Chrysler has emerged from the land of recession and bailouts with a new model, the Chrysler 200. However, things aren't exactly as they seem. You see, the 200 isn't exactly all-new. Underneath its new grille, resculpted sheet metal, and numeric moniker is, essentially, the 2010 Chrysler Sebring--a vehicle that mostly filled rental car fleets and was almost universally considered overstyled and underdesigned. So has the Sebring (and, by extension, Chrysler itself) come through the fire and emerged stronger and better, or is the automaker just putting a lipstick on a pig? We took a look at a 2011 Chrysler 200 Touring to find out.
Styling and performance
Externally, the 200 doesn't show many changes. The rough details have been smoothed out: the headlamps have been shrunk and now feature LED accents, the grill has been enlarged and redesigned, and--more subtly--a new Chrysler badge adorns both ends. On the rear, the shape of the taillights is less generic and they are tied together with a handsome chrome bar. Of course, the broad strokes and proportions of the Sebring are still in place--this is a face-lift, not a redesign--but, overall, the 200 is not a bad-looking vehicle.
The 200 comes standard with the same 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter gasoline engine that graced the Sebring, but our Touring was equipped with the optional 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that, at 283 horsepower, is more powerful than last year's 3.5-liter engine and, at 19 city and 29 highway mpg, is more efficient as well. The engine's 260 pound-feet of torque is transmitted through a six-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick manual shift mode. The Pentastar seems to output more than enough power to motivate the 200 at a reasonable clip. However, the weak link in the power-train chain is the automatic transmission. With six speeds, you can accelerate fairly well from a stop and hum along happily at highway speeds. However, somewhere between initial acceleration and cruising things go a bit wrong. The 200's gearbox seems reluctant to downshift when power is needed for midrange bursts of speed--such as when we needed to pass another driver at city speeds. The performance isn't what we'd call bad, but we couldn't help but think that the sluggish gearbox was keeping the Pentastar from offering really good performance.
Handling, on the other hand, is a more cut-and-dried affair. The 200 fails to impress and the blame can fall nowhere other than the chassis and suspension. Chrysler has softened the ride of the already mushy Sebring in an attempt to give the 200 a luxury sedan's soft ride. Simply put, the 200 Touring rolls and leans out of turns and pushes back when pushed. We found it best to simply not try to drive the 200 with anything resembling joie de vivre if we didn't want to be too sorely disappointed. As a boulevard cruiser, the 200 fares slightly better, but it's nowhere near what one would expect from a luxury vehicle. That left us with a car that wasn't fun to drive, not overly comfortable, and decidedly "meh."
Cabin tech and comfort
In the cabin, the 200 has a hard time living up to its $20,000 price tag ($20,950 for the Touring trim level), not to mention the luxury badge that adorns its hood. The plasticky, dull dashboard materials and bland instrument cluster seem to shout "Dodge" much more loudly than "Chrysler." Louder still, the cabin electronics package of our Touring model shouts, "I'm a rental!" with its lack of standard features and options.
Our tester came equipped with an AM/FM radio, a single-disc CD player with MP3 decoding capability, and a dashboard-mounted analog auxiliary input. The receiver itself is a chintzy-looking unit with hollow plastic buttons and an analog clock that we reckon is supposed to evoke an air of luxury, but--thanks to the sickly greenish-blue backlight that it shares with the rest of the dashboard--ends up looking more like a cheap Indiglo wristwatch. Sound is sent to the listeners' ears through a six-speaker audio system that is seriously stretching the definition of the word "premium." Bass response is, upon first listen, fairly good at moderate volume levels. However, continue to listen and you'll begin to notice that muddy highs and midrange tones are the price you'll pay for that low end. Crank the volume a bit more and even the bass begins to distort slightly. No better audio option is available.