People never stopped buying family cars, of course. They just bought fewer American-brand family cars. Half a million Toyota Camrys find homes in American garages every year. Almost as many Honda Accords. And of course, the Koreans have been making inroads, too.
But now – as the commercials for the car snarkily style it – there’s a new “import” on the block.
From Detroit (via Italy).
The 2015 Chrysler 200.
For the first time in a really long time, the Camry, et al, have serious hometown competition.
WHAT IT IS
The 200 is Chrysler’s mid-sized entrant in the family sedan cage fight. It goes up against perennial Japanese brand favorites like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as house brands such as the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu.
Prices begin at $21,700 for a base trim/front-wheel-drive/four-cylinder-powered LX and run to $30,425 for a luxury-trimmed C equipped with all-wheel-drive and a powerful V-6.
Everything. Among the highlights – a graceful new body, swank new interior and nine-speed transmission (three-upping most of its competitors, which typically come with six-speed transmissions).
Available with all-wheel-drive, fairly rare in this class.
Available V-6, becoming rare in this class.
Responsive, fuel-sippy – and standard equipment – nine speed automatic.
Sticker price is lower than competitors and – probably – you’ll be able to negotiate a better deal because Chrysler is hungrier for customers than Toyota, Honda, et al.
It’s a really nice car.
A bit less room inside than competitors like Camry and Fusion – especially in the back seat. Legroom is ok, but headroom and shoulder room’s a little tight if you’re a taller person.
Forward Collision Warning system (optional, thankfully) sometimes senses “collisions” that aren’t imminent – such as when you’re pulling up behind another car at a red light. It gets mad if you don’t leave half a car length of space between your car and the car ahead. Or apply the brakes soon enough – as it sees it – even when it’s unnecessary to brake, as you see it.
Chrysler – the brand – still has some rebuilding to do. Resale/depreciation rates may not be as favorable as the “blue chip” brands, especially Toyota and Honda.
Like most of the cars in this class, the 200 is available with either of two engines. However, unlike a growing number of cars in this class (including the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu), the 200 offers both a four and a six – not just fours.
And neither of them is turbocharged.
The optional V-6 makes its horsepower the old-fashioned way – with more cylinders and more displacement. This is arguably a plus, especially down-the-road repair and maintenance-wise. The increasingly trendy turbo fours one finds in an ever-increasing roster of cars in all classes have a number of advantages (including “on-demand” power and generally very good fuel economy when power is not demanded) but they’re higher stressed (being pressurized), more complex and the long-haul durability of the turbos and related parts is by no means a trivial concern given the potential cost of repairs.
Anyhow, the 200’s optional 3.6 liter V-6 makes tremendous power – 295 hp, substantially more power than the just-updated (2015) Toyota Camry’s optionally available (and carryover) 3.5 liter V-6 (268 hp) and the Chevy Malibu’s and Ford Fusion’s optional turbo fours (259 and 240 hp, respectively). The next closet thing – power-wise – is the Honda Accord V-6 equipped with its optional 3.5 liter, 278 hp V-6. And the V-6 Nissan Altima (270 hp). Both these cars are sportier in terms of steering response and handling (more on that below) but in a straight line, the 3.6 liter equipped 200 gives up nothing to those sport sedans.
The 200’s base 2.4 liter four, meanwhile, makes a credible (class-competitive) 184 hp. More than the base-engined Ford Fusion (2.5 liters, 175 hp), Toyota Camry (2.5 liters, 178 hp) and Nissan Altima (2.5 liters, 182 hp); dead heat with the base-engined Accord (2.4 liters, 184 hp).
Another rival, the Mazda6, offers just one engine – a 2.5 liter, 184 hp four. There is no optional upgrade
The Chevy Malibu is the only car in this segment that comes standard with a stronger engine (2.5 liters, 196 hp). But its optional engine – the turbo four described earlier – is a middleweight compared with the heavyweight 3.6 liter V-6 you can order in the 200.
