"Follow the incompetent" is not an exhortation that often rings through university auditoriums at graduation time, but it's sage advice nonetheless. You want to take the job previously held by the guy who surfed porn all day and pilfered office supplies. You want to date the girl whose last boyfriend acted like a jerk and was lousy in bed. Follow an act like that, and you can't help but look like a star. The new 2015 Chrysler 200 has that same advantage. The previous 200 (nee Sebring) was a slacker that idled at the bottom of the mid-size sedan barrel -- next to it, the new 200 shines.
But while following the incompetent can be a boon on a personal level, it only helps so much in the automotive arena. The 2015 Chrysler 200 represents a quantum leap over its predecessor, but in the ultra-competitive mid-size sedan segment, buyers will want to know how it stacks up against its peers. So we pitted it against one of the biggest names in the business and the number-one choice among retail buyers, the 2014 Honda Accord.
Keeping it real
To keep it real, we selected high-volume, mainstream models. For the 200, that meant the Limited, which sits one up from the base LX but below the sport-oriented 200S and the top-spec 200C. Our Accord was an EX, which is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Accord lineup.
Although we stuck with four-cylinder engines, it's interesting that Honda and Chrysler are two of the four automakers that still offer a V-6 in this segment. Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 makes a best-in-class 295 hp and can be had with all-wheel drive. Honda's 3.5-liter six is good for 278 hp and is front-wheel-drive only. However, the mid-size-sedan market is really a four-cylinder market, so that's what we specified for our test. That means a direct-injected 2.4-liter four with variable valve timing, whether you're talking about the Accord or the 200. Chrysler extracts 184 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque from its engine, while Honda wrings out 185 hp and 181 lb-ft from its powerplant.
Transmissions: going to extremes
The quest for the greatest possible efficiency has both companies taking extraordinary measures with their transmissions. Honda has switched to a continuously variable transmission for the current Accord, while Chrysler is going for the maximum ratio spread in a conventional automatic with its newly developed nine-speed, an industry first. The Accord's resultant EPA figures are 27/36 mpg (city/highway), which are good but not quite as good as the class leaders. The 200 is rated at 23 mpg city and 36 mpg on the highway, which is good but not quite as good as the Honda.
Chrysler's nine-speed automatic is certainly a complex piece -- its teething problems delayed the launch of the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee, where it first appeared -- but you wouldn't know it from our experience in the 200. The shifts are very smooth and it only rarely gets tripped up. Given the wealth of gears it has to pick from, however, it should perhaps be a little more willing to switch to a lower one when ascending a grade. Unfortunately, taking matters into your own hands isn't really an option, as the Limited has neither shift paddles nor a sport program (those are exclusive to the 200S and the 200C). Even with those caveats, the nine-speed is still the keen driver's choice over the CVT, which is almost always the least-appealing automatic transmission option, despite its unrivaled efficiency. We should note at this point that Honda still offers a manual in the Accord, and it's not relegated just to the base version; it can be had in trim levels as high as the EX. The vast majority of buyers, though, will take the CVT, and at least the one in the Accord is less offensive than many, mostly because the engine it's attached to is fairly pleasant sounding when the CVT sends it into the upper rev range and keeps it there. Chrysler's Tigershark four wouldn't fare as well under the same circumstances, as sound quality is far less mellifluous, although it only comes into play above 4000 rpm or so.
In fact, both cars are impressively quiet overall, something that neither was known for in past iterations. Honda has added active noise cancellation to all Accords, while Chrysler uses an acoustic laminated windshield and side glass (although only on the 200S and C). We were impressed with the low levels of wind, road, and suspension noise. Another area of newfound polish is ride quality. These two mainstream mid-size sedans deliver a supple ride that shames most German luxury sedans. Credit, in part, our test cars' sensible footwear: both wore 17-inch wheels with 215/55-series tires (the Honda can be optioned up to 18s, the Chrysler as high as 19s). Skillful damping is also a factor. We would mentally brace for the jarring impact when a patch of broken pavement suddenly revealed itself, but then the car would just thump over it, almost as if it were nothing.
The 200's fat-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel (part of the $895 convenience group) felt great, much nicer than the Accord's grained plastic wheel, and the Chrysler steered confidently through rolling hill country. Like Chrysler, Honda uses electric power steering assist, and also like Chrysler, Honda's system is nicely weighted -- much better than most. The Accord is at least 100 pounds lighter than the 200, and it feels a bit livelier in quick transitions. Overall, the Accord's chassis tuning is not only excellent for a general audience but it's also better than most enthusiasts give it credit for -- and the 200's shadows it closely.
