There’s one mid-sized sedan that’s enjoying a triple digit sales increase over the past year… and it’s not Japanese.
It’s the “import” from Detroit … Chrysler’s 200 sedan.
And it has gone viral – or the four-wheeled equivalent of that. Sales are up 128 percent (121,677 sold over the first seven months of the year; by now, the number is even higher) during a year that has seen the sales of other mid-sized sedans tank like Jeb Bush’s poll numbers, as buyers shift allegiance to crossovers.
What accounts for the 200’s popularity?
Maybe because it’s pretty much the only vehicle of its type that offers all-wheel-drive.
And one of the dwindling few that still offers a big V6.
Those are certainly factors.
But there are also the intangibles.
The emotional appeal of the thing.
To get that, you need to get in.
PS: The view from outside’s pretty nice, too!
The 200 is Chrysler’s entrant in the mid-sized 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.
It’s also a wild card threat to all-wheel-drive family sedans like the Subaru Legacy, which – until now – have pretty much had that niche to themselves.
Prices begin at $21,995 for a base trim/front-wheel-drive/four-cylinder-powered LX and run to $31,785 for a luxury-trimmed C with all-wheel-drive and a 295 hp 3.6 liter V6.
Chrysler has put together a 90th Anniversary Edition (Limited trims only) and the Blind Spot monitor and Rear Cross-Path Detection system can now be ordered a la carte, as stand-alone options, without having to buy them as part of a package.
Available with all-wheel-drive (Camry and Accord are FWD-only).
Available V6 (Malibu and Fusion are four cylinder-only).
Entry price point is about $1,100 lower than Camry’s ($23,070).
Elegant and stylish in a segment defined by Too Bland (Camry) Too Techy (Accord) and too Grampy (Legacy).
A bit less room inside than competitors like Camry and Fusion – especially in the back seat.
AWD is only available with the optional V6 – and only in the more expensive S and C trims.
Subaru Legacy comes standard with AWD – for much less money.
Chrysler could be in trouble if Fiat (which owns Chrysler) pulls out of the U.S.
UNDER THE HOOD
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.
The 200’s standard 2.4 liter four makes 184 hp, significantly more power than the new (just-redesigned) 2016 Chevy Malibu’s standard 1.5 liter, 160 hp turbo four and a bit more than the Toyota Camry’s standard 2.5 liters, 178 hp four – and dead heat with the base-engined Honda Accord (2.4 liters, 185 hp).
Another possible cross-shop, the Mazda6, offers just one engine – a 2.5 liter, 184 hp four.
The 200’s optional V6, meanwhile, makes its horsepower (295 hp) the old-fashioned way – with more cylinders and more displacement – rather than a turbo.
Turbo fours are becoming common in this segment as the upgrade option and even (as in the new Chevy Malibu) the base engine. They offer on-demand power and generally very good fuel economy when power is not demanded – but they’re higher stressed by design (being pressurized) and have more parts (and so more potential things to break, as time and miles go by). The long-haul durability of these turbo engines remains questionable, assurances notwithstanding. We won’t know until they rack up 100,000-plus miles in real-world driving.
Anyhow, the 200’s optional 3.6 liter V6 produces substantially more power than the just-updated Toyota Camry’s optionally available 3.5 liter, 268 hp V6 and the Accord’s optional 3.5 liter, 278 hp V6.
There is also the Subaru Legacy, which can be ordered with a 3.6 liter horizontally opposed (“flat”) six, but it only makes 256 hp. The Legacy does come standard with all-wheel-drive, though. While the 200 offers it, it’s extra cost – and it’s only available with the optional V6 while the Soobie includes AWD with either of its two available engines.
The just-redesigned Chevy Malibu can be ordered with a 259 hp 2.0 liter turbocharged four- but not with all-wheel-drive.
