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2004 Chrysler Crossfire Photo
Reviewed by Marc K. Stengel
Editor, The Car Connection
BASE INVOICE
$31,158
BASE MSRP
$33,620
Quick Take
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It's been five years of marriage — so, where are the children?

If at first it seemed that Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler Corp. preferred cohabitation to conjugation after their celebrated 1998 nuptials, that staid Victorian notion has been dispelled with the arrival of a cherubic, jaunty love child bearing the evocative name Chrysler Crossfire.

The 2004 Crossfire is undeniably the progeny of two noble, if somewhat unequal, dynasties. It is the first genuine sports car ever to wear Chrysler's heraldic winged crest. But it has clearly been born under the auspices of a three-pointed star, and Mercedes-Benz's double-helixes are insinuated throughout. Most obviously, there's a 3.2-liter 18-valve V-6 underhood that's been plucked directly from Mercedes' E- and M-Class vehicles. Moreover, the Crossfire is being assembled in conjunction with the venerable German carrosserie Karmann, with which the Daimler firm, in one form or another, has had a relationship since 1901.

2004 Chrysler Crossfire

2004 Chrysler Crossfire

Enlarge Photo
What renders the Crossfire so delightfully distinctive, however, is its lovely, impertinent, anachronistic styling. What you see when you gaze upon those long, lovely fenders; those tense, coiled flanks; that improbable coxcomb rising from the roofline is an Art Deco distillation straight from the 1930s. Call up the image of a 1938 Talbot-Lago T150 SS, or the same year's Bugatti 57 Atlantic, and see if you don't agree. Even the four-passenger Chrysler Airflow CU from 1934 induces an eerie frisson of premonition.

Coupes in crosshairs

With the Crossfire, Chrysler has set crosshairs directly upon such rivals as Audi's TT Coupe, the Infiniti G35 Coupe and the new Nissan 350Z. Its price, which Chrysler officials will only disclose at the "mid-$30,000 range" for now, is potentially a bull's-eye. Crossfire even hopes to lure roadster devotees away from their Honda S2000s, Porsche Boxsters and BMW Z4s. There are, in fact, already circulating certain spy photos of a topless Crossfire cabriolet that may render decision-making all the more excruciating for some.

Not for me. As an avid coupe partisan, I'm enthralled with Crossfire's evocative silhouette, which incorporates a 7.6 cubic-foot "backpack" as its cargo hold. To drive the Crossfire, with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic/AutoStick powertrain, only sharpens the pangs of desire. For several hundred miles in the Cleveland National Forest behind San Diego, I drove (or should I say sailed, glided, flew) the Crossfire over mountain passes, down rock-hemmed defiles, up spiraling ascents. Weighing only 3000 pounds, the Crossfire makes the most of its spare 215 horsepower.

Throttle response is magnificent, and the six-speed box in particular allows delicate manipulation of the powerband. The brakes are massive, made possible, in fact, by giant 18-inch wheels up front and even larger 19-inchers at rear. The combination of very low center of gravity with racy double-wishbone front suspension and a five-link independent rear translates into fabulous, flat cornering. The slight "push" of understeer is actually a stabilizing factor in a car intended as a sport-tourer rather than as an outright racer. To help save the unwary from themselves in certain weather and/or speed situations, Mercedes' vaunted all-speed traction control and electronic stability program are first-time carry-overs in a Chrysler model.

Cocoon of Chryslers

For a five-and-a-half-footer, the Crossfire interior is a cocoon of comfort and function. My six-foot, five-inch companion had slightly different views but still managed to slide in behind the wheel without aid of a shoehorn.

A favorite feature of mine is the cargo space that communicates directly with the main cockpit. It's ideal for stowing my constantly evolving collection of briefcases and gadgets. More obsessive housekeepers might rather opt for Chrysler's optional three-piece suite of custom luggage shaped exclusively for the Crossfire's boattail dimensions.

Some design elements perplex me. For all the sophistication of the sheetmetal sculpture that results in delicate "speed strakes" across the hood and that coxcomb over the central roofline, why did Chrysler settle for dinky plastic side gills to cover fake ventilation ducts in the fenders? From 20 paces off, the design element is attractive, even essential to the Art Deco motif. Step up close, though, and those three fingers of plastic look like they are mere molecules of Krazy Glue away from being shorn free during that first visit to an automatic car wash.

2004 Chrysler Crossfire

2004 Chrysler Crossfire

Enlarge Photo
To save precious instrument space, the steering wheel telescopes fore and aft, but it does not tilt. It moves more or less on a horizontal plane, so forget about tailoring the wheel to different arm heights. As for the sun visors, they're each the size of a large fingernail paring, and they don't swing to the side at all — where, of course, they'd be ineffective anyway.

It's nice to see all the Mercedes-Benz switchgear for instruments and controls. With the good, however, was also inherited a persistent flaw: Mercedes drivers already know about the way the cruise-control and turn-signal stalks interfere with one another and feel similar to the touch. Now Crossfire owners will have their own chance to be similarly annoyed.

M and M-ness

These quirks are as nothing to the overall impression of driving one of the most endearingly unusual vehicles to appear in North America for decades. Only BMW's lately departed yet little lamented M Coupe strode onto the scene with as much insouciance and just plain chutzpah.

Whereas the M Coupe polarized opinions with its uncompromising styling, the Crossfire seemed to spellbind the unsuspecting motorists we encountered along San Diego's freeways. On one particularly congested stretch of Interstate 8, in fact, I detected in the rearview mirror one driver's frantic maneuvers to shoulder other commuters aside in an attempt to draw even with us. When she did, her head swiveled around, and with eyes saucer-wide, she fired two appreciative thumbs-up in our direction.

She was driving a Mercedes-Benz E320. But of course: she was family.

2004 Chrysler Crossfire
Base prices:
$35,000 (est.)
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp/229 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 159.8 x 69.5 x 51.4 in
Wheelbase: 94.5 in
Curb weight: 3060 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/27 mpg (manual); 21/27 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and electronic stability control
Major standard equipment: Dual auto HVAC, Infinity Modulus AM/FM/CD, tire-pressure monitor, tow-away protection, side airbags
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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