After years as a pretender to the ranks of luxury automobile brands, Chrysler has announced that it is officially changing direction and going mainstream to battle against the likes of Ford and Toyota instead of Lincoln and Lexus. The midsize 2015 200 is its first shot across the bow.
Well, the old 200 really was, since it was the lowest priced “luxury” car in America and already undercut much of the plebian midsize competition, but it was also a pretty sad relic of the DaimlerChrysler days and was largely aimed at satisfying fleet orders. The brand new model, on the other hand, is an all-Italian-American product of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Slightly longer than the Dart, the 200 lands on the small end of the midsize segment, but it can fit four, if not quite five, passengers in reasonable comfort, while its exterior design should be snazzy enough to entice them to get in there in the first place. No groundbreaker, it nevertheless features a distinctive face, visually elongating character lines and bulges in all the right places.
Inside, it has a much richer feel than the last 200. Not a high bar, to be sure, but the interior designers of more than a few of the current best-sellers could learn a few things from its textured maple trim and top-notch leather upholstery on high-end models.
The very nifty center console is a classic example of Chrysler design cleverness. The cupholders slide back to reveal a cubby that can be outfitted with a 12-volt socket, USB, a 110-volt outlet and has a tunnel to the open clutter bin in front of it for all the cables that are plugged into them. Above it, you’ll find a rotary gear selector and a panel with knobs and buttons that supplement the touchscreen controls
for the infotainment system, which can be equipped with navigation, of course, but is also a 3G Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s the same familiar UConnect interface seen in just about every Chrysler family product these days, but this latest version is lightning-quick. Press an icon and you rarely have to wait even a second for something to happen.
The $22,695 entry-level 200 comes with front wheel drive and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor good for 184 hp and 36 mpg highway; $26,440 buys you a 295 hp 3.6-liter V6 that’s the most powerful engine in its class; $29,690 gets the V6 with all-wheel-drive. The only comparable midsize sedans available with AWD are the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion, so keep an eye out for 200s on your next ski trip.
I took a four-cylinder out for a spin, and it was an entirely adequate experience, while the full-zoot V6 AWD 200C I drove for a week seemed more impressive every day. This is basically the same engine featured in the Ram 1500 pickup, so a car this size is no challenge for it. Chrysler’s engineers filtered out all the noise but left some soothing induction and exhaust sounds in the mix, so it’s not completely sterile. You get the impression they’ve been hanging out with their corporate cousins at Maserati, even if only for coffee.
Ride quality is right where it should be, and the handling is better than I expected it would be all the way up to about 9/10ths of the 200’s limits, where you’ll never go in a car like this, anyway.
The transmission is much sharper than the clunky early versions that debuted in the Cherokee and were later tweaked, but you’ll see ninth gear about as often as Bigfoot. Even if you manually shift into top gear with the steering wheel-mounted paddles, it will rarely stay engaged for very long unless you’re heading downhill at 70 mph with a tailwind and your right foot is detached from the gas pedal. Still, it and the other eight speeds conspire with a trick all-wheel-drive system -- also shared with the Cherokee – that fully disengages the rear driveshaft to maximize efficiency, which tops out at 29 mpg highway.
But it’s in parking lots where the 200 really puts on a show. Order the I-can’t-believe-it’s-so-affordable $1,295 SafetyTec package and, along with the now usual suspects like blind spot warning, autonomous lane-departure prevention, collision alert and radar cruise control that slows down a little abruptly, you get a self-parking assistant.
Yes, lots of vehicles have these today. They use sensors to detect parallel parking spaces the car will fit into and steer you into them while you operate the gas, brakes and transmission. But the 200 can also back you into perpendicular spaces.
SEE IT IN ACTION:
I know, you’re a great driver and these things are stupid, and I’m happy to hear that. But call me in a few years when your back is achy and your neck is stiff, and twisting around to drive in reverse becomes less appealing. This doesn’t just get the car into the space with hardly any effort on your part, but it puts it right down the middle every time. Enhanced mobility for people with mobility issues, with absolutely no downside for those who choose not to use it? I vote yes. Besides, you’re still on your own pulling out.
Funny thing is, when you take all the tech and performance and refinement into consideration, a fully-loaded 200 starts to smell a lot like the luxury cars it’s not supposed to be going up against anymore.
I’m starting to think Chrysler is still pretending to be something it’s not, only this time for the better.
2015 Chrysler 200C AWD
Base price: $31,190
As tested: $36,365
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Engine: 3.6-liter V6
Power: 295 hp,
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
MPG: 18 city/29 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.