First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Chrysler 300

Canadian-built all-American sticks to the script

2015 Chrysler 300

AUSTIN, TX –  Among all the cars and SUVs built in Canada, none is more quintessentially American than the Chrysler 300, built in Brampton, Ontario. Big, brash and proudly retro, it is also unique among its peers for another reason. No other player in this mass-market large-sedan segment can be had with either rear-wheel drive or a V8 engine: the Chrysler 300 offers both (though not in the same package).

If that sounds like your kind of car, thank Chrysler’s former alliance with Mercedes-Benz. In replacing the previous front-drive LH cars, Chrysler was able to make the switch to rear-wheel drive (or optional all-wheel drive) by adopting the underpinnings of the Mercedes E-Class (the available 5.7-litre Hemi V8, however, was all Chrysler’s own work).

Ten years on, the 300 (like its Dodge Charger sister car) is having its second refresh, but the basic architecture continues unchanged and that’s fine by us. As with most such freshenings, the 2015 novelties include some reshaping of the sheet-metal, some mechanical upgrades, richer interior trim, and the inevitable expansion of on-board IT and driver-assist safety technologies.

The grille of your dreams

Chrysler designers variously cite the design changes as delivering “more attitude … a more organic feel … and design consistency with the new 200.” The mesh grille has gone up in size by a third (it’s now bigger than the 2005 original), there’s LED lighting front and rear, the body-side character lines are softer, and the lower corners of the rear fascia are less bulky.

The sporty 300S trim is distinguished by a more open grille mesh, black accents, a bold deck-lid spoiler and 20-inch wheels. The 300S, which also features performance suspension tuning, is expected to garner 45% of sales in Canada, leaving the remaining 55% to be divvied up between the base Touring and the more luxury-oriented 300C and 300C Platinum grades.

Mix and match powertrains

The carryover 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 engine is standard on all grades, making 300 horsepower in the S and 292 elsewhere. The 5.7-litre, 363-hp Hemi V-8 is a $2,500 option on the upper three grades, and now gets an eight-speed automatic transmission to bring it in line with the V-6.

The transmission trims the claimed 0-60-mph (0-97 km/h) time from 6.0 to 5.8 seconds, and raises fuel economy by 6% combined. All-wheel drive with front-axle disconnect is a $2,200 option on all trims but only with the V-6 engine.

Electronics everywhere

Cabin furnishings vary by model; added acreage of soft-touch surfaces is a common feature, but the rubbery dash cladding on lesser models (my co-driver said it looked like recycled tires) is no match for the stitched leather on the Platinum, the latter also featuring Nappa leather with diamond quilted stitching, and hand-sanded open-pore wood.

Each trim is available with its own two-tone colour combination inspired by a U.S. city (for example, Black and Ambassador Blue on the S is inspired by Detroit and the name of the bridge that links Motown to Windsor, Ontario).

On the tech side there’s what Chrysler claims to be the industry's largest, 8.4-inch touch-screen at centre-IP (guess they don't count the Tesla), and the corporate 7-inch multi-function display takes up its place between the “watch-inspired” main dials in the instrument binnacle. Oh, and let’s not forget the rotary-knob gear selector.

Comfort at the wheel is easy to find, and if we must have touch-screens, Chrysler’s version is one of the better ones out there. You can also (bless ‘em) perform most basic functions with regular knobs and buttons. The new display in the main gauge bank is a treasure trove of information, but I’m less enamoured of the analog gauges that flank it; their calibrations look crude and, to my eyes, fail to achieve the intended appearance of high-end horology.

Over and above a plethora of passive warn-and-alert driver aids (Safety Tec 1 Group), available active-safety co-pilots include lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control with full stop, and forward collision warning with active brake (Safety Tec 2 Group). Most of these features are available on most trims, but not mandatory on any – a win-win for both sides of the “do-I-really-want-my-car-to-take-over-the-driving-from-me?” debate.

Short but sweet

Our preview drive in Austin was all too brief but at least I managed to snag the enthusiast’s pick among the many trim/engine/drivetrain combinations on offer: a 300S with the 5.7 Hemi V-8 (a combo you could build for as little as $42,295 if you can resist the salesman’s up-sell assault).

While my co-driver grumbled on and on that the S cabin décor didn’t look sporty enough, I just enjoyed the drive. Dense traffic didn’t really allow a thorough work-out, and Texas-smooth roads presented little challenge to the suspension, but everything seemed to come together in a nice cohesive package – quiet, effortless acceleration, slick transmission, sublimely refined cruising (1,600 rpm at 120 km/h!), a taut yet cushioned ride and accurate, communicative steering.

Niggles? The on-centre feel of the new electric power steering gets a tad rubbery at higher speeds; and frankly, with a 5.7-litre V-8 under the hood I thought it would feel even quicker with the hammer fully down.  Chrysler’s own claim, equivalent to 0-100-km/h in about 6.1 seconds, can be approached or matched by some of today’s over-achieving V-6-engined family sedans. In adopting the eight-speed, methinks Chrysler distributed the richness of ratios to optimize highway marathons at the expense of quarter-mile sprints.

Man meets machine

Our brief meet-and-greet with the new 300 was completed with a quick spin in a V-6 AWD 300C Platinum. The AWD is a good choice not only for the obvious traction attraction, but also because it comes with a 17% deeper axle ratio that more than offsets the 5% weight penalty of the AWD hardware – ergo, peppier acceleration. Even with the added mass in the nose, the V-6 AWD is less nose-heavy than the AWD V-8 – ergo, more balanced handling. And while AWD does increase fuel consumption by about 6% over the RWD V-6, it’s still 12% less thirsty than the V-8.

Of course, nothing can replace the muted rumble of a V-8, but the Pentastar V-6 sings a sweet six-cylinder melody of its own, and it loves to rev. Yet even with the AWD’s busier axle ratio, the eight-speed still keeps cruising rpm below 2,000 at 120 km/h. All the better to hear my co-driver now gushing over the leather-clad instrument panel of the Platinum trim.

As I complete this first quick go-round in the new 300, I’m reminded that until 20-odd years ago, most large American cars were rear-wheel drive. The subsequent shift to front-wheel-drive was largely driven by ever-tightening fuel-economy standards. Those standards are set to get even more demanding in the years to come, and given the age of this architecture, don’t be surprised if the next-generation L-cars revert to front-wheel drive. Until then, let’s be glad somebody still makes cars like this. And better still, makes them in Canada.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model;  2015 Chrysler 300

Type:  Large RWD or AWD four-door sedan

Price Range:  $37,395 (Touring RWD) - $45,595 (300C Platinum V-8)

Engines:  

3.6-litre 24V DOHC V-6; 292 hp/260 lb-ft (S:300/264)

5.7-litre 16V OHV V-8; 363 hp/394 lb-ft

Transmission:  8-speed automatic

0-100 km/h: 6.1 sec (est. V-8)

Fuel consumption (city/highway):        

V-6 RWD: 12.4/7.7 L/100 km

V-6 AWD 12.8/8.6 L/100 km

5.7 V-8: 14.8/9.3 L/100 km

Competitors:  Buick Lacrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Genesis, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon

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