The K-car saved Chrysler the company. The K-car almost destroyed Chrysler the brand. Lee Iaccoca and his team spun nearly endless and very profitable iterations of the K platform and components including the company’s market segment creating minivans. Starting with the LeBaron in 1983, followed by the stretched wheelbase E Class, the company also began using the K-car underpinnings for it’s premium brand, Chrysler. Eventually almost every vehicle in the Chrysler showroom was based on the K-car. In the 1950s and 1960s, before Chrysler’s almost terminal decline in the late 1970s, Chrysler was indeed the company’s premium brand.
Plymouth fought it out with Ford and Chevy, the other members of the “low priced three”, and Dodge took care of more middle class offerings. Those were Chrysler’s volume brands. Chryslers, on the other hand were bigger and more luxurious. They may have shared some engineering and components with the company’s more plebeian brands, but they had distinctive sheet metal and features and were marketed as luxury cars. Though the Chrysler K variants were not unattractive cars, and though they sold reasonably well there was no hiding their K-car heritage. For nearly a generation “Chrysler” meant a K-car with velour upholstery on the inside and fake wood on the outside.
Forget all those faux Chryslers with front wheel drive and K-car genes. The Chrysler 300 Luxury Series is a genuine Chrysler (though some of its DNA is imported from Stuttgart, courtesy of the ill-fated Daimler-Chrysler hookup). It’s a big, comfortable rear wheel drive car packed with almost every amenity one could ask for in a modern automobile. It has more than adequate power, the handling will never get you into trouble, it has some trick tech features that improve the driving experience, and in general it is far truer to the Chrysler brand than most of the cars sold under that label for the better part of the last three decades.
Let’s start with the driving dynamics. This 300 was equipped with Chrysler’s most modern drivetrain, consisting of the 292 horsepower Pentastar V6 engine connected to Chrysler’s new 8-speed automatic transmission that ZF is supplying (the “imported from Detroit” 300 was assembled in Canada using an engine built in Mexico and a German transmission). The combination works very well together, with more than enough power and the right gear available for just about any real world driving situation.
The Chrysler 300 Luxury Series takes that later appellation seriously. This is a car that has been tuned and soundproofed to be very quiet and very smooth. It’s exceptionally quiet. Yes, the V6 will provide a satisfying howl when you get over 5,000 RPM, but otherwise the car is almost whisper quiet inside. At speed the HVAC system is noisier than what you’re hearing from outside the car. I can’t say that the Jaguar XJ Portfolio that I tested was appreciably quieter. The ride is very smooth though I think I would have preferred 19″ wheels to the supplied twenties. The chassis is already tuned for comfort, not for handling, and I think 19s would have made the ride smoother yet without making the cornering worse. That doesn’t mean it’s a ponderous hulk that’s hard to steer.
The suspension is well-controlled, if not Euro sports sedan firm. Though the car understeers unless you’re really trying to get the back end moving, turn in is quick, steering is precise, and the car will go where you steer it if you need more lock. There’s not a huge amount of steering feedback, this is not a Lotus Elan, nor even a Mazda3, the current standard for good steering feel, but it’s also a far cry from the palm the wheel overpowered steering by remote control of Chrysler’s big sedans of yore. With fully independent suspension, the chassis is hard to upset and I found myself seeking out bad pavement to see how well the harshness was muted. There’s a section of concrete near the Northland shopping center that wasn’t leveled properly when it was poured. At the left edge of one of the lanes is about a quarter mile of oscillations that are so bad that in some cars you might think that something’s mechanically broken. The 300 did an admirable job coping with those oscillations. Even irregularly washboarded asphalt didn’t upset the 300’s equanimity much. Brakes are very good. The few times that I wanted or had to slow down quickly were done without fuss. They are easily modulated though sometimes the brakes felt a little grabby just before coming to a complete stop. The Rolls-Royce chauffeurs’ school method of reducing pedal pressure “six inches before you stop” came in handy.
