Louisville, Kentucky – Third time’s the charm. This one’s good— really good. It’s not perfect, of course, but I’d confidently test-drive it against its current competition. The 200’s finally in the game.
(Disclosure: Transportation, accommodation, meals, and a pre-set route were provided to the author by the automaker.)
The secret, it seems, is in that marriage of Chrysler to Fiat. There’s an Alfa Romeo platform under the 200, using front and rear cradles shared with the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee, but tweaked and tuned specifically to this car. It all comes together into a tight, cohesive package.
There are two engines and two configurations. A 2.4-litre Fiat MultiAir Tigershark four-cylinder is the default in each of the four trim levels: the LX at $22,495; the Limited at $24,995; the 200S at $26,995; and the 200C at $27,995. That engine makes 184 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque.
You can option a 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, making 295 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, in the Limited, 200S, and 200C for an additional $2,000. Both engines come strictly with a nine-speed automatic transmission that uses Chrysler’s new dial gearshift, instead of a lever.
All the trim levels start in front-wheel drive, but an all-wheel system is optional on the 200S and 200C for another $2,500, providing you’ve already checked off the V6 box. The company says it’s looking at the performance side of all-wheel at the moment, which is why it only comes with the V6, but in theory it could be hooked to the four-cylinder and marketed as a winter warrior in future.
I split my day between a four-cylinder 200C in FWD, and a V6-powered 200S AWD. Unless you want all-wheel drive, I don’t think most drivers will need to move up to the bigger engine. The four-cylinder is a great performer: acceleration is good, it’s quiet when cruising, and when you put your foot into it, there’s a surprisingly throaty note that sounds like you have far more displacement. Fuel figures aren’t available yet, but it’s estimated at 5.7 L/100 km in highway driving (or 6.8 L/100 km under the new five-cycle test that phases in for 2015 vehicles).
The car’s weak spot is the nine-speed transmission. It’s very busy, and the smallest change in throttle pressure or an incline will have it bouncing back and forth between gears. Oddly, it was far more settled and didn’t shift as much for my co-driver, who has a heavier foot than I do. There’s more control over it in the 200S, which has a “Sport” mode on the gearshift dial, as well as paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Our cars were pre-production, so I’m hoping the transmissions get more tweaking before sales start in the second quarter of 2014.
If you ever drove the old 200, throw all that out the window. The new one isn’t a sports sedan, but it corners surprisingly flat, even with the 200C’s more comfort-tuned suspension. A generous amount of feedback has been dialed into the electric power steering, too. I never thought I’d get behind the wheel of a 200 that’s a real pleasure to drive, but this one is it.
While it packs close to 300 ponies, the V6 doesn’t feel like overkill; it’s well-modulated for linear acceleration. The engineers developed the front suspension and programmed countermeasures into the electric steering to minimize torque steer. I didn’t drive the FWD version, but if it’s like the AWD I drove, they’ve done a good job of reining it in.
The all-wheel system is front-biased, of course, but it’s pretty slick. It can send 40 percent of torque to the rear when needed for traction—60 percent on the 200S in Sport mode—and it distributes power on acceleration for better control. When you don’t need all wheels powered, though, it automatically disconnects for improved fuel economy. Sensors monitor the wipers, ambient temperature and speed to proactively hook back up if there’s a possibility of slick conditions.
The improvements continue inside, which looks far more upscale than the price, especially in the upper-line trims. All but the base LX get heated seats with power adjustment, a five-inch UConnect infotainment touch screen with satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming audio, and auto up/down front windows.
Take a piece of Detroit with you
The new centre console has a couple of neat features. Since the dial gearshift has no linkage, the space under it is carved out for a storage cubby. The removable rubber mat in it is embossed with the Detroit skyline, and it comes across as a nice touch, rather than silly. Meanwhile, if you release the panel that contains the cupholders, you can slide it back to reveal a large storage bin hidden under it.
The handsome new instrument cluster glows blue with LED lights, with a programmable centre LCD screen. The UConnect screen is the familiar big-icon version and it’s easy to use, but as Chrysler is wont to do, it has put the heated seat and heated steering wheel controls into it. These should be hard buttons for quick adjustments.
Instead, the buttons are reserved for some of the optional higher-tech electronic nannies: adaptive cruise control, collision warning and full-stop mitigation, lane departure that helps guide you back, and a self-parking feature that works in either perpendicular or parallel spots.
The front seats proved very comfortable on my day’s drive. There’s a lot of legroom in the rear seats, although tall passengers may find less headroom than they’d like. The seats fold down to expand the trunk, but they don’t fall flat, and the space they reveal is more of a pass-through. There’s a smaller access panel hidden behind the pull-down centre armrest as well.
Back in style
The front-end styling drew mixed reactions—I’m slowly coming around to it—while its elegant rear three-quarter view is its best side. Four-cylinder models have their exhaust tucked away, while V6s get twin pipes integrated into the bumper. The LED tail lamps are standard on all models; Chrysler says they’re meant to mimic the company’s wing logo. I like them better than Dodge’s full-width lights, which were revolutionary when unveiled but which I think are aging quickly.
Speaking of Dodge, everyone was tight-lipped on whether this new 200 will morph into a matching Avenger model, as the last-generation one did. But the lips got even tighter when a convertible version was mentioned. If you’re the gambling type, I’d suggest putting money on the Avenger long before you bet on a drop-top.
Chrysler’s now done the relatively easy part: it’s built a good midsize sedan. The uphill battle will be the Sebring/200’s reputation and getting midsize buyers into the showrooms. If the company can do that, it’s got a winner on its hands.