Versus the competiton:
Upon its introduction in 2004, the 2005 Chrysler 300 full-size sedan became the force behind the flagging company’s turnaround. It was big and roomy, it offered all-wheel drive and a huge Hemi V-8 as options, and in the eyes of many it looked like a Bentley. (If you’re going to pattern your affordable car after another brand, Bentley turns out to be a good way to go.) Interest in the 300 and the Hemi-equipped 300C had already begun to wane when gas prices began their historic climb, and that pretty much ended the party. A brutal sales climate, battered brand name and volatile gas prices notwithstanding, the 300/300C is one of Chrysler’s strongest products, but the tweaks it’s received for 2009 aren’t enough to prepare it for an uptick in competition from the likes of a redesigned Ford Taurus.
The exterior change for 2009 is a new grille design for the SRT8 model. Replacing the waffle-pattern is a chain-link orientation, basically an interwoven-wire-mesh look. It’s not truly made of woven metal, but the smoked-chrome finish makes it look better to me than the bright-chromed plastic grille I’ve criticized, ironically, on Bentley’s Continental. The exterior is otherwise the same, but for the moonroof now being standard and a new Water Blue Clear Coat paint option that replaces the previous Steel Blue. Though it’s unchanged, the SRT8 treatment includes bumper and side-sill extensions and larger vents to cool the red-painted Brembo brakes. Chrysler eliminated the roof-mounted mini-whip antenna by moving FM reception duties to the rear window, yet our car had two unsightly black satellite antennae — one near the front of the roof, one near the rear — as required by the optional Sirius TV receiver.
Not your normal 300 or 300C, the 300C SRT8 has an even larger, 6.1-liter version of the 300C’s Hemi V-8. Where the 5.7-liter puts out 360 horsepower, the 6.1-liter generates 425 hp, which is good for zero-to-60 mph times just above 5 seconds. It wasn’t long ago that this seemed mind-bogglingly fast for a production car; it isn’t so much anymore, but it’s still an eye-opener in such a large sedan. As for the sound, it’s an ear-opener: If you like the sound of a V-8 at full boil, you’re going to like this one. Trust me. Fortunately, it’s not very intrusive during normal driving.
The 300’s two-door cousin, the Dodge Challenger SRT8, now offers a six-speed manual transmission, but SRT8 versions of the four-door Dodge Charger and the 300 itself only come with a five-speed automatic. It’s an able transmission that shifts smoothly under light acceleration and decisively when you’re on a tear. Unfortunately, a 1 mpg highway mileage improvement seems to have come from transmission programming changes, and as a result it’s much less likely to kick down when you goose the pedal a bit. If anything, in previous years it was unnecessarily sensitive, but if memory serves, the new behavior has swung the pendulum pretty far. The new EPA rating is 13/19 mpg, and the gas-guzzler tax decreases from $2,100 to $1,700 for 2009. (Remember, this is the SRT8 trim level only; the 300 sedan lineup begins at 18/26 mpg with a V-6 engine, and the 5.7-liter V-8 rates 16/25 mpg with rear-wheel drive, thanks in part to cylinder-deactivation technology that was left off the 6.1-liter.)
Perhaps Chrysler expects those who prefer to drive in lower gears to use the clutchless-manual mode — called AutoStick in the Dodge cars — by tapping the gear selector left and right to shift up and down. No sale. I never liked these things to begin with, and people who do will bemoan the lack of shift paddles on the steering wheel. For what it’s worth, I like the mode’s programming: It holds the gear you choose, while in the regular car it’s just another way of locking out gears above a selected point, as conventional PRND4321 settings would.
You can’t get all-wheel drive with this trim level, but my car’s Goodyear F1 summer performance tires have no trouble transferring the abundant torque from the rear drive wheels to the pavement; if the surface is slippery, standard traction control kicks in and keeps you moving. Changes for 2009 make both this feature and the electronic stability system feel less intrusive when they activate. Systems like these have made rear-drive cars more feasible, if not optimal, in winter climates, but if you’re going to try it, you’ll want to avoid the summer tires, which, as a class, are dangerous in cold temps and on snow and ice. (Chrysler wisely terms them “three-season” tires, which one could argue all summer tires are.) All-season tires are standard equipment. Because the summer treads are a no-cost option, you might also consider going with those and buying a set of all-season or winter tires on smaller wheels. Regardless of the type, the SRT8’s low-series tires put the 20-inch wheels at risk on roughened winter roads. Taller sidewalls on smaller wheels would help.
The rear-wheel drive and a clear effort to distribute weight evenly over the front and rear wheels — including a trunk-mounted battery — give the hulking 300 good balance overall. It’s impossible to ignore the 4,046-pound curb weight, but the big engine, upgraded brakes and grippy tires make the SRT8 feel the lightest of all the trim levels. I’ve been surprised in past years by what the car can do on a racetrack — the roadholding, poise and controllability — but it’s not the most visceral experience. The steering, in particular, provides minimal feedback and is in no hurry to return to center, on the street or track, especially at lower speeds. The brakes, though they do the most important job of stopping the car, likewise suffer numbness in the pedal and don’t allow you to modulate brake pressure as well as some custom brake systems do.
