Most mid-size sedans have, for decades, typically offered a base four-cylinder or an available V-6. And not too long ago, on a number of mid-size sedans, the conventional wisdom—at least among car critics—for many of the models was that you should step up to the V-6. They often brought better performance; a smoother, more refined feel; and fuel economy that wasn't all that much worse than the base fours.
While times have changed, and four-cylinder engines have become far smoother, torquier, quieter, and more fuel-efficient—making it worth sticking with the smaller engine—we soundly recommend the available Pentastar V-6 in the 2012 Chrysler 200 above the four. Simply put, Chrysler's 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter World Engine still isn't up to par in refinement, while the new 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 is one of the better V-6s in this class, giving this car an entirely different, more confident, quick, and quiet feel—for a price premium of just $1,795.
We've spent about 550 miles behind the wheel of two different 200 sedans over the past week; in full admission, both were 2011 models, but there are nearly no changes for 2012, thus we've updated our full review of the Chrysler 200 for 2012, other than a couple of new exterior hues. First, we went about 250 miles around the Bay Area and up to Napa in a 2011 Chrysler 200 Limited, with the available 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, then we were so fortunate just a week later to have a 2011 Chrysler 200 Touring four-cylinder as a rental, in Michigan, where we covered yet another 300 miles.
First off, the thorough interior refresh that Chrysler introduced, along with the name change for 2011, is phenomenal. While the former Sebring's interior was an embarrassment, with its hard plastic and gimmicky details and creases, the new 200 dash is a fantastic mix of tight, low-gloss plastic that gives to the touch, and thin metallic highlights. The piano-black faceplate materials for the center stack even strikes off in a different direction that's somehow understated yet luxurious. From the exterior, we still very much see the Sebring, but the new grille in particular looks way more classy.
Back to engines: The V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission is our clear favorite of the lineup. It's thrusty and thrummy, but smooth, responsive, and unexpectedly quick when you bury your right foot and let the revs rise all the way—which we certainly did a few times. The Pentastar, as we've noticed in other vehicles, isn't all that much of a low-rev mill; it hits its stride above 2,500 rpm and really comes to life at about 3,500 in the 200.
While the six-speed automatic transmission has quite tall gearing, it seems to make pretty good choices about shifting—keeping revs down when you don't need them, with a nice, relaxed throttle calibration—though we did notice a bit of hesitation (and torque-converter bucking) coming around a corner and asking for a partial-throttle downshift. Surprisingly, the rental car wasn't a base 200 LX, rather a 200 Touring, so we also got the six-speed with the four-cylinder (the LX has the old four-speed). And the character of the transmission was quite different with the four—typically holding first and second gears for what we perceived to be longer than necessary (presumably to keep revs and responsiveness up), then almost too eagerly downshifting on the highway. It's almost necessary, though; while the 2.4-liter isn't sluggish, it does have a bit of a flat spot in the mid revs—and an aggressive throttle and those eager downshifts punt the revs up past it quite often.
Real-world mpg disappointing for four, good for V-6
We suspect that those differences in calibration account, at least in part, for the fact that real-world results aren't so much in sync with the EPA numbers for the four-cylinder. Our experience with these two models suggests that the EPA figures for the V-6 might be a little on the low side, while those for the four-cylinder are a bit generous. Over those 300 miles with the four-cylinder, most of them relaxed highway miles, cruising in the 65 to 75 mph range, we were only able to average 27 mpg; before turning the car in, we zeroed the trip computer and over another 15 miles of stop-and-go suburban driving only saw about 18 mpg. Yet with the V-6, in a mix of driving split almost equally between heavy stop-and-go, some congested Bay Area suburban driving, and highway cruising, we managed nearly 24 mpg. That's probably because once you're up to speed with the V-6, you're generally thrumming along at less than 2,000 rpm.
It's too bad, though, in the Chrysler 200 you don't get enough chassis capability to really enjoy the V-6. While its torque is a blast on the straightaway, you can easily send too much torque to the wheels coming out of a corner, and push the 200 a little too hard on a choppy surface and the suspension crashes vocally, with an odd harshness combined with wallowing—the 200 feeling in a momentary identity crisis. The four feels more appropriate for what you get; and in this version, the 200 simply handled better, with less of a heavy-nosed feel and crisper response. The 200's steering feel, by the way, earns kudos, even if the geometry can't quell torque steer—at least what's going on is transmitted back.
Groaning versus purring
One other really important reason that, if you're pretty decided on a 200, you should go for the V-6 comes down to one simple but ever-present issue: noise. While the four-cylinder coarsely groans, the V-6 thrums and purrs. We noticed that moderate acceleration with the four would sound into the cabin enough to temporarily pause conversation; Chrysler has cut vibration, hushed wind noise, and blanketed out road noise to an excellent, luxury-car level in the 200, yet the four's acceleration note sounds anything but civil from inside.
Overall, the Chrysler 200 was a lot more comfortable than we remembered. Front seats are a bit flat and spongy, but they're American-sized—wide enough for those who need an airline seatbelt extension. We wished for some true back support, though, as they left us achy after one stint of just two hours. And ride quality, if you're not flustering the suspension in a corner, is soft and supple. And one other piece of advice: Look about you; this driver is 6'-6", but a number of passengers said that the 200's high beltline made the interior feel cavelike (to paraphrase and sum). Visibility with those wide rear pillars is also not so great.
Prices are pretty great, though. The price of the test V-6 Limited was $24,695, while the four-cylinder Touring, as equipped, was $21,995. The premium for the V-6 is just $1,795 for Touring or Limited models. And both of those models included a power driver's seat, satellite radio, automatic climate control, and cruise control, among many other features. The Limited included Bluetooth and a 6.5-inch screen-based sound system with hard-drive music system, but no nav system.
Almost... but a great value
Final advice regarding the 200 is that you're getting a car that's stylish but not glamorous; quick but not particularly nimble; and comfortable but not in every way. But the 200 is a Top Safety Pick, and it finally feels like a car that Chrysler has shaken the bugs and glaring inadequacies out of. Perhaps it's too late, as the market feels saturated with good picks like the Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Volkswagen Passat, and Chevrolet Malibu. But at post time, a quick scan of information from our friends at TrueCar shows a transaction price of more than $1,000 off a 2012 Chrysler 200 Touring, on average (even more for 2011s). If price is critical and class-leading fuel economy isn't a priority, you should skip the four and take a Chrysler 200 Touring V-6 for a drive.