The Big Picture: Chrysler's Comeback
(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)
(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)
SAN FRANCISCO—Chrysler once wowed the market with its old-school car designs, but in the past three years, the company's just gotten old. Blame the divorce from Daimler in 2007, the clueless netherworld that ensued under Cerberus, and the shame of post-bankruptcy government bailouts from 2009 onward.
A surge in quality from Hyundai, Ford, and other large automakers left Chrysler embarrassed, and their near-silent PR team — which had nothing to introduce except new colors — had us convinced the company was finished.
Earlier this fall, a few months after the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee was unveiled, we were reassured at last: Eight brand-new or significantly-updated models have been rolled out this year, with more on the way in 2011. Nicer interiors, better engines, and new designs. We had to know if Chrysler was serious, or just mixing another batch of touch-up paint.
So last month, we flew to San Francisco to attend Chrysler's press launch (which we paid for). We had a few hours of seat time in each model, including high-speed laps at Infineon Raceway in Napa, and came back impressed and, sometimes, underwhelmed. Read on for our initial thoughts.
2011 Dodge Charger
We named the new Charger one of our "Top Drives for 2011," and that's after just a few hours in the car. While we reached that conclusion on California's nirvana of two-lane pavement — and not on our potholed, soon-to-be-slushy roads — this car cuts the fat and gets right to the point. Dodge now makes a fast, aggressively-styled sedan feel like a much more expensive, tailored experience.
The Charger is still based on the last-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as is its 5-speed automatic. For now, the company's new 6-speed automatics are only fitted to Chryslers, and there is no immediate plan to offer a manual (that will come later, as will a rumored 8-speed automatic). For now, that's fine. What whacked us over the head were the hush-quiet interior, soft-touch dashboard materials, and huge 8.4-inch LCD infotainment center. The Charger no longer feels grey and cheap.
Then we were hit again on the racetrack, where the Charger R/T (equipped with the Track Pack's uprated suspension and tires) showed a balance and steady poise usually reserved for BMWs. Not bad for a two-ton vehicle.
The gruff styling has matured. That means less of a "chopped roof" appearance and more visibility from the lowered beltline. LEDs trace the full-width taillights, and subtle changes to the body's creases, headlamps, and roofline make the Charger feel new outside, even though the angry face is familiar.
Pricing starts at $25,000 for the V-6 model (it's a new 3.6-liter engine shared across the company) and will top around $38,000 for the V-8 R/T. An SRT version is likely to follow, and optional all-wheel-drive should spread across the lineup. The Charger won't be competitive until images of its former rental car self fade away, but this car has chops.
2011 Chrysler 200
This car has the chops of the current Sebring, so we'll get its virtues out of the way quickly. The 283-horsepower V-6 is strong, the seats are comfortable, the steering is less wobbly, and the new front and rear fascias are more attractive. But there's loss written all over the Chrysler 200.
Our top-end $28,000 Limited model wants to compete against fully-equipped Accords, Camrys, and Fusions, but it didn't come with dual-zone climate or a power passenger seat. While the door inserts, armrests, and air vents have added padding and chrome, the interior still appears basic and cheap.
Unlike the Charger, road and wind noise storm into the cabin, and the transmission prefers to short-shift the middle gears, a fuel-saving measure that causes some abruption while accelerating. Steering a Town & Country minivan through tight mountain passes inspired more confidence — and proved to be more fun — than the 200.
You'll get superior style, fuel economy, and leg room in the new Hyundai Sonata for a few grand less. For the price of our 200, the Buick Regal delivers greater chassis solidity and tactile feedback from the road.
Unless you see a four-digit rebate on the windshield and a stack of gold in the glovebox, avoid the 200 until Chrysler pays it proper attention.
2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392
When you see a blue and white-striped Challenger filling up your rearview mirror, you'll question what year you're living in. Then, if you're on a race track as I was, you'll move over fast. This special-edition Challenger, with its white and blue-trimmed leather interior, features a bored-out V-8 that increases displacement to 6.4 liters (392 cubic inches). Both horsepower and torque get a bump to 470, but the most noticeable update is the electric power steering, now standard across all Challengers.
The smaller-diameter wheel means you'll no longer have to saw at a ship's helm. Turn-in is quicker and on-center feel is more secure, though anything would be better than the Goodyear blimp dynamics of the 2010 model. The Challenger still likes long, fast stretches with Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin blasting from the stereo, rather than a white-knuckle ride through the forest (and believe me, our Challenger R/T looked insane chewing hairpin corners with bicyclists).
Only nostalgic collectors — middle-aged men with a good $50,000 in disposable income — will pine for this 392 edition. I'd rather blow by them all in a truly modern Dodge, the upcoming Charger SRT8.
2011 Chrysler Town & Country
Knock around the inside of a 2011 Town & Country and its Dodge companion, the 2011 Grand Caravan, and you won't hit a sliver of dull, flimsy grey plastic. The redesigned dash isn't swathed in soft-touch surfaces, but its texture and assembly now ranks several leagues above the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.
The upgraded Garmin-based navigation is easier to read than the old blue-and-grey scheme, yet the screen can't match the intuitiveness and high-resolution we found in the Charger's 8.4-inch display. An "eco" switch mutes the T&C's throttle and transmission response to save fuel, while another switch for the optional heated steering wheel warms cold palms.
Chrysler's three ancient overhead-valve engines are gone, replaced by - you guessed it - the new 3.6-liter V-6 producing 283 horsepower. A quiet and controlled ride, Chrysler's incredible "Stow 'N Go" seats — which allow the second- and third-row seats to slide underneath the floor — and a competitive powertrain put this minivan back into the game it started more than 20 years ago.
2011 Dodge Durango
Save for a few Toyota and Chevrolet models, body-on-frame SUVs like the old Durango have all retired. Even the new Ford Explorer has switched to a lighter, more nimbler uni-body chassis. So it's wise the new Durango steps into a stretched version of the current-generation Mercedes ML platform, which also underpins the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The previous Durango, which we last tested in 2009, drove like an empty pickup truck with a covered bed — rigid, uncomfortable, and sloppy. The 2011 model gets the details right, from the pleasing red outlines on the gauges to the muffled ride and well-balanced suspension. What you get now is a solid, well-crafted SUV. It's too bad Dodge waited so long to figure that out.