2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8, S and Executive: Up Close

Somewhere among these three versions of the Chrysler 300 are two, or maybe even three, nicely designed cars. Unfortunately, I’d have to mix and match various elements of the 300S, 300 C Executive and 300 SRT8 to accomplish it. The SRT8 is the ultimate performance version, and if I understand correctly, the S is the “street” version and the Executive is supposed to be stately. It’s a little hard to tell.

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In automotive circles, wire-mesh grilles and carbon-fiber interior trim typically represent performance variants, which doesn’t explain why the S (with a standard V-6) has carbon fiber like the SRT8 or why the Executive has a wire-mesh grille. (It’s a nicely executed faux metal; there are matching satin accents on the bumpers and side mirrors, but the grille doesn’t really say “executive” to me.)

What the SRT8 got instead is a high-flow gloss-black grille whose openings form a brick-wall pattern — not real impressive, frankly. The 300 S’ black-chrome grille is the best of the three. It’s hard to get a feel for the SRT8’s overall look, because the show car is white, a baffling decision on Chrysler’s part. No one wants a white SRT8. No white car has ever looked menacing — or, at minimum, no car has ever looked more menacing in white than it would in another color. The dark accents and blacked-out headlight clusters would probably work nicely against black, as the 300 S’ partially darkened reflectors do on gray. Anyone want to fire up Photoshop and fake it?

If we get away from the notion that certain designs and materials belong on certain types of cars, the carbon-fiber trim, where it appears, is a good look. It improves on the plainer surfaces, which are already better on the redesigned 2011 than on the previous generation. The 300 Executive’s chocolate-and-cream color palette is rich indeed, and much more what I’d expect in an executive car. The leather is pretty high quality, too, but I’m not sure about the wood trim. Auto-show cars are often hand-built, which is an opportunity for them to look better or worse than the production version will. In this sample, the wood doesn’t look quite finished.

Of all the elements that distinguish these three cars from the other 300 trim levels, the wheels are the ones that seem most appropriate for their cars. The SRT8’s 20-inch black-chrome wheels look fantastic, the Executive’s look stately and the S’ look street. Naturally, wheels are the only part you could actually change easily from one car to the other. It figures.

Two new features in the SRT8 stood out. There are shift paddles on the steering wheel. We can debate the value of such things, but I don’t think anyone would argue with me on the execution: They’re little ears that stick up above the steering-wheel spokes about 1 inch high — not exactly paddles. This design preserves the audio controls Chrysler locates on the backside of the spokes. How many times are you going to change stations when you mean to shift?

And then there’s an improvement: The Electronic Vehicle Information Center is now a color display between the gauges, replacing a cheapo dot-matrix affair. This is where the Performance Pages — zero-to-60 times, braking distance and the like — are displayed.

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