When the revived Chrysler 300 sedan came out in 2004, banishing the front-drive imposter to the company’s mainly historic brand, it hit as lots of sweet spots as “Shampoo”-era Warren Beatty. It wasn’t just the rear-wheel-drive, the Hemi V8 or the Mercedes-influenced suspension; it was the styling a modern take on a Bentley hot-rod that looked huge driving to the opera or mowing down gunmen inside Liberty City. Before Jay-Z dropped his jerseys for Armani, the 300 made the elegant tough and gangsters elegant.
But after a small number of great years, the 300 and the rest of Chrysler fell to the dogs of hell — Cerberus Capital. The survivors of Auburn Hills speak about the dark days where no cost was too big to consider cutting. By February 2009, anyone with a modest checkbook could have bought the 300. Not the car, the entire vehicle line: the factory, tooling, brand rights, down to Walter P. Chrysler’s autopen. Several companies, including Chinese automakers, kicked the tires and passed, in fraction because Cerberus had decided that every Chrysler vehicle interior would be shod by means of rubber from Zippy the Pinhead Retread’s President Day’s Special.
Now, in the Fiat era, so much of what’s new concerning the 300 comes two years after it should have arrived, but to Chrysler’s credit the reworking does go beyond basically turning in late homework. It’s still the old platform, but with each part redone, reused or recycled into something different.
There was a stab at weight loss; the hood is now aluminum, and the base model clocks in a small number of pounds below 4,000. There’s new steel underneath, including sound-deadening panels and bolstered security good enough for the requisite insurance industry “top pick.” The bad tires have left back to China. And then there’s the exterior styling, which shares nothing with the previous generation for better and worse.
It’s never simple to follow a truly great car design, and Chrysler’s designers bravely attempted further than a nip-n-tuck. The front headlamp of the 300 and other Chryslers is now supposed to resemble the eye of a bald eagle; the grille ditches Bentley for an Audi-esque profile, the sides get sculpted and there’s yet a vestigial ridge on the trunk harkening back to Virgil Exner’s 1957 tail fins. It unmoving looks distinctive, but the chrome accidents add unwelcome bling, and the entire hangs together about as simply as a Fugees reunion.
Inside, the improvements commence at the top. While the windshield gained a degree or two of rake in the redesign, Chrysler also lowered the belt line and raised the top edging of the glass, boosting visibility. The IP has a blue-chrome Tron feel, and the crown of the dash merges nicely with the new corporate touchscreen system, which isn’t as confusing as the industry average.
Yet under the dash equator, things don’t work as well. I suppose the world has decided sham wood is still acceptable, but just because “Matlock” comes on in reruns doesn’t mean I’ll ever watch it. The seats keep their throne-like comfort at the expense of some bolstering, and rear passengers still have ample room, even if Chrysler isn’t bringing back the long-wheelbase version yet or directly targeting the limousine crowd next the imminent demise of the Lincoln Town Car.
The best of the 300 still comes with the 300C and its 5.7-liter Hemi. Chrysler blocked building rockets for NASA in the 1970s, but the 300C does a joyful impersonation of a Saturn V in a straight line, hitting 60 mph just a only some tics after 5 seconds and extra-legal speeds speedily thereafter. The Hemi has been tweaked up to 363 horsepower and 393 lb-ft of torque; if that’s insufficient, we should see an SRT version at the New York Auto Show shortly.
The new engine to the party, the corporate 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V6 rated at 292 hp and 263 lb-ft, makes a strong indictment of whatever committee resolute that the previous 2.7-liter base V6 could hustle two tons of automobile. It’s by no means in the similar thrill category as the V8, and much of its power comes far above the ground in the rev band, but for the highway cruiser and rental customer, it’s sufficient. Both engines must dance with the 5-speed automatic born when the Macarena was still considered funny; its 8-speed replacement should come online in a few months.
On the twists near the border through the engine’s ancestral Mexican homeland, the 300C hustled around curves dutifully, with no drama for the Border Patrol spectators. If it feels perhaps a tick less lightfooted than the all-wheel-drive Taurus, the 300 at least provide some polite idea of road feel, more than could be said for the Hyundai Genesis that Chrysler provided for comparison powerful and post-lunch naps.
After several decades in business, Chrysler has garnered more second probability than Charlie Sheen, but the last brush with conclusion was its most severe. Getting back to business means making every model aggressive after years of neglect, and the 2011 300 meets that object and then some. It’s not the clear style leader, and without that the 300 suffers from a small identity crisis among other luxury huge sedans. But there’s now time to think about what’s next, and we’d politely offer one idea of a direction: When even NASA can’t build its own rockets now, maybe Chrysler can again.