Form and function
In their driving dynamics, the 200 and the Accord kept tightly together. Where the two cars diverge is in their design and packaging. The 200 is a sibling -- but not a twin -- to the Dodge Dart, as both are derived from the same architecture, known internally as Compact U.S. Wide (CUSW). Compared with the Dart, the wheelbase for the 200 has been stretched 1.6 inches, to 108 inches. That's still 1.3 inches shy of the Accord's, although the Chrysler is nearly an inch longer overall and also wider.
Size-wise, the two cars are very close, but it is in their packaging that we see the greatest difference. The 200 is out to make a style statement, from its integrated grille and headlights -- the new face of Chrysler, we're told -- to its arc-shaped roofline and pert, ducktail trunk. The Accord is far more upright, sedan-like, and restrained. It's actually a bit trimmer in size than its bloated predecessor, and its rectilinear form makes no pretenses at being a coupe.
Inside, it's the same story. Chrysler has gone for a cockpit-like treatment with a high center console that angles up to meet the dash. Audio and climate controls are at the forward part of the ramp, just ahead of the increasingly voguish dial-a-gear electronic shifter. Unfortunately, the enveloping feel applies not just to the driver but to the passengers as well. Rear-seat space is adequate for a six-footer, but the 200 closes in around you due to its sloping roofline, rising beltline, and thick pillars.
What a contrast to the Accord. The measurements don't show a huge difference between the two, but the Honda feels vastly more spacious. Honda's longtime talent for space efficiency is on display here. Sit in the rear seat, and not only are the front seatbacks far away from your knees, but a six-footer's head doesn't brush the roof and you can easily see outside. The squared-off cabin is as airy as a downtown loft. The windows are large, the pillars are thin, the console is low -- it's a formula that today's auto designers have largely discarded, but one that is absolutely endearing for a car's driver and passengers.
What you pay and what you get
Expect Chrysler to make plenty of noise touting the new 200's full basket of the latest tech toys, but many of them are not available on the Limited model, which is expected to be by far the most popular. The impressive suite of electronics includes adaptive cruise with brake-to-stop, forward collision warning, blind-spot warning, lane departure warning and lane keep assist, rear cross-path detection, and automated parking. Unfortunately, nearly all of them are exclusive to the top-spec 200C (blind-spot warning and cross-path detection can be had on the 200S). Order navigation and you get Chrysler's well-regarded Uconnect 8-inch multifunction touch screen, but it's an option on the 200S and C models only; the Limited makes do with a 5-inch touch screen, but at least it allows you to get an (optional) backup camera. Even without the high-tech features, though, the 200's cabin doesn't come across as stark. The instrument cluster is richly detailed, the cupholders in the console slide back to reveal electronic connectors and additional storage space, and it's all very nicely executed with materials that are definitely a cut above the Dart's.
The Accord's interior is less stylish, and some of its materials are more basic. It does, however, benefit from extremely straightforward switchgear (it is a Honda, after all), and in EX trim it has a bit more standard equipment than the 200 Limited. A backup camera is standard, as is Honda's LaneWatch system, which provides a camera's-eye view back along the right side of the car when the right turn signal is activated; both project onto the 8-inch center screen. A power driver's seat and a sunroof are also standard here, where they cost extra on the 200 Limited.
The Honda has more stuff, but it also costs more. The Accord EX stickers for $26,470, which was also the bottom-line price of our test car. The 200 Limited starts at $24,250, and when optioned up to pretty much match the Accord, our 200's as-tested price was $25,940. Factor in resale value, however -- the Accord's: stellar, the 200's: unproven -- and the Honda is unlikely to be more expensive in the long run.
Putting these two cars together would have been a cruel joke with the last 200, but we're impressed at how well the new 200 fared against what is arguably the best car in the segment. The Accord's combination of virtues -- chiefly its clear packaging advantage along with its better city fuel economy -- better align with the priorities in this segment and put it on top in this match-up. But the stylish Chrysler is going for something slightly different here, and that's probably not a bad idea. "Don't take on your strongest competitor head-on," is another mantra that the 2015 Chrysler 200 seems to be following. That's another sage piece of advice.
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