In general, though, the car was very smooth and well composed. It’s a very easy car to live with.
Electronics worked fine. The 8.4 inch touchscreen with Chrysler’s UConnect worked very well, and I didn’t have to RTFM beyond checking how to pair my phone. Remote audio controls are mounted on the back of the steering wheel, near the paddle shifters and work fairly intuitively. The system easily accessed the music on my Android phone and phone integration worked fine with one exception when it wanted to redirect the audio on a phone call back to the phone resulting in no phone audio on that call at all. It’s possible that the one glitch was caused by the phone, not the car. Speaking of electronic glitches, one time when I turned the car on, the HVAC system started blowing hot air and setting it to AC or ACC didn’t seem to do anything. Shutting off the car and restarting made the problem go away. The smart key worked nicely. They’re convenient but I’ll be happy when the fobs are more miniaturized.
The audio system, a premium Alpine branded unit, sounded great, though I was surprised that it didn’t play louder than it did. There are enough regular knobs and switches for regularly used functions to not be inconvenienced by the touchscreen. There is a power sunscreen for the back window that is only accessible via the touchscreen, as are the controls for the heated seats and steering wheel, but if someone tosses you the keys, you won’t have to keep accessing the infotainment system just to drive the car. I suppose that if Fiat-Chrysler could save money on the base Fiat 500 by deleting keyed locks on the little car’s passenger door and hatchback, figuring folks wouldn’t notice because of the “free” power locks, most Chrysler 300 buyers also won’t notice that the power sunscreen doesn’t have a dedicated switch. The heated and cooled cupholders in the console, by the way, do have dedicated switches, one for each cupholder.
The other day Steve Lang asked “what is a ‘loaded’ car these days?“. By any reasonable measure, this 300 was loaded, stickering out at $44,855. It had the Safety Tec package ($2,420), the Luxury Group ($3,250), the 300 Luxury Series group ($3,500), a dual pane panoramic sunroof ($1,495) and UConnect ($795). Leather with detail stitching is appliqued to hard surfaces all over the interior, covering the entire dashboard and most of the other points that you’d touch. A lot of what isn’t leather is covered in real wood, including a nifty slatted roll-top cover for the heated and cooled cupholders. I work with leather in my day job and I’d say that the equivalent of at least one cow gave it’s skin for this car.
The seats have perforated leather seating surfaces and are heated, front and back, with the front seats also getting ventilation. One nice touch is that in addition to 8 way power seats, the pedal cluster can also be power adjusted. Since I have long arms and short legs, that’s a nice feature. The vinyl used on the seat backs and sides is of good quality. There is some hard plastic used on the door panels, and though it’s obviously hard plastic, it’s a decent color and grain match to the leather.
Everything worked, there were no rattles. Other than the mentioned glitches, the only glaring quality control issue on a car with 2,940 miles reading on the odometer was a piece of wood trim above the glove box whose double sided tape was failing so the trim was hanging a bit loosely. Glaring because the rest of the interior fit and finish was very good.
I’m a bit of a multi-speed skeptic. When I bought my first nice bicycle, it had an 8-speed rear hub. Over the years Shimano and Campagnolo have gone to nine, then ten, and now eleven cogs on the back wheel, even though most cyclists do most of their riding in just a handful of gear ratios. My first car had a two-speed Powerglide and I wondered if you really need more than six speeds in a transmission. I was a skeptic, now I’m a believer.
I had concerns that the ZF box would, as a Car and Driver reviewer said about the late, unlamented Chrysler 604 gearbox, hunt like a Jack Russel terrier. That wasn’t the case. It is the smoothest shifting transmission I’ve ever experienced. In sedate driving you almost have to watch the tach to tell that it’s made an upshift. Like with many modern cars I’m not thrilled with how the throttle is mapped for slow response just off of idle, nor do I like transmissions programmed for fuel mileage so they try to start in as high a gear as possible, but other than that initial hesitation I find with a lot today’s slushbox cars, the drivetrain is silky smooth. I may lose car guy cred here, but by the end of the week that I had with the 300, I stopped feeling the need to play with the lovely magnesium paddle shifters (placed right in the airstream from the HVAC vents so you know from touch that they’re real metal), and pretty much let the ZF shift for itself. I’d wager that the folks at ZF know more about shifting than I do. Other than forcing downshifts, the paddles didn’t get used much. Shifting up and down manually through eight gears seemed out of character with the car.
