The base V-6 versions of the Chrysler 300 have in the past failed to live up to this sedan's brash, assertive image, but for 2012 that's not at all the case. Last year, Chrysler introduced a new 292-horsepower version of the company's smooth Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, and now for 2012 the 300 gets a new eight-speed automatic transmission on all V-6 models except the fleet-focused base model.
The new transmission is exactly what this sedan needs to complete its personality transformation and achieve a more sophisticated feel throughout. With the V-6, it combines excellent shift response, a sport mode, and shift paddles to turn in 0-60 mph runs of about eight seconds--and highway fuel economy at an EPA-rated 31 miles per gallon. During gentle acceleration, it ratchets quickly up the gears, not wasting revs, while a quick prod of the right foot prompts a quick downshift and a rush of power.
Some sporty 300S models, as well as all lux-trim 300C models can be fitted with a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 with 363 horsepower and a five-speed automatic; they're more aggressively aural and insistent in their acceleration, capable of sub-six-second times. At the top of the range, the 300 SRT8 has the latest big HEMI, the 6.4-liter with 470 horsepower, teamed with a five-speed automatic sending power to the rear wheels. Acceleration drops to less than five seconds to 60 mph, and the SRT8 belts out a meaty, NASCAR-ish throb that few cars--even musclecars--can match.
The 300's handling rises from controlled to truly sporty as you step up the performance ladder. All models have an absorbent ride and responsive electrohydraulic steering, but all-wheel-drive versions get a specific tuning and 19-inch wheels, while the 300S and SRT8 have up to 20-inch wheels and even tauter suspensions, and on the SRT8, adaptive shocks with normal and sport modes of ride control. The 300 doesn't drive or feel small at all, but it has a big-car charm without the usual body roll and mushy, pitchy body motions; steering is secure on center--in the sense that you could truly eat up the highway miles--and while it's not at all enthusiastic in feel it loads up nicely off center.
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.