CHRYSLER'S ZIPPY 300M IS NO THROWBACK TO THE DINOSAUR DAYS

Think back to the mid-1950s and picture big steel: Cadillac, Lincoln, and Chrysler. Dinosaurs roamed the roads.

The Caddy was the pterodactyl, winged and amazing because, big as it was, it flew.

The Lincoln, heavy and malevolent (``You're gonna drive me to drinkin', If you don't quit drivin' that hot rod Lincoln'') was the tyrannosaurus rex.

And then there was the blunt-nosed 1955 Chrysler 300, a stegosaurus of an automobile, heavy-clad yet capable of bursts of straight-ahead speed: 127.580 miles per hour on the sands of Daytona Beach, gulping gas through twin four-barrel carbs to feed a 331-cubic-inch, V-8 hemi. It was the first of Chrysler's 10-year run of its 300 "letter series" cars.

As history tells us, gasoline prices killed the dinosaurs.

But now comes Chrysler with a new car in the letter series, the 300M.

You've seen the ads for the new fleet of Chrysler cars: With their winged insignia on the grilles, arranged in an arc, they look like a flight wing ready for liftoff from some airfield in England.

My most recent experiences with Chrysler products have hardly been moments of grace. What I knew about them was that it is tough to kill an old Chrysler in a demolition derby. They seem to run forever even with the engine blowing oil and a punctured radiator no longer supplying water to cool the engine. And those big square bodies folded up only after repeated bludgeonings.

So it was with some wonderful surprise that the 300M greeted me with such grace.

This car is Chrysler's attempt to put sport into a sedan and it is a successful bid for what in this day and age is the relatively reasonable price of $30,000.

Start at the nose, where the car begins low and curved, Italianate in its styling as it flows up over sculpted headlamps, a gracefully rising hood that eases into sloping windshield, and a roofline that continues the rising wedge until it all ends abruptly at a crisply chopped-off rear. This latter was carried out to keep the car's length to 197.8 inches, short for a big sedan, but able to fit in smaller garages outside the United States where Chrysler hopes to sell lots of these models.

The 300M is aimed at a younger, slightly more affluent driver than its more standard luxury sedan, the LHS. That means the car has to have some snap, and this one does, with an engine that is remarkable in a car that does not cost $40,000.

This power plant is a 3.5-liter, 24-valve, aluminum V6 with surprising oomph. Pull out to pass a truck on the highway and it kicks in like a race car to hurtle you forward. It gives off more of a whine than does, say, the Mercedes 2000 S Class we drove a few weeks ago, with its deep basso rumble -- but at $50,000 less in price, it's not a bad swap. Because of its coil-on-plug ignition system and platinum-tipped spark plugs, this engine needs no tuning before 100,000 miles.

Add an optional, upgraded handling and suspension system to the car and it is capable of nearly 150 miles per hour. As I said, quite a six-cylinder engine, one that gets 18 miles per gallon city and 27 on the highway.

The transmission is a four-speed automatic with the plus-minus click option for manual shifting that is becoming more and more common.

Inside, there is something decidedly modern, yet retro about the 300M. Maybe it is that sitting in black leather seats you look at round analog guages that appear more Swiss watch than car dash: white backgrounds with stark black markings.

This is a most comfortable car. The front seats have eight-way power adjustments; the driver's seat moves back 2.2 inches automatically to let you exit the car, but returns to its previous driving position when you reenter and turn the key.

An optional ($315) Infinity 240-watt sound system -- tape deck, CD changer, radio -- with nine speakers fills the car with sound, and Ch sler has managed to hide its antenna in the window (cutting down the whistle of wind noise) and still get excellent reception across both bands.

Whatever was lost in chopping off the trunk for length is more than made up for by its height, and by the fact that the 60-40 split rear seat drops to carry skis, golf clubs and other loads. You can carry as many golf bags as you can golfers in this car.

The big old Chryslers were known primarily for one thing: straight-ahead power. The 300M has all of that, but it is also quite agile. There was no boatlike roll or yaw when I took it through the climbing S-curves near my home where I like to challenge handling.

On the highway, it was nimble, moving quietly and gracefully in and out of traffic, supported by big 17-inch wheels, fully independent strut suspension, antilock disc brakes on all four wheels and traction control.

But what struck me most about this auto was the engine. I try not to read any of the specs on a car before I drive it, and after my first spin in this one, had anyone asked me to guess on the engine, I would have said, ``Nice and quiet little V8.'' When I looked and saw the 6, I was pleasantly surprised.

Nice touches:

-- The way the center console, beneath the cover, is ribbed and ridged for tapes, CDs, and coins in a most simple way.

-- The automatic option on headlights, which turns them on if you forget to as darkness falls or as you enter a tunnel, and also fires them up if the windshield wipers go for more than 10 seconds.

Annoyances:

-- The climate control panel situated above the sound system controls. I kept turning up the fan when I thought I was reaching for the volume dial.

-- The too-obviously-plastic lid surrounding the shift lever. Chrysler put so much effort into the elegance of leather and mock leather on every other surface, it is hard to understand how one more square foot of elegance would have added that much to the price.

SIDEBAR:

The numbers

Base price: $28,950

Price as tested: $30,560

Horsepower/Torque: 253 hp/255 lbs.-ft.

Wheelbase/Overall length: 113 inches/197.8 inches

Width/Height: 74.4 inches/56 inches

Curb weight: 3567 lbs.

Seating: 5 passengers