/night mirror; lighting package; tachometer; rear defroster; heated front seats; leather; and antilock brakes. The sole option, to our knowledge, was the power sunroof. As a dealer purchase, this car came with an 8 year, 80,000 mile; the dealer, Teterboro Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep, was kind enough to replace the steering rack at their expense after about a year, though the car had exceeded its bumper to bumper warranty by then. The Canadian-made car had few repairs after that, including one speed sensor, one battery, one set of brakes, one set of tires, and one power-seat control — and three power lock motors. The ignition key froze up twice and required gentle repeated whacking to free up.
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