2014 Chrysler 300- The Lights Are Still On In Detroit

CAM00612[1] Being the smallest of the Detroit “Big Three”, Chrysler has often been regarded as the runt of the litter.  Compared to GM and Ford, the Pentastar brand has the least global influence, fewest models, and the most shallow pockets.  However, being the most diminutive of the American brands means that Chrysler has to be a determined warrior and more creative to make itself heard.  Even though headlines may focus on the turbulent relationship with Daimler or the troubling times that led to a government bailout, Chrysler has had its fair share of success stories to make the company viable throughout the years.  Three decades ago, the brand essentially created a whole new segment, called the minivan, that was revolutionary at the time and has since been copied by car makers around the globe.  The LH full-size sedans, the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler Concorde, set the standard for “cab-forward design” twenty years ago by utilizing as much interior space as possible and pushing the wheels to the car’s corners long before it was mimicked by others.  Ten years ago, the LH series had ran their course and were ready for retirement.  Instead of doing a mild touchup or going for a more European derived style, as was becoming the trend in Detroit, Chrysler did not shy away from risk and introduced a new series of wagons and sedans that not only grasped good ol’ fashioned American style, but smothered themselves in it like cheese and bacon over french fries.  The 2005 Chrysler 300 and it’s Dodge Magnum and Charger counterparts, introduced at the New York Auto in ’04, basked in the glory of everything American; big, bold, crude, rear-wheel drive, large engines, and exhibiting a chiseled, masculine, retro style that looked like nothing else on the road.  In the true Yankee sense, the 300 had also claimed itself some badass notoriety, being featured in rap videos and serving as Walter White’s ride on “Breaking Bad” once he became a feared and successful meth dealer.  Under the new leadership from Fiat, Chrysler redid the 300 for 2011 to keep things fresh, but sensibly didn’t stray too far from the original formula that made the car an overnight sensation.  Now a decade later, is the 300 still worthy of all the hype?

CAM00599[1]I was ecstatic to get the keys to the 300 after all these years of patiently waiting on the sidelines.  The car has always been intriguing to me because of its unique approach to the entry-level luxury market, but I’ve never had a chance to drive one.  Compared to its much more subdued rivals from Detroit, the Ford Taurus and Buick Regal, and its bland Asian competitors, namely the Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, and Hyundai Genesis, the 300 almost mocks them with its indiscreet looks and aggressive nature.  The question was if the rest of the car matched the exterior’s audacious personality.

CAM00577[1]Despite the 2011 redesign and having all new sheetmetal, at first glance the current 300 doesn’t appear much different than the original.  It was Fiat’s and Chrysler’s intention not to mess with success and just retool the weaknesses of the first generation.  Despite looking familiar, the new design is more refined than before.  The rough edges have been smoothed out and several new design details, such as CAM00578[1]thinner roof pillars and a more raked windshield, help resolve complaints about the prior car’s riot-helmet visibility.  The immense waffle grille of the original has been replaced by a slightly smaller, and less gaudy, lateral seven slatted chrome grill.  New headlights wrap around into the fenders for the first time and incorporate C-shaped LED daytime running strips.  Overall, the front is less blunt and menacing than the first 300, but is still recognizable.  The same could be CAM00593[1]said for the rest of the body.  The flat, broad doors and side panels remain, rare in these days of swoops and curves, and the stretched, horizontal hood not only throws away any hints at aerodynamics, but suggests that the 300 is packing some serious power under there.  Regardless, it still comes across as a more upscale and thoroughly modern style.  The rear is where there is little differentiation between the former 300 and the current version, as the squared-off trunk lid and tapered taillights are almost identical.  The chrome trim has moved higher to the trunk lip from the bumper, and LED’s have also found a home back here in the taillights.  There was little to fault with the original’s rear end, and 300 fans will be glad to know that Chrysler didn’t tinker too much with the design.  Overall, the current 300 still carries the first gen’s imposing stance while making it more elegant.  Well done!

