Reworked to the hilt--or to the limits of Chrysler's product engineers, given all the drama surrounding them in the past few years--the 2011 Chrysler 300 emerges even more confident in its road manners than before.
The drivetrain ranks have been thinned, thankfully. Old V-6 engines have been axed, and replaced by the Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 that's sprouting roots all over the Chrysler and Dodge lineup. In this application, the 292-hp V-6 is twinned with Chrysler's semi-old-news five-speed automatic. The five-speed actually responds better, with one fewer forward gear, than Chrysler's newer six-speed automatic. As in the new Grand Cherokee and Durango, the V-6/five-speed combination lets less drivetrain rumble into the cabin, and the forward gears are spaced better for more enthusiastic driving, than the four-short/two-tall gears in the six-speed automatic. There's a manual-shift mode, which requires drivers to pull a hand from the wheel and slap the lever left or right for gear changes.
Chrysler's replacing the gearbox with an eight-speed ZF automatic by year's end, but even with this combination, the 300 can muster good 0-60 mph acceleration of about eight seconds, while it turns in an estimated 18/27 mpg.
Turning up the heat several hundred degrees is Chrysler's HEMI V-8. Hooked into the same automatic transmission (it's a tough one, apparently), the 5.7-liter V-8 blows off an untroubled 363 horsepower while it thunders to 60 mph in less than 6.0 seconds, dragging the two-ton 300 and you and your friends along with it. It's no fuel miser, but cylinder deactivation technology means it will loaf along on four cylinders when it's not straining at the yoke, and Chrysler estimates highway fuel economy could attain 25 mpg.
The Chrysler 300 is a rear-driver, except when it's not: the HEMI-equipped 300C can be fitted with all-wheel drive, which has an advantageous axle-disconnect system that helps fuel economy and handling when there's no need for all wheels to be engaged in power delivery. It's fitted with 19-inch wheels, which aren't much of an enemy to the 300's ride quality on rear-drive models.
The suspension changes to the 300 aren't as radical as those to the base powertrains, but the addition of electric control to the hydraulic power steering pump hasn't hurt the 300's responsive steering. It's not overly meaty, like some all-electric systems can be. And it's mated well to the 300's ride and handling, which are crisp enough to egg you on across rural two-lane roads without pummeling you on scabby pavement--both of which we encountered in a long afternoon drive parallel to the California-Mexico border. Nothing about the 300 drives or feels small, necessarily, but its big-car charms don't translate into sloppy body roll or cushy, mushy ride motions.