ATLANTA - Chrysler Corp. has decided to cast two new lines into the imaginary "premium automotive pond," as it begins fishing for buyers. For bait, the company is using the plush new 1999 LHS and the stylishly 300 M. The question is: Will buyers bite on such bait? And, which will they choose?
Although built on the same platform as the Concorde, these two cars are a departure in both look and feel from their curvaceous cousin. By comparison, the Concorde is a chic, yet moderately-priced model designed for the bread-and-butter sedan market. By comparison, the soon-to-be-released LHS and 300M are fishing for wealthier and more sophisticated buyers.
Both follow Chrysler’s new paperless design approach, which allows engineers to create cars almost exclusively by computer-aided design. In my view, the procedure has worked well in creating these fraternal twins. While nearly identical under the skin, the LHS and 300M have distinctly different in both looks and feel.
LHS makes strong styling statement
While the LHS is aimed at the traditional luxury buyer, its styling certainly in not -- traditional that is. In fact, if you liked the LHX concept car, you'll feel right at home in the production model. The most striking feature of the LHS is its unique, slanted headlamp design, which along with its egg-crate 'mouth' grille, dominate the frontal view. Chrysler claims they not only contribute to design flair, but improve functionality, as well. The halogen-bulb, quad-projector headlamps deliver a 50 percent improvement in light placement and brightness. Its rear design and taillamps flow smoothly and seamlessly into the car's flanks. Overall, its long, sculpted lines and cab-forward design are futuristic and intriguingly different.
1999 Chrysler LHS dash
1999 Chrysler LHS storage
1999 Chrysler LHS
Inside the cockpit, drivers will find a virtual oasis of luxury, Chrysler achieves that feeling with the hand-wrapped look to the controls and dash splashed with touches of imitation wood grain. Details include smooth, easy-on-the eyes rounded gauges, an attractive analog car clock, and dual cupholders. All are set in a clean, uncluttered style. A center console holds neatly defined and stacked controls for stereo and ventilation.
Heated seats with personalized memory for driver are standard, as is a glide feature that automatically moves the driver’s seat rearward for easier exiting and entering. Frankly, there’s more than enough room for five. Leather trim abounds, and a standard 60/40 back seat folds for added versatility. There is also a stow-through back seat.
New V-6, best-in-class
Under the hood, the all-new, all-aluminum, 3.5 liter V-6 engine is exclusive to the LHS and 300M. It smoothly delivers 253 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque - more than any other engine in its class. By placing twin catalysts close to the exhaust manifold, the new engine releases 30% fewer hydrocarbons than its predecessor, yet with a 5% gain in fuel efficiency from the naturally-aspirated engine.
In addition, both vehicles are capable of running on both mid-grade and regular fuel, thanks to the engine’s " knock knob" which adjusts for fuel octane levels to make up for performance discrepancy. The standard V-6 is paired with a four-speed automatic in the LHS, while the Autostick transmission can be ordered for the 300 M.
1999 Chrysler LHS back
On the road, the LHS has clearly been tuned for comfort. A recent ride-and-drive on some good old Georgia back roads, provided the opportunity to find out how nimble this new motorcar has become. The test of the LHS also included a sprint through Atlanta’s downtown traffic and on its bustling freeways.
1999 Chrysler LHS
Most noticeable in the LHS was its quick, even throttle response. Other highlights were its confident braking and luxury-tuned suspension. Independent front and rear suspensions give it agile enough handling, but its softer ride comes at the price of a little body roll when driving through the twisty back country. Low-effort steering is dialed in for slower speeds and parking - which gradually changes to more steering effort at higher speeds.
Chrysler targets near-luxury market
With the Concorde, LHS, and 300M, Chrysler faces the challenge of delivering three different cars to very similar customers. The LHS and 300M have been equipped to lure more upscale households desiring a stylish, near-luxury sedan. Although this market is dominated to some degree by imports, Chrysler projects this market segment will grow by 300% in the coming years, and believes its new models will be competitive.
More specifically, Chrysler expects the LHS will be purchased by slightly older male buyers, while the 300M is expected to appeal to a slightly younger buyer, with more women taking interest. Baby boomers, Chrysler thinks, are going to want cars that are quieter and more comfortable, yet without being lifeless. The automaker’s marketing mavens sees the LHS and 300M as a good fit for those needs.
At the millennium, the company hopes car purchases will rise again to comprise 54% of the nation’s sales of 16 million units.
And frankly, they have high hopes for lots of "big fish" biting at their premium hooks. Priced at under $30,000 ($28,995 for the LHS and $28,885 for the 300M), Chrysler’s new bait really does looks pretty appetizing.