Preview: '04 Chrysler Crossfire

It claims the heritage of both the Autobahn and the “Mother Road,” Route 66. It brings together American design and German precision. And the new Chrysler Crossfire may prove better than any other product whether Daimler and Chrysler really can work together as one company based in two countries.

Originally introduced in concept car form a year ago, the sleek and sexy sports coupe took its bow in production trim at this month’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Those who swooned over the prototype’s lean and distinctive styling—it derives its name from the way two key character lines cross over one another—aren’t going to be disappointed with the vehicle that hits the assembly line in spring 2003.

Even the split rear window will make it into production, though Chrysler designers wisely chose to abandon the crease in the front windshield, which would have been a production nightmare and distorted the driver’s visibility.

Merged values

2004 Chrysler CrossfireThe Crossfire is “the first really strong evidence of the value of the merger” between Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz, which was completed in November 1998, argued Larry Achram, Chrysler’s Vice President of Advanced Vehicle Design. Since then, the U.S. side of the company has been in deep financial trouble, and a growing number of observers have questioned the wisdom of the tie-up—which most now characterize as a German takeover.

Officially designated a 2004 model, the coupe is being rolled out now in an effort to shift that widely held perception, company officials admit, showing how Chrysler’s strong design operations match up with the engineering skills of Daimler.

About 39 percent of the Crossfire’s components will be derived from the Mercedes parts bin, many shared with the SLK roadster, though visually there’ll be no confusing the two cars. Most of the shared bits are hidden in places a consumer wouldn’t notice, though the Crossfire will get a very Mercedes 3.2-liter V-6 producing 215 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. That power will drive the rear wheels, which will be shod with 19-inch tires and wheels. Up front, Crossfire will have 18-inchers.

“We wanted the bigger rear wheels to emphasize this is rear-drive,” explained Crossfire design manager Andrew Dyson.

It will be loaded with the type of technology more common on a Mercedes than a Chrysler, including anti-lock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability program, or ESP. There are high-intensity headlamps and a rear spoiler that pops up automatically when needed. That’s “the advantage of the candy store,” said Achram, referring to the availability of all sorts of German technology Chrysler couldn’t afford to develop or buy on its own before the tie-up.

Audiesque?

Though the Mercedes influence is unmistakable, so is the touch of another German automaker. The elegant, two-tone interior carries through the split spine design theme of the exterior. It is an elegant presentation in leather and aluminum “influenced by benchmarking Audi,” acknowledged Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed.

While some had expected Crossfire to be slotted into the Connor Avenue plant that builds the Dodge Viper, the automaker has decided to turn to the independent design and production house, Karmann, which will assemble the sports coupe in Germany.

At the L.A. preview, Chrysler officials played up Crossfire’s dual citizenship, though it is clearly going to be positioned as the icon model for the American side of the company. The goal, suggested Chrysler marketing chief Jim Schroer, “is to do for Chrysler what the Viper did for Dodge….and what the SL did for Mercedes.”

What Schroer dubs “a truly American dream machine” could help Chrysler kick-start stalled overseas sales efforts. The Crossfire will be sold globally, with up to 20 percent of production earmarked for international sales.

Much like BMW’s approach to its new Mini, Chrysler wants to avoid turning the Crossfire into a “fad” car, with high sales numbers for a year or two followed by a sharp drop in volume. As a result, the automaker is all but certain to keep production down well below potential early demand.

Still, plans call for DaimlerChrysler to sell a significantly more Crossfires than its other halo cars, the Viper and SL. While no one is laying out precise numbers, volume is likely to be in the tens of thousands, probably in line with Ford’s plans for the Thunderbird. Price is also being kept wraps, but the general scuttlebutt would position the Crossfire at or near $35,000.

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