Both 200 engines are paired with nine-speed automatics – a feature no competitor yet offers. Six-speed transmissions are the rule rather than the exception in this class. What’s the advantage? The nine-speed reduces peak engine RPM in each gear during normal acceleration by allowing earlier upshifts to the next forward gear. This is a big fuel efficiency advantage, helping the base 200’s base four earn an EPA rating of 23 city, 36 highway – a notch better than the new Camry manages with its larger (2.5 liter) four: 25 city, 35 highway and significantly bettered only by the Ford Fusion when equipped with its optional hybrid powertrain (44 city, 41 highway).
The tighter gear spacing of the nine-speed automatic is also a performance advantage. With the V-6, a 200 can hustle to 60 in the high fives – quicker than the former hot rod in this class, the V-6 Accord.
And the V-6 Camry, too.
With the four, 0-60 takes about 8.4 seconds… with front-wheel-drive. Which brings up the matter of all-wheel-drive. The 200 offers it. The Camry, Accord, Mazda6 and Malibu do not. The Ford Fusion is one of the few cars other than the 200 that does. And you can’t get a V-6 in the Fusion anymore.
Perk: Neither the 200’s base four nor its optional V-6 need premium fuel. While most of the competition’s standard engines are economy-minded and set up for regular, their peppier (and typically turbo’d) optional engines often require premium to deliver the best performance and economy.
One of the attributes that made Toyota’s Camry the go-to car in this segment for so many years was its gentle nature. It may have been as exciting as a pair of granny panties, but Toyota got away with that for decades because the competition (especially the American competition) simply wasn’t up to snuff in other departments.
Honda’s Accord, meanwhile, picked up the would-be Camry buyers who wanted a car with more personality – but which also had the blue chip rep.
Together, they pretty much owned the segment.
But that’s changing perceptibly as people become aware of excellent domestic-badged alternatives such as the Ford Fusion and Malibu.
Drive one and you’ll see. It’s got a top-drawer drivetrain. A cushy (but not mushy) ride. It’s really quiet – the fruit of triple seals and acoustically laminated glass. The nine-speed automatic helps, too. Like a high-speed skyscraper elevator, it gets you to your “floor” with minimal drama. The last 2-3 gear changes from six to ninth don’t even seem to happen. You’re just there. Like all modern cars, the 200 has extremely favorable overdrive gearing to maximize fuel economy during steady-state cruising. But unlike all its competitors, the 200’s intermediate gearing is much more tightly grouped. You might think it’d feel (and sound) more busy, due to the increased number of shifts that occur. But in fact, the opposite is true.
The car seems to glide forward, almost like an electric car.
But unlike most electric cars, the 200’s also got a pair.
My test car was a 200 C – with the 295 hp V-6. One day, I rolled up behind a not-very-old Mustang (circa mid-2000s) whose driver was a dawdler. Until I attempted to pass her. Then, she floored it – using every hp under the Mustang’s hood to keep the 200 from edging past. She seemed rather surprised when the 200 not only kept up but pulled ahead- eventually putting enough distance between me and her that I was able to sidle back over into the right lane… ahead of her now.
There is much to be said for a “family car” with muscle car punch. And the nine-speed automatic is simply superb on this score, too – rabbit punching each shift so rapidly it’s hard to count each one. That’s wide-open throttle. Back off the throttle and the deep gearing on top immediately curbs the revs and 80 feels like 45. Cars like this are way too good for American roads, with their dumbed-down traffic laws mired in the reality of 1975 instead of 2015.
I’m not a huge fan of the rotary gear selector mounted on the attractively angled center stack – but only because I’m suspicious of drive-by-wire controls. There’s no cable connecting your hand to the transmission; your inputs are transmitted electronically. I miss the tactile mechanical feel of pulling the shifter from Park to Drive and the associated physical engagement/disengagement.
Sight lines are good, but the optional Advanced Brake Assist is too peremptory. An unsettling (because out of nowhere and for no good reason) alarm will sometimes erupt – accompanied by a frantic light show in the gauge cluster – if you don’t drive as though you’re a member of the granny panty set.