Speaking of shifting, the shift lever on the console works electronically and does not use the conventional PRNDL sequence. PRNDL was made a standard before I got my driver’s license so it took a little effort getting used to it, but it becomes second nature, though I have questions about how to rock the car between forward and reverse without damaging the transmission in the event of snow. As modern as the transmission is, there was one behavior that reminded me of a vintage three speed automatic with a properly working kickdown control. With only three speeds, there was a lot of spacing between the ratios, so when you wanted to go, you put your foot into it and the transmission would downshift into what today we’d consider a much lower gear, just as the carburetor secondaries were starting to dump more fuel into the engine. Assuming you were driving a big American land yacht with a V8, your head would snap back as you accelerated. Big fun on the highway. With the ZF and the Pentastar, putting your foot deep into it at highway speeds will downshift the gearbox by two or more ratios and the car just goes.
The fun may be retro but there is a modern benefit to all those gear rations: improved fuel economy. This car is EPA rated at 19/31 which sounds just about right from my experience. Over a bit more than 300 miles, I got an indicated average of 23.6 MPG in mostly urban and suburban driving. That figure is even more impressive that it sounds because it included about 20 minutes of idling at 0 MPG while my elderly mom kept cool in the car as I waited, in vain, for a fax from an embroidery customer to arrive at an Office Depot. From the instantaneous readings on the freeway, my guess is that if you keep it at the speed limit, you should get close to that 31 mpg on the highway. Actually, you can use the paddle shifters to hypermile if you want to, putting it into a higher gear when the computer thinks a lower gear is more appropriate. It’s impressive to watch the revs drop to about 1,100 without the engine bogging down and lugging, particularly because 260 lb-ft of torque doesn’t sound like a huge amount of grunt, but most of that torque is available over a wide RPM band. In any case, the ECU and transmission controls won’t let you really lug the engine – with so many ratios to choose from, there’s going to be a lower gear available if you need it.
Aesthetically it’s a handsome car. This 300 came in “Luxury Brown Pearl” on the outside and “dark frost beige” and “light frost beige” on the inside. Derek wasn’t joking when he said that they make press fleet cars in brown. The chase car from the fleet management company that dropped off the Chrysler was a similarly colored E Class Benz. The photographs don’t really do the paint justice as there is a considerable amount of pearl flake in the finish.
The Luxury Series option package includes “platinum” chrome trim on the outside, and it looks rather tasteful, a subtle departure from shiny chrome. That goes together with most of the “bright” work inside that also has a matte finish. One exception is the shiny chrome ring that separates the light and dark beige leathers on the hand stitched steering wheel cover. Chrysler might want to consider going to a brushed finish because in bright sun that ring gets very hot to the touch. Concerning that touch, it revealed another small flaw. The ring is seated in a groove, but as your hand moves around the wheel you can feel high and low spots on the chrome ring. It’s not seating perfectly uniformly around the wheel. It’s not enough to be visually obvious, maybe a millimeter or two at most, but you can feel it. Other than that minor issue, the steering wheel looks and feels great. The two-tone leather is an attractive take on the traditional sewn leather steering wheel cover.
The exterior styling is an evolution of the original 2005 RWD 300, which was based on Osamu Shikado’s 1998 Chronos concept, itself based, according to Shikado, on the Exner/Ghia Chrysler concepts of the 1950s. Visibility is good, at least forward and to the sides. Out the back you see the rear window and nothing else, it’s as though the back decklid doesn’t exist, which is surprising when you consider the high belt line and high rear deck.