CAM00583[1]Inside is where there were bigger and more welcome changes. There was a time, not too long ago, that Chrysler just plain sucked at making a decent interior.  Hard, soulless, and cheap plastics were the order of the day and the first 300 was no exception.  The squared-edged, sterile materials of the old cabin have given way to a luxurious and rich approach.  Soft-touch padded plastics make up the dash surfaces and extend all the way to the passenger’s CAM00627[1]footwell, an area where many manufacturers cheap out.  Finely-executed stitching can be found on the leather seats, steering wheel, and on the dash, adding to a downright opulent feel.  The center console, dash, and door panels have restrained splashes of a convincingly real and rich walnut wood trim.  It’s obvious that Chrysler has sweated the details, as all of the driver contact points, including the door armrests and center storage cover, are cloaked in a supple, rich leather as well.  Storage compartments and the glove box are lined in an upscale mouse-fur cloth and all of them open with a solid, tactile feel.  Even the thick carpeting extends from the floorboard to the base of the center console, much like the German luxury cars.  Whereas old Chrysler interiors felt slap-CAM00594[1]dashed, this one feels like someone was really thinking and refused to penny-pinch.  With the exception of a small phone holder near the shifter that snapped out its perch a little too eagerly, there was not a cheap touch anywhere.  It could possibly be Chrysler’s best interior, ever.

CAM00588[1]The centerpiece to the 300’s cabin is the 8.4 inch UConnect touch screen that Chrysler has been adding to most of its lineup.  I’ve never been a big fan of the fussiness of touch screens, yet this system is much more user-friendly than the Ford’s My Touch or Cadillac’s CUE.  Not only is it larger than the competition’s screens, but it’s also more intuitive and straightforward to navigate.  Due to the screen’s generous size, the contingent buttons are also more prominent and easier to see while driving.  This allows a wealth of information to be shown at any given time, limiting the need to scroll through a sea of endless menus to make minor adjustments.  Regardless, some features did require too much distraction while operating UConnect.  A simple task such as turning on the heated seats, for example, required browsing through three screens.  But overall, as far as touchscreens go, Chrysler’s systems in one of the most perceptive.

CAM00573[1]Chrysler was smart enough to apply three large knobs below the touchscreen for the most used controls on any dash; radio volume and tuning, and temperature control, eliminating the need of having to resort to the touchscreen continuously.  With threaded rubber surrounds, they were easy to operate and adjust by feel alone.  The neighboring buttons for the dual-climate control were equally simple, although I did find it strange that the traction control button was grouped together with them.  It just seems like Chrysler threw it in there as an afterthought after running out of precious dashboard space.

CAM00592[1]In front of the driver is a meaty four-spoke steering wheel trimmed in plush leather and silver trim.  The rim itself does not have any grips, doing away with any sporting intentions, but still feels nice to behold.  The center hub has the usual array of Chrysler’s audio and cruise control buttons that are shared with much of the automaker’s lineup.  They look generic and a little out of place in this lavish cabin, but get the job done.  Behind the two top spokes of the wheel are CCAM00589[1]hrysler’s “hidden controls” for radio tuning and band.  The gauges themselves are absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking at night.  Basked in a bright, iridescent blue light filling the binnacles, the instrument clusters have a clear and almost retro font that not only matches the 300’s personality, but just plain look cool.  Kudos go to Chrysler for using siCAM00605[1]mple and traditional gauges for fuel and temperature, making all of the needed information easy to read at a glance.  The high-resolution screen between the speedometer and tach is crisp to decipher and reinforces the 300’s luxurious intentions, although in contrast to the UConnect, does have several redundant and needless choices to scour through.  There is an image for the fuel or temperature levels that can be displayed, which seems irrelevant since the same information can be seen directly below on the traditional gauges.  I guess it doesn’t hurt to stay fully abreast.  Overall, like the rest of the interior, Chrysler does deserve credit for keeping the gauges attractive and eye-catching while not making it seem gimmicky.

CAM00596[1]After hearing horror stories about the prior 300’s visibility, I was prepared for the worst with this iteration.  However, the 2011 redesign did sooth some of the complaints, and the car wasn’t as claustrophobe-inducing as some of its competitors, such as the Ford Taurus.  The side mirrors still were a tad small and the back window shelf was high enough to hide obstacles directly behind the car (although a rear-view camera is offered), posing a challenge in tight parking spaces.  But otherwise, the side and front views were good, and changing lanes or merging on the freeway were not at all the daunting task I had expected they would be.  After a weekend of driving, I grew to know the car’s proportions and felt comfortable piloting the 300.

