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Test Drive: 2012 Chrysler 300 S

 

When it hit the scene hard in 2005, the Chrysler 300 matched bold style with a cheap fit and finish that was palatable with a powerful HEMI V8 under the hood, but little more than a plastic prison when powered by one of the thirsty, weak-in-the-knees V6s on offer.

Mistakes were made. New Chrysler doesn’t make mistakes.

As with the rest of the automaker’s lineup, for 2012 its flagship sedan has been redesigned to fix what was wrong and make what was good fantabulous.

This starts with the exterior, which keeps its signature Bentley-on-a-budget look, enhanced now with flush headlights and grille, a slightly more wedge-shaped profile, clever little tailfins at the rear, a heavy helping of LED lighting elements and larger windows for better visibility and an airier feeling cabin.

In there you’ll find an all-new motif that’s centered around a standard 8.4-inch monitor for the various entertainment systems, lots of soft-touch plastics and improved visibility thanks to the extra glass. This still isn’t a Cadillac or Lincoln interior, as there isn’t nearly enough leather trim, but for a starting price of $29,395, more than 15 grand less than an MKS, you can deal. (For those whom must swath themselves, the $40,940 Luxury Series trim level is available that’s got additional hides and was named one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors of 2012.)

The HEMI is back, of course, and available in two flavors, offering 363 hp and 470 hp, respectively. Both are a thrill, but neither a necessity. The standard-issue engine is Chrysler’s new and much-vaunted Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, a world-class mill that delivers 292 hp and 31 mpg on the highway, unsurpassed among gasoline-fed rear-wheel-drive full-size sedans.

Helping it achieve this level of efficiency is Chrysler’s first use of an 8-speed automatic transmission, which is not yet available with the V8s. The box of many gears putting it in league with foreign luxury brands like BMW and Audi, not to mention its most direct rival, the Hyundai Genesis.

Aside from a fiddly toggle switch-style gear selector that makes choosing reverse a continual challenge, the tranny operates as smoothly as the rest of the car. Top-of-the-V6 line “S’ models like our tester have paddle shifters behind the wheel, which you may actually find yourself using on occasion.

Even when fitted with all wheel drive, the 300 likes to think of itself as a rear-drive car. The proof of this can be seen on a torque-split display located in the instrument cluster that tells you where the power is going at any given time. I ran the car hard enough through a couple of curves to get the back end to slide out a bit for fun, and it never once thought of calling the front tires into action for the save because that would be lame.

So, this 300 is quick and nimble, but also quiet outside and in. My cameraman on the side of the road never heard me coming, and on the highway it’s as if you’re wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones like those big bulky ones from Beats By Dr. Dre, which happens to supply the 522-watt audio system on the 300 S. The bass sound is so tight, they should call it snare. The automotive collaboration is a first for the former World Class Wreckin’ Cru member and lends the 300  the kind of urban cool that Chrysler’s recent ad campaigns so desperately want us to believe that it has.

In this case, it does. The 300 may technically be imported from Canada, not Detroit, but it is imbued with as much of the American luxury ethos as the 1957 edition, despite the extra two doors.

Gripes? This is not a car that you want to mess with, but if I must; the gas pedal has more travel in it than Anthony Bourdain, and the manual parking brake pedal to the far left of it seems kind of low-tech in a car that can be ordered with adaptive cruise control and a blind spot warning system. Also, while I generally love the relatively low-priced ($795) Garmin-sourced navigation system, the maps locked up a few times when it was directing me around traffic. It’s soothing female voice, however, never led me astray.

Chrysler has been having a great year in 2012, and this car exemplifies why. Like many of the company's popular products, it’s unique in the marketplace.

For all of the right reasons this time around.

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2012 Chrysler 300 S AWD

Base Price: $36,745

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.6L V6

Power: 292 hp, 260 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/27 hwy