Chrysler made some suspension changes to the SRT8 for 2009, too, meant to smooth out the ride quality a bit. They seem to have succeeded, but I never thought it was too harsh to begin with, given the vehicle type. This has actually been a high point of all models on this platform, including the Dodge Challenger R/T. Note that changes in ride might be accompanied by handling changes, but I won’t be able to comment on how that plays out in the most demanding circumstances until I get the 2009 on a track.
If you want to gauge the SRT8’s performance — be it braking, acceleration or roadholding — Chrysler has integrated a Performance Display into the instrument panel between the main gauges, in an option package. It automatically clocks your times to 60 mph, the eighth-mile and the quarter-mile. It captures braking distance from any given speed and shows g-force in all directions on a bull’s-eye display — storing peak readings for review when the driving is done. Chrysler didn’t invent this kind of computer, but it bothered to integrate a full-featured one, and for that it deserves plaudits.
The 2009 300 has two things going for it, and one against. The downside is interior quality. The SRT8, in my opinion, makes the best showing (as you’d hope, given its high price). But even this one has uninspired design and some cheap materials. The dashboard is soft and low-gloss, but the plastics are cheap. Though there’s less of it than on some lower trim levels, the faux-aluminum trim remains on the center control panel and on the overly large and somehow … dorky steering wheel. In 2004, the 300’s quality was passable. Against the current competition, it isn’t even close. Fortunately, Chrysler is working on a redesign.
One good thing about the 300 is that it’s roomy, as you’d expect from a large car — though its stylish profile gives it a relatively low roofline and less headroom than competitors. That’s by the numbers, though; I found there to be enough headroom front and rear. There’s no measurement for it, but there’s no doubt the high windowsills give some people claustrophobia. As the table reflects, the legroom is competitive — especially when compared with the redesigned 2010 Ford Taurus, which has sacrificed what had been exceptional roominess in pursuit of better styling. Where it had beaten the 300 soundly in almost all dimensions, it now trails the 300 in the critical backseat legroom category, and it’s narrowed its advantage in most other measurements.
| Full-Size Sedans Compared
| 2009 Chrysler 300
| 2010 Ford Taurus
| 2009 Ford Taurus
| 2009 Buick Lucerne
| 2009 Toyota Avalon
As the table shows, the 300 has less trunk volume than Ford and Buick, but for what it’s worth, its 15.6 cubic feet seems larger than that. The opening and trunk itself are large, and the rear seats fold forward — a feature that remains the exception in full-size cars. When modified for performance versions, some cars that have the folding function sacrifice it in exchange for bracing. SRT8 models don’t.
Another big plus is the 300’s entertainment options, which in our car included Sirius Backseat TV, which receives the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon for viewing from the backseat on a 7-inch screen. (It’s also the reason behind the two black satellite antennae on the front and rear of the car’s roof.) Chrysler has been a leader in in-vehicle electronics and entertainment — early to the market with Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, hard-drive music and photo storage, iPod connectivity, wireless internet and Sirius streaming TV. This kind of stuff is what makes many Chrysler and Dodge models stand out. The 300 offers them all, as options.
The Chrysler 300’s crash performance is part mystery. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset crash tests, it scores Good, the highest rating. Unfortunately, side-impact ratings are incomplete. We know that it scores Poor, the worst rating, without side-impact airbags. The early side-impact and curtain airbag option, used from 2005-07, delivered a Marginal rating, just one step above Poor. Chrysler has since changed the airbags, but the car hasn’t been retested; considering that the model is due for a redesign, this generation may never be.
What’s hard to understand is why Chrysler doesn’t make the side airbags standard to at least allay concerns. Including seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front seats, as well as curtains that cover the front and rear side windows, the option costs $640 in the SRT8 and includes … the Performance Display? Safety features ought to be available a la carte for the lowest price. The lowest 300 trim level has the airbags for $590, and in other trims they come in equally illogical combinations with non-safety features, sometimes for even more money. Though standard on the SRT8, antilock brakes, traction control and the stability system are options on the lowest 300 trims. For a list of all safety features, click here, but be sure to note what model (300 or 300C) and trim level you’re looking at.
The incremental improvements are welcome, but for the 300 to fend off competitors that are joining the styling race, it will need a full redesign and a rich interior. I don’t think one can overestimate the struggle Chrysler — brand and company — faces in the coming years to regain the trust of loyal owners, add even more customers and make its product line competitive enough to survive.
As much as anything, the 300 sedan is an example of how products — even one product — can turn an auto company around. When one model draws attention to the brand and shoppers to dealerships, other models tend to sell better, too. So it was with the original 300. Could it be so with the model’s next generation? Chrysler would be wise to find out by getting it on the market — soon.