If someone asked a year ago what I found desirable in Chrysler's lineup, my reply would have been quick and blunt: nothing. No boxy Imperials or vinyl-topped New Yorkers for me, thank you very much. Until recently, Chrysler had little that appealed to baby boomers. Since January, however, things at Chrysler have changed radically. Three new sedans, the Concorde, an all-new New Yorker and Chrysler's new flagship, the LHS, have been introduced to critical acclaim. These new cars have been created with the hope of re-establishing Chrysler's credentials with younger, more affluent buyers, showcasing the company's engineering and styling talents and delivering world-class value for the money. Based on early sales figures and reviews, it looks as if Chrysler has smashed a homerun. PERFORMANCE The LHS comes with a very responsive 214-horsepower, V-6 engine. It's a 3.5-liter unit with overhead cams, 24 valves and electronic fuel injection. You would expect an engine this smooth and quiet to be nestled under the hood of a Lexus ES 300 or an Infiniti J30. This is far and away the most refined engine Chrysler ever has made. The accelerator seems to be connected to your brain. Throttle response is instantaneous, and power is smooth and consistent at any speed. As you watch the tachometer needle race all the way up the dial, all you'll hear is a wonderful symphony of pleasing sounds, a slight whine from the engine and the slightly muffled sound of air being ingested. A computer-controlled, four-speed automatic transmission is the only one offered on the LHS. It provides almost seamless shifts - unless you floor the accelerator. Then the shifts become somewhat rough compared to those of a Buick LeSabre or an Acura Legend. I tested the LHS during a week when the temperature hit at least 95 degrees for five days in a row. Extreme heat, stop-and-go traffic and numerous restarts didn't affect the engine's silky smooth performance. Fuel mileage came in at about 17.5 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, and that was using the air conditioner. That's reasonable for a large car. HANDLING The LHS, Chrysler's first true sports sedan, probably is going to shatter the company's image of building conservative and boring sedans. This car doesn't feel or act like any previous Chrysler sedan. Its wide track, long wheelbase and stiff body make it the best-handling four-door that Chrysler ever has built. The body will not lean much during hard and fast cornering because the suspension system is firm and tight. And the steering and brakes are high-performance items that work as well as any you would find in a competitive imported sports sedan. In the past, a firm suspension system usually meant that you'd pay a price when driving over potholes and speed bumps, because the limited up-and-down motion of the wheels transferred the jarring to the car's body. But not in the LHS. Chrysler engineers designed the suspension system to allow for long up-and-down wheel travel. That prevents most of the trauma from finding its way to the passengers. The specially designed power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is a high point. It feels close to perfect, requiring just the right amount of effort. In a week of driving the car, I could find only one area where Chrysler engineers could have done better. On rough pavement, the road noise that finds its way inside the car is loud and distracting. However, as soon as you encounter a patch of freshly paved road, the LHS is almost as quiet as a Lexus. Chrysler engineers could take the LHS to the next level - making it the American equivalent of Lexus - if they could find a way to muffle that road noise. This is the car's low point. And one that may turn off potential buyers of a near $30,000 sedan. FIT AND FINISH Here's a prediction: When next year's quality surveys come out, look for Chrysler to be the big winner. With its new sedans, Chrysler's quality has improved dramatically. Our test car felt as solid and tight as the best imports. But more than being built well, the LHS is designed well. From the pop-out cupholders neatly integrated into the center console to the lighted window switches and the rear passenger air-conditioning vents, the LHS has many items that emphasize comfort and convenience. Let's start with the leather bucket seats. They're excellent. Well-padded and supportive, they come with easy-to-use electric adjustments that can configure the seat eight ways. Interior room is abundant. Even the tallest rear-seat passengers are likely to be comfortable. The seats are firm and comfortable, and there's plenty of foot, leg and head room. The switches for the cruise control are mounted on the steering wheel and can be operated without taking your eyes off the road. The analog gauges reminded me of the stylish instruments used in Infiniti luxury sedan. The stereo system in the LHS is top-notch. It is a $169 option that featured a CD player. The rear speakers are tilted forward toward the driver, and that creates a bit of a rear-view problem. The lower portion of the rear window is very high. I noticed that, when going down a hill, a car 50 yards behind you can drop clean out of sight. Or if someone is following closely, you'll be able to see them only from the windshield up. I can think of two other minor improvements: For nearly 30 grand, the LHS ought to offer an automatic headlight system. Also, the console's gear pattern should be lighted. At night, the darkness down there is distracting. The LHS inspired numerous compliments for its jazzy and unique exterior styling, but many winced at the price. All those years of building dull luxury cars have tarnished Chrysler's image. Yet one ride should be all it takes to change the minds of most skeptics. The LHS could be the car that returns the luster to the Chrysler nameplate. Truett's tip: The new LHS sports sedan from Chrysler offers exceptional value, decent performance, striking styling and a spacious, European-inspired interior.
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