Crossfire ragtop is a head turner LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.--The fog is rolling in from the Pacific -- the "marine layer," the locals call it -- and there is still an early morning chill in the air. So fellow auto writer Frank Washington and I decide to keep the soft top up for a while on the 2005 Chrysler Crossfire Roadster as we tool out onto the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Laguna, en route to touristy Temecula, just the other side of the Santa Ana Mountains. We catch up on industry gossip until we eventually find ourselves on Highway 74 -- the fabled Ortega Highway that winds and twists its way through the Cleveland National Forest, over the Santa Anas and around Lake Elsinore. In a straight line, the two-door, two-passenger Crossfire is not particularly fast. But that's not really its metier. The roadster, which like its hardtop sister shares many of its mechanical pieces with the previous-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK, really starts to show its stuff on the Ortega. Sitting on a relatively short 94.5-inch wheelbase (identical to the SLK), the rear-wheel-drive Crossfire Roadster feels delightfully agile up here in the mountains, although as our altitude climbs, the single-overhead-cam Mercedes 3.2-liter V-6 loses a little steam. We use the six-speed manual judiciously to keep the revs up, and it's really no problem as long as you're not intent on setting new speed records. Once we're over the hump and the temperature has risen about 20 degrees, Frank and I drop the power top -- it takes less than half a minute after you've gone through the rigmarole of moving a panel in the trunk -- and the Crossfire Roadster takes on a whole new personality. Even if you had mixed emotions about the shape of the Crossfire coupe, the convertible should tug at even the most hardened hearts. The Crossfire Roadster, which is just beginning to reach Chrysler dealers this month, starts at $34,960, including destination charges. That's about $4,000 more than the comparably equipped Crossfire coupe. We're driving the Limited version of the roadster, which is priced from $38,920 with the manual transmission and $39,995 with a five-speed automatic. Our test car is a gorgeous yellow, with a two-tone cabin trimmed in dark slate and "cool vanilla." With an optional navigation radio, the sticker price is $40,120. Is it worth the money? Considering you can buy a 2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK with a retractable hardtop for just about the same money, some folks won't think so. But I can tell you the drive in the Crossfire Roadster is entertaining and comfortable, and the car really does look sensational with the top down. The standard Crossfire Roadster is sort of a "stripper," with manual cloth seats. If you want more amenities, you have to step up to the more expensive Limited edition. But the base car does come with some imp ressive standard features, including four-wheel antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control and electronic stability program, as well as a CD player and the aforementioned power soft top with glass backlight. The Crossfire Limited gives you a choice of transmissions and colors, and adds such features as power heated seats, upholstered in leather, a 240-watt Infinity audio system, fog lamps, tire-pressure monitoring system and a matched set of luggage. The only engine available is the Mercedes 3.2, which in the Crossfire is tuned to deliver 215 horsepower and 229 pounds-feet of torque. Eventually, both the roadster and coupe will be offered in high-performance SRT-6 trim, powered by a supercharged 330-horsepower variant of the 3.2 V-6, built by Mercedes' AMG subsidiary. The SRT-6 version of the Crossfire Roadster will start at $49,995. With either transmission, the normally aspirated V-6 is just OK. It makes a lot of noise under full hrottle, but doesn't pull that strongly. Among its closest competitors, Audi's TT Roadster feels a lot more lively, with a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder that doesn't make nearly as much power, but accelerates like crazy when the boost comes on. And the Nissan 350Z Roadster absolutely buries the Crossfire when it comes to sheer muscle. The Z-car is fitted with the Japanese automaker's superb twin-cam 3.5-liter V-6, which delivers nearly 290 horsepower and will easily outgun the Chrysler or the Audi in the quarter-mile. But the Ortega puts a different spin on things -- especially with the top down. From our rest stop in Temecula, Frank and I retrace our route over the Santa Anas, this time with the sun streaming down and the temperature hovering in the mid-70s. The Continental SportContact 2 tires -- 18s in the front, 19s in the rear -- grip the pavement reassuringly. The German-engineered suspension is just about right for the car and the affluent 40-something audience at which it is aimed. The all-independent suspension employs double wishbones and coil springs up front, with a five-link layout and coils in the rear -- a setup that ensures control and agility. Gas-charged shocks at all four corners help soften some of the impact harshness that's transmitted through the low-profile tires, so the ride is surprisingly comfortable. Front and rear stabilizer bars help keep the car firmly planted to the pavement. The old-style power recirculating-ball steering doesn't feel as crisp and precise as some of the newer variable-assist rack-and-pinion systems, but it's more than adequate for negotiating the tighter hairpins on the Ortega. The car's four-wheel disc brakes include antilock and brake assist functions for additional peace of mind, and they work quite well. We never had the occasion to test the stability control system, but were glad to see it as part of the standard equipment. The Crossfire's cabin is snug, but comfortable. Anybody who's ever owned or driven an SLK will feel totally at home. The gauges, the console and the center stack all appear to have been lifted, with few major modifications, from the Mercedes. Chrysler hopes the introduction of the roadster and the impending arrival of the SRT-6 variants will juice up Crossfire sales, although the company's earlier projection of selling 20,000 units a year so far has proved to be wildly optimistic. The company figures about 60 percent of Crossfire sales will be roadsters, with the audience evenly divided between male and female buyers. Seventy-five percent of the cars will be equipped with automatic transmissions, Chrysler estimates. I suspect they're low on two counts -- the percentage of female buyers and the automatic installation rate. They may also be underestimating the demand for the roadster, which is far better-l ooking than its sibling. Now it just remains to be seen if the market thinks the new Crossfire Roadster, with leather seats and a few amenities, is worth nearly as much as its German cousin -- the one with the familiar three-pointed star.
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