Healdsburg, California -- We're racing along the Northern California coast in a 2015 Chrysler 200S. Note the verb. Not "plodding," not "touring." Racing. And note the proper noun -- a 2015 Chrysler 200. The ride is decidedly firm. The exhaust pops as we ease off the 295-hp V-6 and onto the brakes, which feel strong and easy to modulate. The electric power steering is heavy and loads up naturally as we turn into another of a seemingly never-ending series of curves.
Styling Unencumbered by European Safety Regulations
Welcome to the new class of American family sedans, which feel neither American nor particularly family-oriented. Like the Ford Fusion, the latest Chrysler 200 exhibits European breeding -- its chassis comes from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. It also shares with its domestic competitor a coupelike roofline, and it looks a little bit like a Tesla Model S (although this may be more a result of how much the Model S looks like a mid-size sedan). The 200 will be sold only in North America, so Chrysler didn't have to bother meeting global pedestrian-impact regulations. That's how it gets away with a nice, low hood and a grille that's subtle and wide rather than toothy and flat as a billboard. LED taillights are standard; LED headlights (with HID projectors) are optional.
Chrysler will offer the 200 in many trim levels, ranging from a price-leading LX model that rides on steel wheels to the sporty 200S (pictured) and the luxurious 200C, which will compete with the likes of the Lincoln MKZ and the Lexus ES. Like most of its competitors, these trim levels are largely disconnected from the choice of powertrain. The exception is all-wheel drive, which is only offered with the V-6. Chrysler touts its AWD system with its fully disconnecting rear axle for better fuel efficiency by avoiding parasitic losses. You can recognize a so-equipped model by its surprisingly wicked exhaust note. Lead engineer Doug Verley says it's the "happy result" of not having enough room in the center tunnel to fit both a full-size exhaust resonator and all-wheel-drive hardware. There's plenty of bite behind that bark. The normally aspirated 3.6-liter engine delivers its power smoothly at any speed. That's an advantage compared with the somewhat peaky turbo four-cylinders that many competitors now offer in lieu of a V-6.
Pricing Ends Where Lincoln MKZ Begins
The V-6 all-wheel-drive model, which checked in with an eye-watering as-tested price of $34,465, will likely account for a tiny slice of 200 sales. Happily, the four-cylinder model is nearly as entertaining to drive, even though it's predictably slower, with 184 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque. The steering still feels natural, and the handling is still nimble and balanced. Locals courteously pull aside for us on the tighter road sections, surely unaware that they've been chased down by a four-cylinder Chrysler sedan.
All 200s come with a nine-speed automatic transmission. It downshifts roughly around town (Chrysler says a new calibration will address the issue before production). Chrysler expects that 200s with the nine-speed paired with the four-cylinder engine will get 35 mpg on the EPA highway cycle, which is much better than the outgoing model but falls short of the best competitors. The automaker had no city fuel-efficiency estimates as we went to press, but we expect about 21/22 mpg (AWD/FWD) for the V-6 and about 25 mpg for the I-4.
Sporty on the Inside, Too
The interior also looks to sport sedans rather than family sedans for inspiration, mostly to its detriment. Steeply raked roof pillars obstruct outward visibility. There's not a ton of head- or legroom, and high doorsills and a floating center console induce claustrophobia.
The materials are good for a mid-size sedan. Top models feature real wood trim. Even the Limited model we tested (one up from the base model) has soft, nicely grained surfaces. And yet, good for a mid-size sedan still isn't quite good enough to pull off such an intimate design. It's lovely to sit low in a $100,000 Jaguar F-type, ensconced in leather and wood. It's not as pleasant to stare at acres of rubberized plastic in a $30,000 Chrysler. The 200's cabin redeems itself with easy-to-use in-car technology. Chrysler has figured out the perfect combination of touchscreen, buttons, and dials. The shifter, a rotary knob like Jaguar uses, feels just right.
Still, a quick spin in a Honda Accord that Chrysler had on hand for comparison makes painfully clear the compromises that the 200 demands in the name of style.
Those who value outward visibility, comfort, and spaciousness -- traditional hallmarks of an American family sedan -- will want to stick with the Honda.
Those who want an Accord (or a Toyota Camry or a Nissan Altima) will probably buy one regardless of what Chrysler does. Chrysler, like Ford, seems to have embraced the fact that it can't compete with the Japanese stalwarts by copying them. Instead, the 2015 Chrysler 200 should appeal to buyers who want something a bit sportier.
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