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July 9, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: Chrysler adds style to its 200 sedan

New York Times News Service

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The 2015 Chrysler 200 is offered in four or six cylinders. (Chrysler)

Despite its love affair with trucks and its flirtation with Euro-style subcompacts, the United States is first a nation of family sedans. Of every five new-vehicle buyers, one will drive home in a practical, unpretentious midsize sedan like their parents and grandparents before them. At which point their children will say, "Oh, Dad. Another Toyota Camry?"

Even with all that midsize showroom action, Chrysler seemed to pay lip service to sedans even while fawning over anything that looked like a truck or wore a Wild West badge, like the Dodge Caliber.

Even that defunct compact car looked like a shrunken SUV, and it had a name to match. Chrysler's midsize cupboard also grew bare. Its egregious Sebring sedan and the Sebring's rental-counter successor, the 200 model of 2011-14, were cars that the post-bankruptcy Chrysler would like to forget.

Now merged with Fiat of Italy, Chrysler has cut back on its SUV navel gazing and rejoined the wider world of cars.

An actual sedan, the Dodge Dart, has succeeded the Caliber. And on the Dart's Italian-bred heels comes Chrysler's best bid at family-car respectability in years: an all-new 200, built on a version of the Alfa Romeo platform that supports the Dart and Jeep Cherokee.

After so much time in the sedan wilderness, the Chrysler could hardly expect to rule a class whose leaders include the Honda Accord, Mazda 6 and Ford Fusion.

Yet the midsize Chrysler makes a case for inclusion, with a distinctively American design, an especially user-friendly cabin and the most powerful optional V-6 in the class. Unlike the coming Jeep Renegade, a small Italian-built SUV destined for international markets, the 200 will be homegrown. It is being produced in a plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., that recently received a $1 billion expansion.

True to its Midwest roots, Chrysler's latest "Imported from Detroit" model is a big old softy. If the Mazda 6 and Honda Accord occupy the athletic end of the family-car spectrum, the 200 is safely parked near the center. Comfort is king at the expense of anything resembling sporty handling, at least in the 200C AWD version that I tested.

And Chrysler's ballyhooed nine-speed automatic transmission still seems to be in the teething stage, one toothy gear at a time.

Still, as the perennially top-selling Camry proves, many family sedan buyers have no desire to make their tires — or passengers — squeal. Drivers who simply want a sharp, ergonomically correct and ultraquiet sedan may cozy up to this Chrysler.

The 200 also delivers the sort of styling distinction, inside and out, that often eludes workaday sedans. Chrysler's new winged logo floats on a dark grille, cupped by a pair of droplet-shaped headlamps. A coupelike roofline dips down to a short rear deck. It's all nicely proportioned and surfaced, including a strong, extruded shoulder line that traces the car's length before executing a crisp downward turn.

Chrysler was the last of the Big Three to get its interior act together. But from the Dodge Ram to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and now the 200, the company seems intent on scrubbing shoppers' memories of cabins so dated that they deserved a VH1 special.

The 200's interior is restrained, softly padded and satisfying, especially in the leather-swaddled 200C and 200S versions, whose niceties include optional open-pore wood inlays that recall the timber inside Audis. Those versions made me think of a dressed-up couple heading out for a big date and how the 200 would fit the stylish occasion.

The UConnect infotainment system, part of a $1,395 Navigation and Sound package, is excellent, with notably user-friendly touch controls and voice commands.

A banked center console features a Jaguar-style rotary knob to control the transmission. Dispensing with a mechanical shift lever, and the shoebox-size housing beneath it, opens up storage space on par with what you find in big SUVs. The console cover integrates a pair of clever sliding cupholders, and there is a useful cord pass-through to a secondary outlet so that a driver and passenger can simultaneously charge their devices.

Another tablet-size storage area beneath the banked controls features one of Chrysler's hidden "Easter egg" design details: An embossed rendition of the Detroit skyline — though this one manages to erase the city's signature skyscraper, the riverfront headquarters of General Motors. Artistic license, I imagine.

The back seat does give up 1 or 2 inches of legroom to the roomiest competitors, including the Accord, but the trunk is enormous at 16 cubic feet, as is the truck-worthy glove box.

Chrysler's familiar 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder, making 184 horsepower, will be the popular engine choice; an LX version with that engine starts at just $22,695. One step up is the high-volume 200 Limited for $24,250, and the sportier 200S is $25,490.

The top-of-the-line 200C starts at $26,990. A further $1,950 adds a powerful V-6 for either S or C models. A 200C with the V-6 and all-wheel drive starts at $31,190.

My heavily optioned 200C reached $34,675. Its 3.6-liter V-6 — an engine strong enough to motivate some Ram pickups — delivered a class-topping 295 horsepower, with the sort of throaty sound that Asian rivals seem intent on muffling in their own cars. The all-wheel-drive system kept the big V-6 from torturing the front wheels while delivering forceful acceleration.

That charismatic V-6 is a huge plus for this car, though the nine-speed gearbox is a minus. And the handling is no better than midpack in this class.

Combine a softly sprung suspension with the heaviest curb weight in the class, and the roughly 3,900-pound 200C AWD begins to bob and wallow in faster corners. A spongy brake pedal doesn't help. Steering, however, is nicely weighted, though lacking in driver feedback.

I did take a brief run in the 200S, whose sportier suspension did exert slightly more control over body motions.

To the credit of the transmission, the many gears are a boon to fuel economy. With the four-cylinder, the 200 is rated 23 miles per gallon in town, and 36 on the highway. The rating for the V-6 is 19/32 with front drive and 18/29 with all-wheel drive.

But while one point of a nine-speed is to be smooth and unobtrusive, this unit is anything but. Seventh, eighth and ninth gear are all fuel-sipping overdrives, and that's at least one too many. The transmission busily hunts for the right gear, and sometimes lurches when it finally makes up its mind.

At times, the transmission also denied my commands to select ninth gear, delivered via the shift paddles behind the wheel, while a patronizing "shift not allowed" message flashed on the display.

Even the car isn't fooled, well aware that 7-8-9 is a losing hand for anything but steady cruising, preferably in Florida and other hill-free locales. When your right foot summons actual acceleration, the transmission hesitates, then skips all the way to fifth or even fourth to get the job done.

The 200 does ante up with the latest safety and convenience features, including a lane-departure and lane-keeping system, a blind-spot monitor, collision warning and adaptive cruise control. They're part of a $1,295 Safety Tec package that also lets the 200 automatically park itself in parallel or perpendicular fashion. The system worked great, precisely snugging up to curbs with less than an inch to spare, yet never brushing a wheel.

Now, if the 200 could pick up prospects and ferry them to the nearest Chrysler dealership, more people might put this made-in-Motown sedan on their shopping list. When you've essentially ceded the sedan game for so long, winning people back is never easy. But the 200 is a good start.

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