Blind spots could be worse but when you factor in the tunnel vision out the back window, you’ll come to appreciate the blind spot warning markers lighting up in the side mirrors. When you park, be careful of those mirrors because they must not be cheap. In addition to the blind spot warning light, a LED courtesy light shines through the surface of the mirror onto the door and pavement when the car unlocks, and built into the outside shell of the mirrors are additional LED turn indicators.
Even if you can’t see it from the driver’s seat, the trunk really is back there. It seems large, though I never really put it to serious use. Two sets of gold clubs for sure, maybe enough room for the whole foursome. The rear seat back folds down in a 60/40 split if you need to carry something long. If you buy a 300, I’d consider the Safety Tec package. That gives you, among other features, a backup camera and a park assist system that fortunately is also sensitive to cross traffic when backing up. I’m not a huge fan of backup cameras but this one works well and the side viewing radar (or IR, however it works)) mitigates visibility issues out the back window.
All four doors open widely, for easy access. Actually, some might think the front doors open too widely, since you’d have to have a simian wingspan to be able to reach a fully opened door to pull it closed. I had plenty of room, front or back seat, but then I’m only 5’6″. Ergonomics is good. All controls can be easily reached from the driver’s normal position. The seats were comfortable though I would have preferred more bolstering. Drivers with large and wide feet might not like the location of the gas pedal, which is cheek by jowl with the transmission tunnel.
All the toys and nannies worked well. The blind spot warning was less obtrusive than others I’ve experienced, though if someone listens to the Forward Collision Warning system every time, they’re going to get rear ended after unnecessarily applying the brakes. I think stability control only kicked in once, when aggressively cornering, and even with it off you have to work a bit to drift. The tires could be grippier, they’ll chirp a bit when you drive enthusiastically, but again that’s not exactly what this car is for.
With all the option boxes checked, there is no shortage of automatic this and automatic that. One automatic feature that I didn’t like is the automatic bright headlights. I’m old school, it’s called a dimmer switch for a reason, that being there is a normal position and then the dimmed position. At night if there’s nobody else on the road, I like to use the maximum candlepower available to me. If you have the headlights set to auto, you lose control of the bright lights and they only turn on when the car decides that ambient light is low enough to warrant brighter headlamps. If you want to drive with your brights on steadily, you’re going to have to put the adaptive bi-xenon HID units in manual mode.
In conclusion, the Chrysler 300 Luxury Series seems to be a very well fettled car. There’s a harmony and balance that makes it a very pleasurable car to drive. It isn’t a canyon carver, but then that’s not what it was designed to do. It was designed to waft you in quiet comfort, with all the automotive amenities at your fingertips. I’m at a point in my life where there nothing wrong with a little comfort. Cruising down Eight Mile on a beautiful summer night, the Tigers on the radio, Justin Verlander striking out the side against the Yankees, panoramic moonroof letting in the fresh air, I found myself thinking, “I could be very happy with this as a daily driver.”
I also found myself thinking, “Who is going to spend $45K on a Chrysler 300?”. Forty five thousand dollars will buy you a number of fine automobiles. At that price you can start considering a Cadillac CTS or a BMW 3 Series among other brands that might have more cachet and luxury cred than Chrysler these days. The Infiniti G37 comes to mind, as do some Audis. Forty five grand gives you a lot of choices. Still, comparably equipped, the Caddy, BMW or those other cars are likely to be a few thousand dollars more than the 300 Luxury Series. Once you’re over $40K that difference might seem worth it – at least before you drive the 300. Drive the 300 equipped as I tested it and you just might decide that it’s luxurious enough.
Disclaimer and credits: Chrysler provided the car for seven days, insurance and a tank of gas. Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth. The Chrysler Special was photographed at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, MI. The Chronos concept was photographed at the Concours of America at St. John’s. It was on display in conjunction with retired Chrysler styling chief Tom Gale’s induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading– RJS