Ever since the Chrysler 300 appeared on the scene in 2004, it provided sharp-looking big-body cruising, without breaking the bank. More than a decade later, it still occupies that same spot, albeit with a flashier wrapper and nicer equipment.
Trouble is, while the 300 was rolling down the boulevard, several new challengers appeared -- a refreshed, an all-new and even a refreshed platform-mate, the . The 300 hasn't gotten worse over time, others have risen up around it. But in the face of all these new, uh, faces, the 300 remains a competent machine.
Looks and feels
The 300 has never not been handsome. It's a blocky car, punctuated by strong fenders and the appearance of a low roofline. It looks mean, which might explain its brief appearance as Walter White's wheels in "Breaking Bad." It's a more restrained, conservative look than the overly stylized Maxima, the musclebound Charger or the Avalon, which looks like the visual embodiment of a lullaby.
Inside, large and commanding front seats lend a feeling of executive-style appointment, and while an all-black interior may add a bit of drabness, it's never unattractive.
While the look is fine, I had some issues with the fit and finish. Whereas the leather is surprisingly supple, the plastics throughout are anything but. The softest plastic lies atop the dashboard, but looks like it's fading straight from the factory. My car's faux-wood trim was attractive, but the storage cubby door on the center stack creaked like a 100-year-old house's stairs.
There's also the matter of the shift knob. The rotary dial is love-it-or-hate-it. I don't mind it, but it's made of a very cheap looking plastic. The gauges are also a bit in your face for a car that's more on the demure side -- neon blue lighting and sportily arranged numbers make for a strange juxtaposition.
Tech-forward, but not leading the charge
If there is one thing I absolutely adore in a Chrysler, it's the infotainment system. Uconnect is snappy, well laid out and easy to get used to, all of which earn high praise from me. The associated information display between the gauges is easy to navigate, and I like just how much it's capable of displaying, from engine oil temperature to individual tire pressures to one of the best looking fuel economy gauges in the industry.
Bear in mind, not all 300s feature this system. With a 300 in base trim, you will need to add the $2,395 Premium group to get the 8.4-inch touchscreen Uconnect system. The Anniversary Edition 300 I drove came with the system as standard, but with a $2,995 premium over the base price.
Additional apps are available in the system, such as Pandora, iHeartRadio and Slacker Radio, but they require the Uconnect Access phone app. There's a Wi-Fi hotspot with an embedded modem that also powers some of Uconnect's apps, like Yelp, but its 3G speeds are a bit behind the curve. Nevertheless, the 300's two USB ports in the back, complementing the one up front, let passengers keep their phones charged on longer hauls.
In its effort to innovate, Chrysler integrates the windshield wipers and turn signals into a single stalk on the left side. If you're not used to Chrysler vehicles, this will be as annoying as it is confusing. Changing a very traditional configuration may be a bridge too far.
Cushy comfort, guzzling gas
Even though the world might wish that all 300s came with a V-8, the standard 3.6-liter V-6 is very good. With 292 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the Pentastar engine starts up with a nice, subtle growl. Step on the gas, and it gets even better, growing to a crescendo of mechanical howl. I certainly didn't miss the Hemi.
While others in the segment might feel more on the lithe side, the 300 drives like the ponderous thing that it is. Movements are deliberate, while the tire sidewalls and soft suspension soak up small bumps and dimples. Steering is on the heavier side, but I didn't need to celebrate Arm Day to get a grip on it.
The eight-speed transmission works smoothly, if a bit slowly. Gearshifts are nearly imperceptible, and multi-gear downshifts (if you're in eighth gear at 60 mph and you floor it, for example) are slow, but also smooth.
But then there's the matter of fuel economy -- woof. With a V-6 and all-wheel drive, the 300 rates 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Not only is that far below the competition, at the average Michigan highway speed of about 75 mph, I saw 24 to 25 mpg.
Down to brass tacks
A couple years ago, this segment wasn't that great. The Maxima was underwhelming, the Avalon was just a cheaper Lexus and the Charger had one of the most oppressive interiors known to man. Those have all changed, whereas the 300 hasn't as much, meaning the competition has mostly surpassed the Chrysler.
In terms of price, our base AWD 300, at an MSRP just under $35,000, sits nearly even with the front-wheel-drivers Avalon and Maxima. All three cars can be optioned to high heaven, and our 300 came in -- Anniversary Package and all -- at a not-too-shabby $38,505.
Advantages pass between cars. The Maxima's futuristic styling is more aligned with my preferences, and despite seeming rather boring, the Avalon is excellent at under-the-radar, A-to-B transportation. The Charger can have up to 707 horsepower under the hood, and its interior is more welcoming than the 300's.
When it comes to fuel economy, the 300 falls flat on its face. The Maxima and Avalon have highway mpg figures north of 30, and like the best strip clubs in town, city mpg is 21 and up. The 300 can only achieve those numbers if it's turned off and resting atop a flatbed.
If you absolutely love Chrysler's vehicles, you won't be going wrong with the 300. It's comfortable, it's pretty and it's a great overall value. But when you start cross shopping and comparing the cars on paper, it's firmly mid-pack at best.