CAM00587[1]Speaking of comfort, the 300 has spades of it.  The front passenger seats were grippy, well-contoured, and proved to be pleasant after a few hours behind the wheel.  Front headroom was sufficient and there was plenty of legroom in the deep footwheels to stretch out.  Although the center console did not intrude into anyone’s precious personal space, my long-legged husband did complain that the dash directly in front of him jutted out too much into hisCAM00597[1] kneeroom.  Rear space isn’t as good as the 300’s overall 198.6 in. length would suggest.  Although far from tight, taller passengers will find their knees brushing against the plastic backing of the seats in front, and their heads skimming against the furthest-back slope of the rear roofline.  Average sized folks should find the back seat sufficient enough as long as they aren’t sitting in the middle seat.  Due to the 300’s rear-wheel driCAM00584[1]ve layout, the center transmission hump is tall and intrusive, and will force the poor soul who drew the short straw to fold themselves like origami between the outer passengers.  The plush touches continue to abound in the back, with nice seat shaping, supple leather, wood trim, rear seats vents, and nicely padded center armrest and door panels.  From back there, the 300 still does feel like a tried and true luxury car.

CAM00585[1]With 16.3 cu. ft. of trunk space, the 300 has ample trunk capacity.  Partially due to the squared-off rear styling, the Chrysler handily beats the Genesis, Maxima, ATS, or any German competitor in cargo volume, but still can’t match the Ford Taurus’ mafia sized trunk.  The usable space is sufficient between the wheel wells and the trunk hinges don’t impede on luggage.  The rear seats do fold down flat 60/40 and create a nice, levCAM00586[1]el loading area for longer items, but like many other similar cars, the pass-through isn’t all that wide or tall.  The trunk opening over the short bumper is low and easy if tackling bulkier items, and the trunk lining is nicely finished.  Below the floor is a spare tire, as well as, surprise, surprise, the battery.  This extends the life of the battery being away from the heat that the engine emits, and Chrysler was smart to place the CAM00624[1]tethers to fold down the seats within the cabin in case all of the electronic releases have no power.

Within the batteryless engine compartment lies one of two engines available on the 300: a 3.6 liter V6 standard on most models or a beefy 5.7 liter V8 Hemi is optional and comes standard with the SRT8 trim.  We decided to be tame and go for the more modest 3.6 liter, which will be the choice of most 300 customers.  This is the same Pentastar V6 that motivates the Dodge Charger, and while slightly modified, powers the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It’s a modern unit with dual-overhead cams and 24 valves, along with variable valve timing, that produces a healthy 292 horsepower.  With the 300’s aggressive looks and the promise of nearly 300 horsepower, I had envisioned thrilling, rubber-smoking, pinned-to-your-seat madness, much like the Nissan Maxima.  But it was disappointing and my hopes were dashed quickly.  Punch the accelerator from a stop, and there’s a hesitation for a moment while the engine realizes that it’s been called upon.  The electronic throttle is probably the main culprit for the delay.  From there, the power delivery is smooth and quick, but still not as robust as hoped.  It’s all very anti-climatic.  Same goes for passing situations; CAM00575[1]punch the accelerator and there is that same ol’ hesitation before the powerplant gathers itself.  300’s equipped with the v6 have been clocked with a 0-60mpg time of 6.9 seconds, or about average for this class.  To be fair though, the 300 never came across as being weak or underpowered and easily climbed mountain grades and merged onto freeways with no sweat.  For most people in their day-today duties, the 3.6 liter is more than adequate.

CAM00608[1]Mated to the V6 is a sophisticated eight-speed automatic that was added in 2012.  With so many gears on hand, the transmission was very busy as we drove through the variety of terrain near San Diego.  As active as it was, the automatic was not at all intrusive and every shift was smooth and almost invisible.  The transmission itself is sourced from Germany’s ZF Group, who also sells this same design to BMW and Bentley, among others.  The transmission’s goal is to save fuel and ZF does claim that there’s an 11% increase of gas mileage over a six-speed.  Despite the transmission’s slickness and solid engineering, it involved the one aspect I found most maddening about the 300; the console-mounted gear selector.  It’s a sleek shifter; situated in one place and able to both to rocked between gears with the flick of a wrist.  However, there’s only one lower gear, S (for sport), and the most frustrating part was it was difficult to gauge by feel what gear we were in as there’s no gates for the shifter to lock into.  There were several occasions when I needed to shift to reverse from drive and ended up in neutral or park.  At one stage, when shifting from sport mode back to drive while hustling along at about 55mph, I accidently threw the car into reverse.  In case you ever had the itch to know what happens to a CAM00595[1]car that is shifted into the forbidden fruit of reverse while driving, it’s not very exciting.  The car continued rolling forward in a neutral state but it was amusing to see the cars behind us on the back-up camera while we continued our forward motion.  Needless to say, the 300 was not harmed in this incident and shifted back into drive with no problem.  No manual transmissions are available on any Chrysler 300s.