Examples: It went off on several occasions when I was pulling up behind another car stopped at a red light – because I didn’t leave what I consider to be absurd air space between myself and the bumper of the car ahead. As in a half car length’s worth. The system also came on several times when it detected a car up ahead slowing to make a left turn. It (the system) has no way of knowing that the turning car will be long gone by the time I get there – hence no need to brake. But I do know – because I’ve got a biological processor (my brain) that works with my eyes to interpret data in ways mere machines can’t.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not picking on Chrysler – because all these systems (in numerous other-brand cars I have tested) are similarly peremptory and – frankly – dumb to some extent at least (see above). Granted, they may save an inattentive driver from wrecking. But I’d prefer that drivers were attentive instead. The good news is the system is optional in the 200, part of the $1,295 SafetyTec package, which also includes Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist, Automatic High Beam Control, Adaptive Cruise Control with “stop and go” (this is neat, the car can stop itself, then resume your preset speed) and rain-sensing wipers. I’d prefer some of these features were available individually – in particular the rains sensing wipers and adaptive cruise. But Chrysler – like pretty much every other car company – likes to package options, because it’s easier (and more profitable) for them to build (and sell) cars this way.
That said, the 200 is an extremely pleasant car to drive. It’s powerful – and comfortable. Sporty-feeling enough to be fun, but also a four-wheeled sanctum; a place of refuge as you make your way from A to B. It combines the best elements of the Camry and the Accord in an American-brand alternative to both.
AT THE CURB
This is a tasteful, gracefully proportioned car that could easily pass for “entry luxury” – in the argot of the automotive biz. Park one next to, say, a Lexus ES350 (a Camry in dinner clothes, for those not in the know) and see what I mean. Some of the styling cues may not be hugely original (Audi-esque LED underbrows; Lexus-like trapezoidal exhaust tips blended into a rear air defuser; the ubiquitous BMW knock-off rear quarter glass shape) but good looks look good, no matter where they came from.
To my eye, the 200 looks secure in its skin. Calm. In contrast, the new Camry has been festooned with a huge, seemingly Cylon Centurion-inspired grille that maybe was meant to impart scrappiness but (to me) just comes off as a bit over-the-top for a family sedan.
Good taste is that which is appropriate.
Now, for the debatable stuff:
The 200’s a less space-efficient car than several of its rivals, including the Camry and Fusion. Though it’s several inches longer end to end than the Camry (192.3 inches vs. 190.9 for the Toyota) it’s got less interior space, especially in the back seat. Legroom is actually very decent, though less than in rivals. A six-foot-three man (me) will not find his knees rubbing up against the back of the front seat. The 200’s 37.6 inches of legroom is very sufficient, even if slightly less luxurious than in rivals such as the Camry (38.9 inches) and Fusion (38.3 inches). The real problem for the taller set – and this goes for the 200’s rivals, too – is borderline insufficient head clearance. The slope of the roofline (and inward curvature of the roofline) are the culprits. And although the 200 hasn’t got that much less headroom than its rivals – 37.4 inches vs. 37.8 for the Fusion and 38.1 for the Camry – half an inch or so really matters when you’re tall and clearance is already on the tight side.
The 200 also has a bit less front seat legroom than rivals – 42.2 inches vs. 44.3 for the Fusion and 41.6 for the Camry – but (trust me, tall guy telling you this) anything more than 40 inches is just theoretical space you’ll only use if you decide to pull over to sleep and decide the push the driver’s seat as far back as it goes.
Trunk space-wise, the 200’s a winner: With 16 cubic feet of capacity – large for the segment – it beats the Camry (15.4 cubic feet) and exactly matches the Fusion (also 16 cubic feet). To get more trunk, you’ll need to buy more car.
The 200’s dashboard is warmly blue-aura backlit, with art deco touches such as “speedometer” and “tachometer” actually spelled out on the brushed nickel trim ring each gauge. There’s a large and partially hidden cubby under the center stack and the cupholders (located behind the rotary knob gear selector) slide aft and out of the way, revealing another large storage cubby.
Other comment-worthy attention-to-detail design touches include the front seat passenger’s very own power point, located on his side of the center console – and the you-can-actually-see-it (and positioned so you can reach it) iPod/USB port. In several cars I’ve driven recently the USB port is tunneled so deep or set so far back that you literally cannot plug in without stopping the car to ferret around back there.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The 200 definitely has the goods to attract buyers. If (time will tell) it proves to be as durable and reliable as the blue chips, it’ll keep them, too.
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