Review: 2011 Chrysler 200
I wasn’t planning to review the Chrysler 200. Renaming a lightly revised car to escape a well-deserved bad reputation always strikes me as a lame tactic. And the Sebring, on which the 200 is based, was so far off in so many ways that I didn’t see the point. We don’t just review cars to trash them around here. But then I drove the revised minivan, and was very pleasantly surprised. Perhaps Chrysler had similarly transformed the Sebring when creating the 200? With a Buick Regal for the week, and a need for some reference points, the time had come to find out.
Working with limited funds and even more limited time, Chrysler couldn’t change the sheetmetal. So the 200’s proportions are every bit as frumpy as the Sebring’s were. Given this constraint, the improvements wrought with new wheels, light assemblies, fascias, and upscale trim are admirable. Just not sufficient (though the rear three-quarters view isn’t bad). Dark colors like the metallic black on the tested car do at least de-emphasize the odd C-pillar. Granted, the Camry, Accord, and Fusion are hardly beauties, but their proportions (which my eye tends to focus on) are less ungainly. The Regal is much more handsome (as is the Chevrolet Malibu).
Chrysler was able to more substantially revise the Sebring’s interior, and the 200’s is more attractive than those in the Camry, Accord, and Fusion. The sedan’s cleanly-styled instrument panel, many padded surfaces, and classy piano black trim with chrome highlights suggest that it should be considered a premium car. But upon closer inspection the upscale appearance seems skin deep and concentrated in the instrument panel. The door panels are extensively padded but their armrests, which give a bit when employed to pull the door closed, feel as well as appear tacked on.
The minor controls are very similar to those in the Sebring and don’t look or feel like those in a premium car. There are good reasons why the Regal costs about $4,000 more (though the Suzuki Kizashi comes close to the Regal while being priced about $1,000 above the 200). The materials in major direct competitors tend to be cheaper, and look it, but they are assembled at least as well. The Hyundai Sonata might pose the largest challenge by combining style with above-average materials and workmanship.
The Chrysler 200’s minimally bolstered seats, though certainly more comfortable than the Sebring’s hard slabs, recall domestic iron from years past. Though the buckets are soft, you still sit on them rather than in them. The thick A-pillars, tall instrument panel, and overly distant windshield conspire with these seats to thwart any meaningful connection with the car. The side windows are more expansive, but this largely serves to highlight that the view forward is not. In back there’s a healthy amount of legroom, but as in the Sebring (and many competitors) the cushion isn’t high enough off the floor to provide thigh support.
With 283 horsepower at 6,400 RPM and 260 foot-pounds at 4,400 RPM, the all-new 3.6-liter DOHC V6 out-specs all others in the segment. Hitched to Chrysler’s homegrown six-speed automatic (neither the smoothest nor the smartest) it moves the car quickly and sounds good in the process while earning EPA ratings of 19 / 29. But the chassis isn’t a match for the V6’s power. There’s some torque steer under hard acceleration, but the real problem is posed by curves. In casual driving the 200 feels okay, but even a moderately aggressive turn of the steering wheel uncovers a fair amount of lean, early onset understeer, and insufficient damping. The harder you push the 200 the sloppier both the suspension and the steering feel. Some cars ask to be driven aggressively. Others are up to the challenge, though they don’t ask for it. The 200 isn’t up to the challenge. Some Toyotas suffer from a similar powertrain-chassis mismatch, but this doesn’t make it right. The Regal has the opposite problem: well-tuned chassis, merely adequate engine. On a curvy road this is the better problem to have.
In his Chrysler Town & Country review, Jack Baruth noted that he was easily able to keep up with a 200 driven by another journalist. No doubt the other journalist lacked Jack’s mad driving skillz, but it also happens that the minivan steers and handles much better than the sedan. My earlier suspicion that Chrysler cribbed from VW’s work for the Routan? Consider it intensified.
The 200 does ride better than it handles, and better than the Sebring. For people who drive like grandmas (perhaps because they are grandmas) its chassis limitations won’t be much of an issue. The car doesn’t seem as slick and eerily silent at low speeds as a Toyota, but it’s smoother and quieter than an Accord or Fusion. Here as well the Sonata poses a tough challenge. Some competitors handle better, others ride better, but the Sonata Limited’s balance between the two might be the best among the segment’s major players. Unfortunately, none are outstanding driver’s cars.
One thing the Chrysler 200 definitely has going for it: a low price. With the V6, leather, sunroof (not on the tested car), nav, and premium audio it lists for $28,505. A comparably equipped Toyota Camry XLE lists for $3,700 more, and adjusting for remaining feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool narrows the gap by only about $300. A loaded Ford Fusion Sport is about $2,500 more even after a $1,600 adjustment in its favor for a power passenger seat, SYNC, a rearview monitor, and various other safety features not available on the Chrysler. Even a Sonata Limited 2.0T with nav is about $1,600 more.
Its strong new V6 notwithstanding, the Chrysler 200 isn’t remotely a driver’s car. Unlike the revised minivans, the revised sedan doesn’t contain any pleasant surprises. The bits you see, most notably the much-improved interior styling, are as good as it gets. The 200’s refinement, solidity, and chassis tuning mark it as, at best, an average member of the mainstream midsize sedan class rather than the next one up. To their credit, Sergio’s bunch aren’t deluding themselves about how much they were able to achieve. An all-new Fiat-based midsize sedan is only a couple of years away. In the meantime, they’ve priced the 200 substantially lower than its major competitors, making it a good value for those who don’t mind its exterior styling and who aren’t aiming to carve any corners.
Brad Marshall of Suburban Chrysler in Novi, MI, provided the car. Brad can be reached at 248-427-7721.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.
Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.
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