2012 Chrysler 200- Life Is A Beach

If there were a car that captured the essence of Coney Island, it would be the Chrysler 200.  Both the modest convertible and world-famous amusement park offer the promise of some beachside fun in the sun, cheap thrills, and are unashamedly American.  Sure, they’re old-fashioned and traditional in some ways, but as our friends in Brooklyn would say: faaahhhhggeeetttaboutit!  What matters most is that they offer lots of smiles and bang for the buck.    The main difference between the two is that the Chrysler doesn’t have an annual hot dog eating contest, although it could be an excellent marketing strategy…..on second thought, maybe not.
 
If the name “Chrysler 200” doesn’t ring a bell, don’t feel bad because you’re not alone.  You may know it better as the Chrysler Sebring.  Introduced in 1995, the Sebring replaced the immensely popular LeBaron and Chrysler continued to hold onto the niche mid-size convertible market with solid sales for over a decade.  However, a disastrous redesign in 2007 made the Sebring ungainly and undesirable.  Buyers stayed away in droves and the car’s popularity took a nose dive.  By 2009 sales were a third of what they were only three years prior.  With the Fiat merger and government mandated restructuring in 2009, a hasty restyle of the Sebring was pushed out to market in an attempt to regain sales and the name was changed simply to “200”.  The new moniker was to distance the car from the blundered outgoing model and to ride the coattails of Chrysler’s successful flagship; the 300.  The move has seemed to have paid off and sales are near to what they were in the Sebring’s glory days.


 Fiat and Chrysler engineers deserve recognition for reworking the lackluster Sebring platform on a modest budget and within such a tight time frame.  It’s a huge improvement, although that statement alone isn’t saying much as it couldn’t get much worse.  Basically Fiat/Chrysler took a mundane, unappealing model, did an “Extreme Makeover Car Edition” to it, addressed the worst of the Sebring’s faults, and have flipped it around to become an appealing automobile with less than 18 months of development time.  No small feat.

Being such a swift update, some of the Sebring’s weaknesses still shine through.  It was inevitable and until there’s a full redesign, there’s not much that Fiat and Chrysler can do.  Probably the most noticeable characteristic carried over are the handling and steering, even though the 200 features a new rear sway bar and upgraded tires.  Fling the 200 into a curve and it has a tendency to oversteer.  The tail just wants to keep wandering off course and swing the car off trajectory when there’s a hint of aggressive driving.  This is accompanied by tire squeal at anything higher than parking lot speeds.  It can add up to some fun with satisfying sound effects, but could be scary for the uninitiated driver.

Like in traditional American cars of yore, the steering has little feedback and feels like it’s connected to Jello.  Based on our continual change of direction, the steering wheel was indeed connected to something yet lacked any communication to the driver.  It feels feathery light at any speed and didn’t inspire confidence.

Other than the handling, the rest of the car is much improved. The standard 2.4 liter four-cylinder is a carryover, however, the 3.6 liter Pentastar V6 on my tester is an all new powerplant.  It produces a healthy 283 horsepower and 260 lb. ft. of torque.  This is a strong engine and pulls the 200 with authority.  Wheel spin is very easy upon launch yet torque steer, which can be synonymous with powerful front wheel drive cars, is minimal.  The all aluminum engine gets the 200 up to freeway speeds with no trouble and never seemed out of breath.

Helping the Pentastar motor is Chrysler’s well polished six-speed automatic.  Shifts were continually smooth, even under hard acceleration, and were well-timed.  When passing or climbing hills, downshifts were immediate and there was little hesitation.  There’s a manuamatic mode but no need to use it since the transmission is well geared.

Ride is classic American; very floaty, comfortable, and supple.  Only the largest of bumps will affect the 200, and it performed admirably through most pothole-ridden streets.  Fiat and Chrysler did retune the suspension to offer a softer ride with the restyle.  While it was comfortable on freeways and the boulevards, it did translate to body lean in corners.  Although it absorbed ruts and surface imperfections admirably, the suspension could get noisy and an occasional “thump” or “twack!” could be heard in the cabin.  Otherwise, sound levels inside were impressive.

The EPA rates the Pentastar engine at 19mpg city and 29mpg on the highway.  Strangely, while in LA I achieved lower city ratings than the EPA- 18mpg, but a bit higher efficiency on a highway cruise to Santa Barbara, 100 miles away- 32mpg.  One other oddity is that the four-cylinder is rated at 1mpg less than the V6.  Get the V6 if you can afford it!

Unlike most convertibles, the 200 is based on a midsize sedan, and because of that boasts having more interior room than most.  In fact, with the demise of the Toyota Solara convertible, Chrysler has had this market to itself.  Because of its donor family car underpinnings, space within the front of the 200 is commodious.  Leg room is generous as is headroom even with the top down.  Seats are well contoured and made of a high quality cloth.  The back seat, however, is not as roomy as its sedan sibling because of the space taken by the retractable top.  There is little legroom and the front seatbacks act as a guillotine on feet- leaving them squashed up under the front seats.  Entry and exit are also hampered by the lack of a quick release lever to move the front seats forward.  The back seat is best left for small children.

