The Chrysler 300's design stands out in a crowd
In Stephen King’s novel Hearts in Atlantis, the bad guys drive around in what King calls “low cars”, scaring the daylights out of everyone and creating a sense of menace that pervades the book from beginning to end. When I read it a few years ago, I couldn’t help but think of the Chrysler 300. It’s definitely a low car, and it looks like it left the factory chopped and channelled (when customizers lower the roof and remove a section of the body length-wise). If nothing else, it’s unique, and rappers and gangstas seem to love it. Interestingly, the sound system was designed with input from Dr. Dre.
The Chrysler 300 is one of the easiest cars on the road to get in and out of, which may be its biggest virtue. Because of the unusual body style, you actually step down to get in. In terms of ingress/egress, it’s arguably the best on the market, with very comfy front seats.
It comes in a surprisingly large range of models, 10 in all, including all-wheel-drive versions and a ground-shaking Hemi-powered SRT8 that belts out some 470 horsepower.
My tester, a lower-level S with rear-wheel drive, was propelled by Chrysler’s ubiquitous Pentastar V-6, which, in this case, develops 292 horsepower and is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, new for 2012. The gearbox is unique in this segment of the market—no one else offers one. That said, I question the need for eight speeds, because rival models—the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, et cetera—with their paltry six-speed automatics, have slightly lower but nonetheless competitive fuel economy, especially on the highway, where presumably the taller gear ratios of the eight-speed would come into play. However, Chrysler also offers a five-speed automatic with some models, so it’s not like you have to get the eight-speed.
Whatever—there it is, and it doesn’t seem to affect the drivability of the 300. In town, performance is adequate, while on the highway there’s enough reserve power to keep things moving. The V-6 version of the 300 can’t be classed as a high-performance sedan, but it’s got enough pep for most drivers. If I chose the all-wheel-drive version of this car, I’d have to think seriously about getting a V-8 with it, however (363 horsepower versus 292 horsepower—hmm).
Inside, the 300S has a comparatively high level of equipment. Steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters (excellent feature), heated front seats, tilt/telescoping steering, illuminated cup holders, dual-zone climate control, and Dr. Dre’s aforementioned sound system all come standard. There are at least seven airbags, which helped the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety name the 300 one of its top safety picks for 2012.
When you drive the 300—whichever model you choose—you definitely feel like you’re behind the wheel of a big car. Proportionately, it’s in the same ballpark as, oh, the Impala and the Avalon. It’s a couple of hundred kilograms heavier, with a longer wheelbase and a shorter overall length, but it features a much larger trunk than the Avalon and is blessed with all kinds of interior elbow room. It’s not the easiest vehicle in the world to back up, though, with a massive blind spot behind you. Parallel parking is a bit of a challenge.
And I can’t get my head around the way it looks. I think it’s a bit of an oddball, with random styling cues and an overall presence that copies no one. So many manufacturers these days seem to be keeping tabs on each other, and some models are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart. That’s definitely not the case here; if nothing else, the 300 stands out in a crowd.
But that doesn’t make it pretty. The Avalon, for example, is a much nicer looking automobile, if a little on the bland side. Ditto the Impala, which is probably the 300’s closest competitor. Taste is a personal thing, but were I in the market for a car, the 300’s oddball styling might be the deal breaker for me.
That, and Chrysler’s sketchy dependability performance. The votes are still coming in for the 2012 models and things do seem to be getting better, but the 300 up until this point has had an irregular reliability record. Particularly in the area of transmission issues; Consumer Reports gave the 2012 version an overall score of 82 out of 100. To put this in perspective, 73 was the lowest given and 92 the highest. Fuel economy—or a lack of it—has also been a problem, especially with the V-8 models, but the new eight-speed may address this issue.