The mid-size segment is the meat of the North American auto industry. It may trail the compact segment in sales in Canada but it dominates the much larger American market. By way of comparison Americans bought 1.9-million mid-size cars in the first nine months of 2014, Canadians 89,000.
Chrysler did not have a competitive player in this game – until the arrival of the 2015 Chrysler 200. The old 200 was dated and uncompetitive.
The new one rolls off an assembly line that has also been updated. Chrysler spent more than $1-billion on the 465,000 square-metre (5-million square foot) facility on 118 hectares (286 acres) in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
The plant can produce multiple vehicles on two unique architectures simultaneously. The 200 joins the Jeep Cherokee and Dodge Dart on that production line. All three are based on the same “Compact US Wide” platform developed by parent company Fiat for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
For the new Chrysler 200 it has been widened, the wheelbase lengthened, and the windshield base relocated. It has also been strengthened with a full-width aluminum cross-member.
That platform is wrapped in a very stylish set of duds, designed by Guelph, Ontario native Jeff Hammoud. In addition to the striking looks and class leading aerodynamics (it has a drag coefficient is 0.26), it introduces the new “face” of Chrysler, and a new emblem with more prominent wings, both of which will be found on all vehicles wearing the Chrysler name going forward.
The harmonious new look starts up front with headlights integrated into the grille. The swept back windshield and longer roofline sit atop a more rounded body.
Hammoud says coming up with a unique look was a challenge. "A lot of the vehicles in the mid-size sedan segment end up looking similar because the dimensions are very similar," he said. “The goal was to change the silhouette and proportions.”
Class above interior
The interior is a true upgrade – to a class above. The instrument cluster consists of a wide configurable screen that allows a myriad of displays. The centre stack is topped by a full-colour screen in two sizes ,depending on trim level.
There is genuine wood trim on the instrument panel and doors of the top trim level and a rotary gear-selector and electric parking brake free up space for a large and very deep centre console.
At the front is an open stowage shelf accessible from either side – lined with a rubber liner depicting the skyline of Detroit!
On the “S” trim level of my test vehicle, the instrument portion is an 18-cm unit with a programmable screen between the highly legible twin analog-like gauges displaying engine and road speed.
Atop the centre stack is a 22-cm screen. As part of the Uconnect option package it controls audio, HVAC, and heated seats and steering wheel. Chrysler’s Uconnect user interface is the industry leader in my opinion with crisp clear display and easy-to-decipher and use connectivity.
The voice-activated Garmin-based navigation system is easy to figure out and use. And because the screen is so big, so too is the view from the reverse camera. Backing up is also made safer by a cross-traffic detection system that warns of vehicles approaching from either side.
Options and amenities
The option list includes active cruise control with traffic-jam assist that can bring the 200 to a complete stop and start automatically with traffic. It can be switched off in favour of regular cruise control if desired or when the sensors get covered by dirt, ice or snow – a problem with others of this type.
The optional lane-keeping function tugs at the wheel and pulls you back into line should your attention and direction stray and the Forward Collision Warning System can bring the car to a complete halt to avoid low-speed incidents.
Thoughtful touches you can’t see include the use of computational fluid dynamics to adjust airflow through the HVAC ductwork, reducing noise, and the use of a variable displacement condenser to assure a stable airflow. The “doors” of the central vents are electronic – no cables – and the automatic climate control system includes a humidity sensor and an automatic defog function.
The seats are comfy and supportive. On the “S” trim level the driver gets eight-way power adjustment while the passenger can adjust things manually in six directions. A leather centre portion is surrounded by leather bolsters with ”S” embroidered on the backrests.
The trunk is large and well finished and has a low lift-over. The hinges, however, protrude into that space.
Despite the 4 centimetres of additional rear-seat legroom afforded by the new platform, the new 200 is not among the roomiest cars in the class. The shapely roofline that contributes so much to the attractive exterior inhibits rear seat headroom and access compared to more upright competitors.
The only things carried forward from the old 200 are the engines – both of which have benefitted from upgrades.
Standard is Chrysler’s 2.4-litre “Tigershark” four-cylinder with a new variable valve timing system. My S tester had the 3.6-litre “Pentastar” V-6, a frequent inhabitant of Ward’s Ten Best Engines list.
For this application the exhaust manifolds are now integral with the heads allowing quicker light-off of the catalytic converters, improved emissions and up to 20% better fuel economy.
With 295-horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque it is near the top of this class. But thanks to two tons of mass and gearing inclined toward fuel economy, performance is healthy if not class-leading.
That said, the six is beautifully smooth and quiet until pressed hard when it emits a pleasant growl.
The new nine-speed, yes you read that correctly, ZF transmission is a treat. The added ratios at both ends of the spectrum help acceleration and response at the bottom end and maximize fuel economy at the other.
It works. I averaged 8.1 L/100 km for a mixture of city and highway driving, but never managed to get into ninth gear!
The S (Sport) model with the V-6 comes with wheel-mounted paddle shifters. If you put the rotary shift knob in the S position, the steering stiffens up, throttle response sharpens and the gears are held longer. The instrument cluster displays the selected gear. It glows red when it’s time to upshift and yellow if you try to downshift too early.
The 200 joins the Ford Fusion and Subaru Legacy as the only entries in a very crowded segment to offer all-wheel-drive. Available only with the V-6 engine, it comes straight from the new Jeep Cherokee.
This latest-tech unit completely disconnects the rear wheels when their drive is not needed, reducing friction and drag by 80% over typical “slip-and-grip” systems. The changeover between FWD and AWD is completely seamless. When the system detects slippage, up to 60% of engine output is sent to the rear wheels.
Soft and comfortable
You would expect the European origins to result in solid “European” driving dynamics. But the engineers in Detroit have softened things up for the American – and thus Canadian market. While not exactly pillow soft, it is certainly more comfortable on the wide open highway than twisty back roads.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, as it does retain enough of those European genes to maintain some prowess when pushed through the turns. Where it does shine is the ability to soak up major road blemishes without wallowing.
The new and much more rigid platform contributes to a much quieter cabin with significant reductions in both road and wind noise.
The 2015 Chrysler 200 comes in LX, Limited, S and C trim levels. The V-6 engine is a $2,000 option and AWD adds $2,500. The “S” is the sporty version and the “C” the luxury choice.
Value is a major factor. The base $19,945 model comes with the nine-speed automatic, air conditioning, keyless start, tilt/telescope steering wheel, power windows, doors and mirrors and electric parking brake.
The 2015 Chrysler 200 brings personality to a segment ruled by sameness – at a competitive price.
Model: 2015 Chrysler 200S AWD
Price: Base – $31,495; As Tested – $38,815, including freight
Engine: 3.6-litre DOHC V-6, 295 horsepower, 262 lb-ft of torque
Transmission/Driveline: Nine-speed automatic/full-time all-wheel-drive
Length: 4,884 mm
Width: 1,871 mm
Wheelbase: 2,724 mm
Mass: 1,575 kg
Competition: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, VW Passat.