Calling the 2015 Chrysler 200 an “improvement” would be damning it with faint praise. Rather than condemn it as one of the worst cars to grace our roads, I think it’s safe to say that the outgoing version was rather dated and uncompetitive, even if the 200, and its former Dodge Avenger platform-mate, had a small but vocal following among a subset of TTAC readers.
When the wraps came off the all-new 200 at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, it didn’t look as if Chrysler had gotten their act together. Under the bright lights of Cobo Hall, the 200S that was displayed looked like the gawky,uninspired pastiche that resulted from a Chevrolet Impala had mating with a Dart. The faux-mag wheels and edgy blue color felt like Chrysler was trying a little too hard, and both myself and Juan Barnett were left unimpressed.. If Chrysler botched this, it would be the third consecutive launch gone awry, and strike three for the much touted, Alfa Romeo derived CUSW platform that is set to underpin much of their car and crossover lineup in the future.
Luckily, they didn’t botch it. Far from it. The Dart may have been hampered by its powertrain, and the Cherokee may have been handicapped on-road by its off-road aspirations. The 200 appears to have avoided the kind of fatal compromises present on those cars.
That model you see at the top of the page, dubbed the Limited, is expected to be the volume trim, and I think it looks rather elegant with its muted silver paint and smaller wheels. I still find the added visual drama of the 200S and 200C (which are supposed to be Chrysler’s version of BMW’s Sport and Luxury Line trims, respectively) to be a bit much – mostly the contrived faux-performance of the 200S. When it comes to family sedans, I like the natural look – give me an Accord EX 6MT over the Sport any day.
Ironically, the 200S and 200C (above, in silver and black) were what was available on the drive event, and the extra helping of sportiness outside didn’t matter much once inside the car. These versions had the best of what Chrysler has to offer, namely the Pentastar V6 engine and the UConnect 8.4 system, which is undoubtedly the best infotainment system on the market. The big UConnect system seems to have best mastered the balance between touch screen capability while still offering large, easy to manipulate tactile controls that can be operated without having to take your eyes off the road. Just aft of the UConnect center stack is a new, Volvo-style floating console, with a Ram-derived rotating shift knob and trick sliding shelf that hides the USB and auxiliary jacks.
Best of all, the examples on hand exhibited none of the sloppy details or questionable interior pieces that were present on the Cherokee. Everything appeared to be well put together, with high quality materials and exemplary fit and finish. A future review of a rental unit will be the true test of how the 200 holds up, but if Chrysler can maintain this level of quality once production ramps up, it could have a shot at the best interior in the segment.
This impression was only furthered by the competitive vehicles that Chrysler had on hand – an Accord EX V6 sedan, a 4-cylinder Camry SE, an all-wheel drive Fusion 2.0 EcoBoost SEL and a 2.5L Altima. The last CUSW car I drove got schooled by each of its rivals on the competitive portion of the drive. Not so with the 200.
Back to back with the Camry, Accord and Fusion (there was no time left to drive the Altima), the 200 held its own in most areas. Keen drivers will still prefer the Accord, with its robust VTEC V6, sharp handling and powerful brakes. The 200’s Pentastar motor is similarly sweet, with a melodic growl and torque for days, but the steering suffers from an on-center dead zone and less feedback than the Accord, while exhibiting the soft brake pedal and poor modulation common to the Dart and Cherokee. Chrysler endlessly mentioned the 200’s Alfa-derived platform, but if this is what Alfa is producing these days, no wonder the brand is in the dumps. Against the Camry SE and Fusion, it fared better, though the weak brakes took some of the shine off the car’s otherwise solid dynamics. Any bugs in the 9-speed automatic that were present on the Cherokee launch appear to be ironed out, and it felt far more advanced than any of the 6-speed units offered on the competitive cars.
Where the 200 truly edges out the Accord – and the rest of the present competition – is the fact that the interior is just a much nicer place to be – if you’re sitting up front. The 200’s modern, easy-to-operate infotainment system and high quality interior is a stark contrast to the Accord’s cabin, which frankly feels cheap and a bit nasty in the way that the 2012 Civic did. Acres of dull plastic and faux wood permeate the cabin, while Honda’s infotainment interface feels stone age next to the slick UConnect system. The story is the same with the Camry SE, which sports similar materials and a slightly toned down driving experience, but nothing nearly as bad as what most enthusiast writers would lead you to believe.
Where the Japanese sedans have the 200 squarely beat is in back seat comfort. Like the “game changer” Fusion, the 200 features a very contemporary roofline that slopes to create a pseudo-coupe profile, cutting rear seat headroom in the process. Combine that with a high rear seat cushion and you have a recipe for compromised headroom in the back, something that won’t sit well with traditional mid-size buyers. On the other hand, Ford moved nearly 300,000 Fusions last year, just behind the Altima, Accord and Camry.
Rather than going after the Japanese sedans, with their staid styling (but more generous passenger compartments) and antiquated infotainment systems, Chrysler appears to be matching the Fusion shot for shot. Instead of the maligned MyFord Touch, UConnect is being offered up. In place of the Ecoboost engines, two naturally aspirated engines, a 2.4L Tigershark making 184 horsepower (shared with the Dart, and one we regrettably didn’t sample in the 200) and the 295 horsepower Pentastar V6. All-wheel drive is also an option, and the Fusion’s tech is now trumped by the 200’s – how about perpendicular park assist, along with the usual lane departure warning system, blind spot monitoring and active cruise control?
Remarkably, the 200 is not just a better Fusion, but a sedan that is fully competitive with class leaders. It’s not a perfect mid-size sedan, and it requires you to accept certain trade-offs in the name of style and advanced technology. But Detroit finally has a credible mid-size sedan that is competitive with the best of what the segment has to offer.