The driving position is low yet comfortable, though combined with the floaty suspension, makes this car feel bigger than it is.  Gauges are clean and crisp  The digital readouts are the same green font Chrysler has used since the early 90’s, yet all controls are intuitive.  The attractive and grippy three-spoke steering wheel tilts and telescopes and both front seats are power operated.  The radio unit is similar to other Chrysler products, which constantly baffles me every time I’m presetting a station- there’s a few extra steps beyond just holding down the button for the desired preset. Although annoying initially, it’s something most owners would adapt to quickly.  My 200 Touring had satellite radio and AUX, but oddly, two omissions were a USB port and bluetooth.  Those are only available in higher trim levels.

Lastly, visibility is good front and side, but the rear’s raised trunklid makes backing up more of a guessing game.  That only gets worse with the top raised.  Oddly, I found the top of the windshield to be too low and continually was looking over the upper edge to see traffic lights and signs.

Fit and finish show the most improvement over the old Sebring.  Whereas the Sebring’s cabin felt slapdashed together with cheap, cheerless, brittle plastics, the 200’s cabin is cloaked in soft touch materials that look durable.  The analog clock and black piano finish plastic on the center console were an elegant and upscale touch.  Aside from a silver bezel around the gauges that came off too easily, everything else seemed well bolted together.

The whole point of a convertible is to put the top down and have some open air fun.  Each manufacturer has their own technique of getting the top down and Chrysler’s works well, especially in contrast to the Sebring.  In the Sebring, two latches had to be manually pulled down near the sun visors and then the top lowered with an automated system.  The latches were sometimes stiff and didn’t line up right, and were challenging to get the strength to pull down.  The new 200 is as simple as a push of button in the console- no latches and no getting out of the vehicle (except to clear the trunk). It’s actually ingenious, the tonneau cover slides back as the canvas roof retracts and folds into the trunk.  The whole operation takes about 27 seconds. However, it’s not perfect- the trunk lid protrudes out behind the car during the operation, so make sure you’re clear of any walls or cars directly behind, and the operator must keep their finger on the button the entire time for the top to fully open or close.  Some other convertibles have fully automated one-touch systems, or hardtops, but cost much more.  Kudos to Chrysler for making the back window glass, and not clear plastic that can easily rip or discolor with age, and for preventing the system to operate if the vehicle is even slightly moving- I tried several times at low speeds to raise or lower the top and it was a followed by an error message on the dash advising it can’t be done.

I haven’t had much experience driving convertibles but there’s a special feeling when you’re behind the wheel of one.  Suddenly, the world opens up and I could only admire in amazement over how much I miss by having a roof on my car.  Surprisingly, noise and wind levels are quite low with the top down, even at freeway speeds.

The trunk is extremely roomy with 13 cu. ft while the top is up and the liftover is low.  The hinges are part of the convertible mechanism and are out-of-the-way for easy loading.  Once the top is down, space is cut by more than half and there’s only room for one carry-on item.

My car had 4k miles on the odometer at time of rental and only had one defect- a driver side window that would squeal when being lowered or raised.  Somewhat annoying but an easy fix.  Otherwise, the car felt tight and solid- which is impressive considering it doesn’t have a roof.  The 200 didn’t wiggle or flex as some convertibles do.

Styling is subjective and although the car drew more compliments from strangers than any other tester so far, there’s still a lot of Sebring in the look. From some angles, especially the back, the car looked large and bulbous.  However, Chrysler did a fine job with grafting the new front and rear fascias- the LED headlights are aggressive and the corporate grill is restrained.  The redesigned tailights and chrome strip between them adds a touch of sophistication that the Sebring lacked.  Although the body remains the same, Chrysler did enough to, as the saying goes, put lipstick on a pig, and the end result is an attractive car.

Prices on the 200 convertible start at $26,955 for a base Touring trim with the 2.4 liter four-cylinder.  Adding the worthwhile Pentastar V6 bumped the total to $28,100.  It’s a lot of money, but you’d be hard pressed to find a cheaper convertible outside of a Fiat or Smart dealer.

Overall, the 200, like a day at Coney Island, was a fun experience and one that makes the simple joy of the sun and the beach accessible.  Like some of the amusement park food, some of the flavors were a bit off but overall it’s satisfying.  It will never be a true sports car, but as an affordable boulevard cruiser, there’s no better alternative. I consider it to be one of most improved cars of the last two years and for that, along with the open-air fun it provided-the 200 deserves 4.0/5.0 boomerangs

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