CAM00611[1]Steering is a bright spot on the 300.  On center, it does feel somewhat artificial and lifeless, but through corners or making turns became linear and communicative.  The car is quick in responding to steering wheel inputs, feeling smaller than it is and belying its large dimensions.  Handling around the sharp bends near Palomar Mountain proved the Chrysler to be sure-footed and well planted.  The car grips the road tenaciously and inspires driver confidence.  In true rear-wheel drive fashion, it is possible to find the 300’s limits and send it into a controlled drift, and equally easy to get it back under control.  It is an enjoyable companion through a windy canyon road.  Most owners will never intend to push their car to the limits, and the 300 will be an equally satisfying cruiser for a casual Sunday drive.

CAM00590[1]Based on a former Mercedes E-Class chassis, the ride on the 300 is a perfect balance of absorbing most bumps while feeling composed and not at all floaty.  The four-wheel independent suspension does an admirable job of soaking up uneven patches and relaying them away from the cabin.  Only larger potholes will find their way to the passenger’s seat cushions.  Cabin noise is impressively subdued with engine noise being almost non-existent.  While cruising at 70mph, only a hint of wind noise around the mirrors can be heard as well as some prevalent rumbling from the tires. The interior of the 300 is an easy place to carry a full conversation.

CAM00603[1]Our 300 was brand new at the time of rental, and only had 6 miles at the time of pick up.  This car was so new that it still had the factory plastic protectant on its bumpers and the floormats were hidden away under the trunk floor.  Gleefully, aside from the aforementioned cell phone holder that dislodged itself, everything worked properly on the Chrysler and the car felt solid and rattle free.  That may not sound like much of an accomplishment for a new car, but there were Chrysler products in the past that would already feel worn from the factory.

The EPA rates the Chrysler 300 with a wide span of mileage estimates; 19mpg in the city and 31mpg on the highway.  On a 100 mile freeway run between San Diego and Los Angeles, we were able to coax a remarkable 35mpg out of this 4,029lb. brute; very impressive and a result of the CAM00623[1]transmission.  During a wide array of driving conditions including mountains, city streets, freeways, and doing mundane errands, we received an average of 26mpg over 400 miles, falling right within EPA estimates.  Not bad at all for a full size luxury car.  Ford came up with the capless fuel filler several years ago, and it was only a matter of time before others followed suit.  The 300 is the non-Ford product I’ve seen with this helpful feature.

CAM00582[1]There is a mind-boggling array of options and packages for the 300, including a Beats by Dr. Dre edition.  However, even the base 300 comes with a surprising list of standard equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, keyless entry and ignition, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, cruise control, an 8.4-inch central touchscreen interface, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholsterCAM00598[1]y, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver seat (with four-way power lumbar adjustment), a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB connectivity and satellite radio.  That’s right, leather is standard on every 300 and all of those generous features start off at CAM00576[1]$30,835.  Even though it was lavishly equipped, ours was as basic as they come, and once the destination charge was added, the total for our deep cherry red 300 was $31,890.  That’s exactly $100 less than the similarly sized and equipped Ford Taurus that I tested last year, which I remarked was good value, and the same holds true for the Chrysler.  Compared to the more spartan Maxima that was $2,000 more and the recently-tested smaller Mercedes C-Class that was over $7,000 more, the 300 proves to be excellent bang for the buck.

CAM00600[1]The primary goal of this test was to see if the Chrysler 300 was as badass as it’s styling suggests.  The short answer is: no, it isn’t.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Even though the 300 screams “I’m from Detroit” and is unashamedly American (even though it is built in Ontario), it’s a more refined creature than those old beasts of yore.  It’s a luxurious, refined machine that pampers its passengers and rewards the CAM00613[1]driver with a sophisticated array of world-class technology.  Being an American car once equaled being harsh and uncultured, but the 300 proves that theory wrong.  If the 300 were a person, he would have tattoos and piercings, but would turn out to be the nicest guy who can carry on an intellectual conversation with anyone.  Aside from the silly shifter and a few small quirks, there’s a lot of like here.  The lights are still on in Detroit, and they are building a great car. A proud 4.0/5.0 boomerangs


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