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November 1, 2011 1:02 PM

Auto review: From not so good to not so bad

110111AUTOS_CHRYSLER200_SEDAN_ADV30_660602_604x372.jpg

(Chrysler)

Plain, ordinary and uninteresting were core competencies of the old Chrysler Corp. From Harry Truman's 1941 Chrysler Windsor, through four decades of the nearly indestructible Slant Six engine and on to, yes, the boring front-drive K-Cars of the 1980s, Chrysler delivered plain, affordable transportation for plain, budget-conscious people who saw that as a virtue. The Chrysler 200 sedan is in keeping with that tradition.

The 200's name is new, but the car under it is a remodeled version of the front-drive Sebring sedan introduced for the 2007 model year. It is also closely related to the Dodge Avenger.

The 200 sedan shares its name and many mechanical components -- but no body panels -- with the 200 Convertible.

The 200 is essentially unchanged for the 2012 model year.

Whereas the Sebring sedan was both awkwardly shaped and cheaply decorated, the new 200 is merely awkward and tastefully decorated. An elegantly sculptured grille, jewel-like headlights, restrained chrome accents and LED-packed taillights are almost enough to overcome the goofy greenhouse and dopey, foreshortened tail. Almost.



TESTED: 2011 Chrysler 200 Limited

  • What is it? The direct lineal descendant of the Chrysler LeBaron K-Car, the 200 sedan carries many of that old box's virtues with 21st-century refinement.
  • How much? Base 200 LX starts at $19,995. Limited as tested, $27,160 including V-6 engine, Boston Acoustics speakers and media center with Garmin navigation system and 30-gigabyte hard drive music storage.
  • What makes it run? A 2.4-liter 4-cylinder (173 horsepower) is standard. The tested Limited ran a 3.6-liter V-6 (283 horsepower).
  • How quick is it? The 200 Limited V-6 makes it to 60 mph in just about seven seconds.
  • Is it thirsty? Four-cylinder versions are rated 20 mpg in town and 31 on the highway with the Limited's 6-speed automatic (21/30 for LX with a 4-speed). With the V-6, the estimates drop only slightly, to 19/29.
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Focus, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and a dozen other mainstream or "entry luxury" sedans.

Even better is the new interior, replacing the Sebring's sharp, mismatched edges with a gently curved dash and door panels, elegant satin finish trim and switches that work with near precision. The seats are even shaped for near comfort. And in the Limited model that I tested, the seat leather felt nearly like leather.

The 200 Limited drives better, too. The standard engine is a new 2.4-liter 4, lashed to an archaic 4-speed automatic transaxle, that you will experience the next time you rent a 200 at Thrifty. The Limited I drove was equipped with Chrysler's new dual-overhead-cam, 24-valve V-6. This engine, called the Pentastar, is mated to a 6-speed automatic that can be shifted manually.

The new aluminum Chrysler V-6 runs a variable-valve-timing system and delivers its power in a seamless ribbon.

In sum, it runs virtually the same as the V-6 engines in all of the 200's direct competitors. That's no bad thing, but it doesn't distinguish the 200, either.

The general design of the chassis and the all-independent suspension -- struts in front and many links in back -- comes straight from the Sebring, but it has been retuned for better handling and a smoother ride. The rack-and-pinion steering uses an old-school hydraulic power-assist system which, compared with the energy-efficient electric steering in many new cars, offers superior feedback and feel.

Throw in broad-shouldered 18-inch Goodyear Eagle LS2 radial tires and the 200 Limited is nimble and drivable, more direct than, say, the Hyundai Sonata, with a ride that's more supple than that of the Honda Accord.

According to InsideLine.com, the 200 Limited V-6 will run from 0 to 60 in 7.1 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 92.5 mph. That's competitive, though short of startling.

The mileage ratings, around 30 mpg on the highway, are roughly comparable with competitive models like the Accord.

The Sebring was so lackluster that it is astonishing that the derivative 200 achieves adequacy. Virtually all of the unexciting competition in the midsize sedan class, which broadly includes everything from the Kia Optima and Nissan Altima to the Lexus ES350 and Mercedes C-Class, is either slightly or much better than Chrysler's contender.

In compensation, however, Chrysler vehicles usually carry big factory incentives. And according to Consumer Reports, the 200's well-above-average reliability is one reason Chrysler is now considered the most reliable domestic manufacturer.

At least the 200 is now a contender, if not exceptional.

Once again, Chrysler is ordinary. Hooray for that.