Silvio Calabi: Chrysler 200S — hey, who is that?
By Silvio Calabi
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Every once in a while, you spot someone at a family event that you know you know, but just cannot nail down. Finally it dawns on you — that’s Uncle Frank! But good lord, he’s lost 45 pounds, gotten a haircut and learned to dance, and clearly someone’s advising him on his wardrobe. Well, that’s the new Chrysler 200: unrecognizable until you get up close. Hey, is that some sort of Volvo or BMW?
The old 200 mid-size sedan (née the Sebring, which rental-car companies liked to fob off as an “upgrade,” especially the convertible) was like Uncle Frank, the family member no one wanted to hang with. He was clumsy and cloddish and drank too much, and his mullet reminded us of the bad old days. Well, the embarrassment is over. While in reality the 2015 Chrysler 200 is a stretched version of the also-new Dart — which combines Alfa Romeo and Dodge engineering — and this model has a Jeep Cherokee drivetrain, the result is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ freshest and best-looking American car, and its most drivable one, too.
Standard in the 200 family (four trim levels) is a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower four-cylinder motor driving the front wheels. Our sample 200S, however, was one of two 200-series AWD variants, and with all-wheel-drive comes a 3.6-liter V-6 pushing 50 percent more power to all four wheels, at least sometimes. Like the Cherokee, all-wheel-drive 200s actually operate mostly in front-wheel drive, with the rear axle disconnected to reduce friction, but more than half the torque can be directed — instantly, automatically and seamlessly — to the rear wheels when needed. (Lately, that’s been often, up here in the Frozen North.)
Both four- and six-cylinder engines get an automatic transmission with sport and normal modes and 10 speeds — one reverse, nine forward. You won’t see 8th or 9th until you’re on the highway. Select P-R-N-D-S by twirling a dial. The 200S (for Sport) also has small shift paddles behind the steering wheel, but there’s no true manual setting; after a few seconds the computer takes over again and the transmission reverts to doing its own thing. The four-cylinder FWD 200 is rated for 23 city and 36 highway miles per gallon; the six-cylinder 200S AWD should manage 18 and 29 mpg. In snow and below-zero temperatures, our averages were a good deal less.
There’s much to appreciate here. All 200 models now come with an electric parking brake, keyless unlocking, a rear-view camera, halogen projector headlamps and quick-reacting LED tail lamps. The remote-start option, which warms up not only the engine and cabin but also one or both front seats and the steering wheel, and defrosts the side mirrors and rear windshield, was a godsend on frigid mornings. So was the rear cross-traffic alert when backing out between tall snowbanks. Most of all, though, the 200S AWD felt strong and capable. Its fixed, sport-tuned suspension proves that thousands of dollars worth of sensors, actuators and adjusters aren’t necessary to get a comfortable ride and competent handling.
Still, nothing is perfect. While the cabin is reasonably roomy, the doors are small. (I’ll fold myself into a pretzel and bump head, elbows and knees to get into a mega-dollar hypercar, but not an everyday see-dan. My right knee also grazes the headlight switch on the way in, and turns it on.) On the center console, under the driver’s right hand, four knobs — all more or less the same diameter, all with knurled edges — lie within inches of each other; eventually I’d surely learn not to turn down the volume or the fan when I mean to shift into reverse, but not in just one week. Opening the lid shouldn’t let snow, ice or rain from the rear deck fall into the trunk, but it does. And finally, the broad A-pillars with their wing mirrors are large enough to cover up a full-size pickup truck in the other lane.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln liked the play. At starting prices that range from $23,000 to $31,000, the 2015 Chrysler 200, “imported from Detroit,” can be a cut-price Audi quattro or a down-home Subaru Legacy. At $35,390, our 200S AWD came close to being an all-weather sport sedan.
n Euro-American style
n 295 horsepower
n Capable chassis, suspension
n Doors are too small
n Forward visibility is compromised
n Ninth gear — why?
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.