2011 Chrysler 200 Review – First Drive

Chrysler’s Sebring replacement gives the brand a new lease on life

2011 Chrysler 200 Review – First Drive

Perhaps no two vehicles have been more unloved by the automotive press over the past few years than Chrysler’s Sebring and its platform-mate, the Dodge Avenger. As Chrysler continues its climb out of last year’s bankruptcy, it will need to convince the buying public that it now has a viable option in the fiercely contested and all-important mid-size class.

FAST FACTS

1. The Chrysler 200 is essentially a massive mid-cycle update for the Sebring, riding on the same platform but with a new interior, exterior, suspension and top-level V6 engine.

2. The base 2.4L 4-cylidner makes 173-hp, while the top-level V6 makes a class-leading 283-hp.

3. Base trim LX models get a 4-speed automatic, with a 6-speed auto on Touring and Limiteds. A dual-clutch 6-speed is in the works.

4. Pricing starts at $19,995 or $21,995 for the Touring 4-cyl and $23,790 for the V6. Limited models start at $24,495.

Enter the 200. Named after the 200C show car, and borrowing some of its styling—most notably its grille—the 200 is a redesigned and renamed Sebring. The 200 isn’t a completely new car, but it is a major change from the previous model. Besides the new name, the 200 gets a new interior, new exterior styling, suspension upgrades, better sound deadening, and the company’s new Pentastar V6 as an option (the previous-generation’s four-cylinder engine carries over).

Chrysler folks will privately acknowledge that the 200 is a bit of a placeholder until an all-new mid-size sedan comes along in a couple of years, but that hasn’t stopped the company from attempting to step forward in a big way with this car. Instead of band-aid measures, Chrysler is presenting the 200 as something new, which is why the Sebring name disappears and the 200 moniker is being used now, instead of when the next-generation model appears.

NEW LOOK, POWERFUL NEW V6

The biggest change starts with the looks. The exterior styling is conservative yet handsome, with a lot less of the gaudy touches of the previous model. In fact, the look borders a bit on bland, but considering the amount of potshots the previous model took, it’s definitely an improvement.

Interior design has been a problem for Chrysler as a whole over the past few years, and the 200 takes a big step forward from the departed Sebring. The materials feel more upscale and look much better to the human eye. Gone are the endless seas of plastic, replaced by better-looking and better-feeling materials. The cabin isn’t best in class, but it’s now competitive, which is something that couldn’t be said of the previous model.

There are two engine choices: The aforementioned carryover 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 173 horsepower and the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 that makes 283 horsepower and 260 ft-lbs of torque. There are two transmissions: A four-speed automatic for base model 200s, and a six-speed automatic for most others—a dual-clutch automatic transmission will be available on Limited models with the four-cylinder later in the model year. All-wheel drive is not available, and as of now, neither is a convertible.

Trim levels are as follows: base LX, midlevel Touring, and Limited. An S model will be added later in the model year. Chrysler expects only five percent of its customers to opt for the LX, which has no options and is only available with the four-cylinder and four-speed automatic.

LX models will be priced at $19,995, while Touring models will clock in at $21,995 with the four-cylinder and $23,790 with the V6. Limited models check in at $24,495 and S model pricing has yet to be announced. Those prices include the $750 destination fee.

Available features include fog lamps, a tilt/telescope steering wheel, a universal garage door opener, a 60/40 split folding rear seat, satellite radio, Chrysler’s Uconnect multimedia suite, a wireless cell phone link, a navigation system, a hard drive for storage of media files, remote start, remote keyless entry, and heated seats.

Safety features include ABS, front side airbags, front and rear curtain side airbags, traction control, brake assist, and an anti-skid system.

ON THE ROAD

We recently took to the roads north of San Francisco to sample the 200, spending most of our time behind the wheel of a V6 model. When pushed, the Pentastar is responsive, allowing the 200 to jump from corner to corner with relative aplomb. The engine feels strong and responsive to throttle inputs.

The same can’t be said of the four-cylinder. It struggles a bit to get the car moving, and its throttle seems a bit lazy on tip-in. Fuel economy numbers haven’t yet been determined, but unless it’s a primary concern for you, opt for the V6.

The steering feel is a bit on the light side, but it’s accurate and responsive, putting the car where the driver wants it. There is some body roll, but it’s limited. As on many front-wheel drive cars, understeer makes its presence known, but it’s not out of hand.

Regarding ride and handling, the 200 isn’t on the level of sporty mid-sizers like the Mazda 6, Ford Fusion, Suzuki Kizashi, Nissan Altima, or Hyundai Sonata 2.0T, but it is class-competitive. No more rental-car blues for this sedan. It isn’t as fun to drive as some of the above listed models, but it doesn’t induce sleep either. For pure sport, shop elsewhere, but for a competent sedan that doesn’t mind the occasional back-road hustle, the 200 delivers well enough.

In more sedate driving, the ride is firm and composed, and most outside sounds stay outside. The 200 is well-suited to general commuting.

Trunk space is decent if not overwhelming, and rear seat room is agreeable even for taller drivers. The seats never caused discomfort during our time in the car. Interior storage is about par for the class.

THE VERDICT

Chrysler staffers were quick to remind attending media that the 200 came together quickly. For example, the first interior sketch was drawn only about a year ago—a remarkably short gestation period for any car. And the result is impressive. The 200 is eons better than the Sebring it replaces (a cynic would say anything would be much better by default), even if it hasn’t yet moved to the head of the class. If nothing else, it shows that when properly focused, Chrysler can build a competitive product.

And that may be the real story here. The Sebring was generally destined for rental fleets, and it was the butt of jokes in the office of just about every car magazine and Web site. The 200, by comparison, might not win enthusiast’s hearts, but it won’t cause a bout of quizzical head scratching when a gearhead is informed that his or her friend has purchased one. The 200 will ably perform most duties asked of mid-size cars, hanging with its rivals in most areas.

One of the reasons Chrysler fell into bankruptcy is that the company struggled in the mid-size segment, thanks to the lack of a viable option.

That problem has now been corrected.

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