Both 200 engines are paired with nine-speed automatics – a feature no competitor yet offers. Six-speed automatics and in some cases (Legacy, base four-cylinder Accord) continuously variable (CVT) transmissions are the rule in this class.
What’s the advantage of having nine forward speeds?
The extra gearing reduces 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’s optional hybrid powertrain (44 city, 41 highway).
The tighter gear spacing of the nine-speed automatic is also a performance advantage. With the V6, a 200 can hustle to 60 in the high fives – quicker than the former hot rod in this class, the V6 Honda Accord.
With the four, 0-60 takes about 8.4 seconds… a second quicker than the Legacy 2.5 but slower than the four-cylinder Accord and Camry.
Perk: Neither the 200’s base four nor its optional V6 require 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, easygoing 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 Chevy Malibu.
And now, the 200.
Drive one and you’ll see. It’s got a top-drawer drivetrain. A cushy (but not mushy) ride. It’s also really quiet – the fruit of triple seals and acoustically laminated glass.
The nine-speed automatic helps, too.
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 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.
One day, I rolled up behind a not-very-old Mustang (circa mid-2000s) whose driver was a Clover. Until I attempted to pass her. Then – being a Clover – she floored it, using every hp under the Mustang’s hood to keep the 200 from edging past. She looked unhappy 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. The nine-speed automatic rabbit punching each shift so rapidly it’s hard to count each one.
That’s with the pedal down, wide-open throttle.
Back off the throttle and the deep gearing on top immediately curbs the revs and 80 instantly feels like 50. Cars like this are way too good for American roads, with their dumbed-down traffic laws mired in the reality of 1975 and Drive 55 … .
I’m not a huge fan of the rotary gear selector mounted on the attractively angled floating 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 can be peremptory. An unsettling alarm will sometimes erupt – accompanied by a frantic light show in the gauge cluster – if you don’t drive as though you are a member of the granny panty set.
Example: It went off on several occasions when I was pulling up behind another car stopped at a red light – because I didn’t leave absurd air space (like 20 yards) between myself and the bumper of the car ahead.
Luckily, this can be adjusted. And even better the system can also be turned off.
There is – for once – a noticeable difference in ride quality between the trims. The plush-minded Limited is set up the way big American cars used to be – cushioning you from physical and auditory intrusions.
If you dig that, you’ll love it.
For something firmer and more European-like, go for the S or the C. These versions of the 200 also get an “S” mode for the nine-speed automatic, which (when engaged) sharpens up the gear changes to complement a faster-paced driving style.
This is a tasteful, gracefully proportioned car.
Park one next to a Lexus ES350 (a Camry in evening clothes) and see what I mean. Some of the exterior styling cues may not be hugely original (Audi-esque LED underbrows; Lexus-like trapezoidal exhaust tips blended into a rear air defuser; the now-everyone-does it BMW knock-off rear quarter glass shape) but good looks look good, no matter where they came from.
Inside, it’s good looking – and not caged from elsewhere . Check the warmly blue-aura backlit main gauge cluster, with art deco touches such as “speedometer” and “tachometer” actually spelled out on the brushed nickel trim ring for each instrument.
There’s a large and partially hidden cubby under the floating center stack and the cupholders (located behind the rotary knob gear selector) slide aft and out of the way, revealing another even larger storage cubby, where you’ll find the 12V power point and USB hook-ups.
Which are lit, so you can see them.
The 8.4 inch LCD touchscreen is one of the best on the market – in this class and generally. Functions are self-explanatory and it’s easy to use while the car’s moving. Many others aren’t.
Now, for the less-than-great stuff:
The 200’s 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; just 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 enough, but the the Camry has a bit more than enough (38.9 inches) and so does Fusion (38.3 inches) and the Lgeacy, too (38.1 inches).
