2011 Chrysler 200 Limited: First Drive

November 14, 2010

No more drama, please.

It's not just us making the request. It's the folks at Chrysler, too, we're sure. The last three years have played out in Auburn Hills like a season of ER, with divorce, a near-death experience or two, and a non-stop triage running in the background. 

There are signs the storyline is changing. The car surgeons are still in the weeds, but at the post-Cerberus, post-bankruptcy Chrysler, healthy patients like the new Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee are now checking out with good prognoses.

Delicate trauma cases like the Chrysler Sebring sedan have required a little more intensive care, however. The Sebring launched in 2007 to unhappy reviews for its overwrought styling, low-buck interiors and stiff ride. A walk-back of its more effusive sheetmetal ribs after two years hardly stopped the bleeding. Fleet sales saved it from total disaster, but just barely.

Now that it's extensively reskinned, with a new drivetrain horned into place, Chrysler's decided the Sebring name deserves a good, deep burial. It's easier to start over than to rehab a brand, which is why the resulting 2011 Chrysler 200 wears numbers, not letters, on its rear-door flags.

Most of what's new in the 2011 200 connects directly with your eyeballs and your fingertips. All the old Sebring surface scars are gone. With every body panel altered except the roof and the doors, the 200 lets your eyeballs relax, finally, to absorb all the well-underplayed details and the slight but very effective changes. Compare the old Sebring's nose and grille to the 200's, and you'll be down with the difference between boughetto and bourgeois. The shared pieces are way more obvious when you compare the sideviews, since the doors are the same, spiffed up only with what appears to be a late-in-the-program "200" decal, stuck to a black sail panel.

Inside, the 200 proves our theory that private equity doesn't know a damn about car design. That regime was responsible for the Sebring's underfunded cabin, which has been swapped out for a richly detailed environment. The 200 dash is a great mix of tight, low-gloss plastic that gives to the touch, and thin metallic highlights that ring the major driver-control areas simply and subtly. (Rounded analog clock? Check.) Just one or two unwelcome relics reconnect the 200 to the Sebring from the inside out--namely, the green fluorescent displays on the lower corners of the gauges, for gear selections and trip functions. They're unappealing, and sit almost out of sight for taller drivers.

 

2011 Chrysler 200

2011 Chrysler 200

Big power, bigger torque steer

Given a choice of 200 sedans to drive in a short window of time, we grabbed the keyless-entry fob for a 200 Limited, fitted with the "Pentastar" 3.6-liter V-6. There's still a 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder in the fleet, which we'll drive and report on separately.

Found in the Grand Cherokee, the new Durango, the updated minivans, the Dodge Avenger and Journey, the new V-6 is to Chrysler what the VQ series is to Nissan. And in some respects, it's better. Nissan's engines seem to lose a half-measure of refinement with each update; the 200's V-6 is probably the best-sounding of all the applications so far, since it's missing the mid-range resonance we've heard and felt in the big SUVs and minivans. It's a spec-sheet standout at 283 horsepower on tap, with 260 pound-feet of torque, and it lights a fire under the 200's heels.

Usually, that's met with nods of approval. In a straight line, the 200's new grip on power gives it a more fluid, point-and-shoot feel than the doddering old sixes in the Sebring. When you needle the gas, the 200 can't help but wobble through its launch with big gulps of torque steer. Cruising speeds feel unruffled, but dodgy roads reveal some programming burps and hiccups with the new six-speed automatic, too. It's very slow to lock up its torque converter, which translates sometimes into jerky downshifts.

The 200's suspension has been massaged for moderate ride-quality improvements. Slightly lower, more so in front than in back, the 200 doesn't smack back at bumps the way the Sebring did. Big 225-series tires move up from 17-inchers to 18-inchers on the upper two trim levels, and the brakes are four-wheel discs on all versions. The hydraulic power steering isn't as severely light as the 2011 Dodge Journey, and even with its hands full of torque steer, it's a pleasant half-step behind the times.

That small feeling 

In size and value, the 2011 Chrysler 200 stacks up well against the likes of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata on the spec sheet. The 200 has superior headroom numbers and roughly equal legroom figures, once you factor in the Sonata's super-long front-seat travel. The Sonata tops the 200's truck by nearly 3 cubic feet, though.

So why does the 200 feel much smaller? In part, it's the seemingly smaller glass areas, but it's also the tall dash structure, dark interior colors and the big, wide front seats that feel fine, if not overly supportive. It's also a little less easy to slip into the back seats, since the actual door openings are quite a bit smaller than the door skins themselves. The 200's cabin space is there, but visually it reads more confining, not at all airy, and some of the circa-2007 body structure just won't let it be any other way.

Chrysler has stuffed the 200 with more sound deadening than the Sebring, which does the most good to mute out the sins of the past. There's some noise that intrudes through the rear wheel wells, which could make it tougher for a family of four to conduct one conversation, but the laminated windshield drops out the highway-drone frequencies very well.

Feature feast--or famine?

With its newest minivans and SUVs, Chrysler's set a benchmark for standard features and new tech options. Many of them don't make the 200's list.

All 2011 Chrysler 200 sedans have dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; active headrests; and tire-pressure monitors. Blind-spot detection and parking sensors are missing, and so is a rearview camera. 

Some entertainment features go absent on some 200s as well, leaving Chrysler without a response to vehicles like the Fusion, the Optima and the Sonata. The $19,995 Chrysler 200 LX has air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, telescoping/tilting steering wheel with audio controls, AM/FM/CD player, and the four-cylinder/four-speed powertrain. Bluetooth is an option here, while it's standard on the $19,995 Hyundai Sonata--and this 200 doesn't offer satellite radio or a USB port at all, though it does come with an auxiliary audio jack, all of which are standard on the Hyundai.

The $21,995 200 Touring adds automatic climate control, a Homelink garage door opener, a power driver seat, and satellite radio. A sunroof is an option, as is Bluetooth and a DVD/hard-drive audio system with 28GB of storage. The powertrain is the four-cylinder teamed with the six-speed automatic, with the V-6/six-speed automatic an option.

The $24,995 Limited gets the same powertrains standard and optional, with a new dual-clutch gearbox coming to its options list late in the model year. It also adds on 18-inch wheels and tires, Bluetooth with voice commands for audio and phone, a USB port, leather seating, heated front seats, and makes the hard-drive audio system standard. A navigation system grafts on it as an option; Boston Acoustics speakers are offered separately.

There's a 200 S with nearly every feature offered, but pricing has not been revealed. It bundles almost all these premium features (except the dual-clutch transmission) in as standard equipment, though the sunroof remains an option.

The 2011 Chrysler 200 is undoubtedly healthier after its emergency surgery. Its V-6 gives it best-in-class output, and designers have found some lovely workarounds to its unchangeable hard points. It's still unlikely to trip up the Subaru Legacy, Ford Fusion, the Hyundai Sonata or the Kia Optima on its way out of recovery, but the fleet-car stigma is showing signs of healing over.

Call it guarded condition, with a kicker of hope. 

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