The real problem for the taller set – and this goes for the 200’s rivals, too – is borderline insufficient head clearance. The eye-catching slope of the roofline (and resultant inward curvature of the roofline) are the culprits. And although the 200 hasn’t got that much less headroom than several of its rivals – 37.4 inches vs. 37.8 for the Fusion and 38.1 for the Camry – that half an inch or so of play can be decisive 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 probably only use if you decide to pull over to sleep – and 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 the lgeacy (15 cubic feet) and exactly matches the Fusion (also 16 cubic feet).
To get more trunk, you’ll need to buy more car.
People outside the know may not know that while Chrysler’s doing ok, Fiat isn’t. And Fiat holds the keys to Chrysler. (You may have noticed the company name is FiatChrysler.)
While the 200’s a huge hit, Fiats like the 500 and (much more so) the 500L aren’t.
This is dark news for the Chrysler side of the equation. If Fiat doesn’t figure it out and ends up pulling out of the U.S. (again) it will mean scramble time (again) for Chrysler. But at least it’s not 1979 all over again. This time, Chrysler’s not hawking Cordobas. Cars like the 200 – and its big brother, the also popular 300 – could and should stave off a repeat of what’s happened before.
Still, there is legitimate worry about the future of the FC partnership – and worries about the future of cars like the 200s necessarily comes along for the ride.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sometimes, the go-to cars aren’t the ones you ought to end up taking home. Chrysler may not have been your first thought.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a thought.
Better yet, a look.
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Rented the 2015 model with base 4-cylinder engine last fall.
So slow I thought I was experiencing “turbo lag.”
Is the 2016 base 4-cylinder finally able to get out of its own wat?
Even if the Fiat branded models tank, the parent company will continue to rebadge models with the Chrysler brands. Sales are sales regardless of the name tags. MB and Mitsubishi built Chryslers, Dodges, Plymouths and Jeeps for years without hesitation. Of course, these outsiders had to step in after MB stripped Chrysler of the ability to create their own models.
Nice looking car, well equipped, sharp presentation. The Fiat reputation is not so good for longevity.
Yeah, trying to reintroduce Fiat name to the US seems rather pointless. Especially since they are rebadging the Fiat vans as Dodges. The Jeep Renegade is the same inside the sheet metal as the larger sized Fiat 500. So it leaves Fiat dealers (the few there are, since they didn’t seem to license them to Chrysler dealers) only 2 models which to further confuse buyers are both named 500.
Amusingly, the larger and more luxurious Chrysler models are 200 and 300 while the diminutive Fiats are 500. Backazwards.
Aside: I like the Fiat 500 (not the L, the little one). It’s priced competitively, it’s cute (to me) and fun to drive. I thought it would do well. I’m surprised it hasn’t.
eric, I’m surprised the 200 sales are so good, especially with limited back seat room but I suppose back seats aren’t used for people so much these days.
It’s a nice looking car and doesn’t have such a huge butt end look although everything has that high belt-line.
Perhaps it would sell better if it had something other than the 500 moniker and probably the Fiat moniker, too. Imagine, back in fall 1963, if Chevrolet named the new model something like Chevy II+I instead of Chevelle. Perception does matter.
A little off topic but relevant. Last week I got a good first look at a Tesla, it’s a very attractive car. We were both traveling on the turnpike but the Tesla was on a rollback. Perception.
The 500 (and Abarth version) are doing fairly well in Austin because they scoot through traffic so well. Some days it’s like you’re in Rome…
Their problem (and with the 500L in particular) is their poor reliability. Seems the old joke about Fiat standing for “Fix It Again, Tony” wasn’t too far off the mark. Which to be honest, isn’t surprising for such a small engine being pressurized to within an inch of it’s life, being asked to haul around big Americans.
Fiat cars have a terrible reputation here in Oz also. But the commercial Fiat vehicles appear to be doing well.
Don’t Chrysler vehicles currently “enjoy” bottom-of-the rung status when it comes to quality and reliability of cars sold in the U.S.? (It must take real effort to come in below GM!)
How long is that 9-speed transmission going to last and how much to fix it when it grenades?