2004 Chrysler 300C Hemi

Chrysler 300C could be the hottest car on the market

This car is so hot it has already made a getaway guest appearance on the television show "ER." There, in the season finale, Dr. Pratt, all full of self-satisfaction, buys himself a 2004 Chrysler 300C Hemi.

And the good doctor's decision could have been a life saver, as the show ended with his Hemi being chased by bad guys firing bullets into the gullet of his car. We won't know if he -- or the Hemi -- bit the dust until next year.

But that's not where we first met the Chrysler Hemi on television. First it was in a truck. You've seen the television ad.

"That thang got a Hemi?" the inquiring mind of a goober in what he thinks is a fast car wants to know from the driver of a Dodge pickup truck.

Well, yes, indeedy, it does, the driver demonstrates as he then blows the goober away at the starting line. The term Hemi refers to a hemispherical combustion chamber, meaning a rounded cylinder top that allows for bigger valves, more volume, and more power.

You would not expect, in this day and age, however, for the driver of a Bentleyesque luxury sedan to be able to say that yes, his car, too, has a Hemi.

But that is the case with what might be the hottest American made car on the market right now. That's because, wrapped inside good old American steel (sculpted by Germans) is the motor right out of the Chrysler fleet of trucks and SUVs.

With its long hood, short overhangs front and rear, and egg crate grille, it is reminiscent of the Chrysler "letter cars" of the 1950s, cars that helped define American muscle.

A couple of the standouts that led up to the letter cars were the Windsor and New Yorker coupes, the first coming with a 188-horsepower V-8, the last with a 250 horsepower motor. Then, Chrysler upped the ante by dropping a 300-horsepower motor into a coupe and the so-called "Banker's Hot Rod" was born. From there, it was, literally and figuratively, off to the races.

The 300 letter cars rolled hot and heavy: B, C, D, C/D, E, F, G, and H. By 1962, sporting a Hemi, the car featured an optional 404-horsepower motor.

Today's car is a sedan, but it is hardly sedate, with 340 horsepower coming from its Hemi. And it is an eye-catcher, particularly because of its chopped top and therefore slotted windows. It looks like you'd have to duck even as you sat in it, but you don't. In fact, it's a very spacious car. We drove the top-of-the-line Hemi, but the new 300 series offers four models: a base 300 with a 190-horseppower V-6 engine; Touring and Limited models with 250-horse V6s; and the Hemi. The V-6s come with four-speed automatic transmissions, while the five-speed gets a five-speed automatic, with manual option, from parent company, Mercedes-Benz. The upper end models will also have all-wheel drive available for those with doubts about the wisdom o f rear-wheel-drive and lots of power in winter in New England. (Note: Snow tires all-around and traction control should ease those fears, though I also love AWD and unless you are going racing, a few hundred extra pounds shouldn't be a factor).

The price and package range here runs from just below $25,000 to around $37,000 (I'd expect a $2,000 hit for all-wheel-drive).

Also on the market, and looking much the same, is a Dodge Magnum LX station wagon. The Hemi engine, of course, is the beating heart of this car.

Yet what is different about this Hemi is that it features technology that Chrysler calls a Multi-Displacement System. What this does is invisibly shut off half the Hemi's eight cylinders when the demand for power is low. Easy starts and smooth cruising on the highway turn the V-8 beast into a purring, four-cylinder, gasoline-saving engine.

I got 20.1 miles per gallon in more than a week of driving, fabulous for a butt-kicking V-8 engine. his car is so hot and shining that car magazines are calling it automotive "bling-bling."

And coming after disappointing launches of the Crossfire sports car and Pacifica crossover wagon, this is good news for Chrysler. Part of the key here, I suspect, is the broad range of prices and options (the Pacifica came with too many expensive standard features at first). More than 25,000 300s have been sold since it debuted in March.

With a raid on the Mercedes-Benz E-Class bin, Chrysler has produced a quality, spacious, fun car. Inside, chrome trim accents a nicely understated layout. There are four thick chrome spokes on the steering wheel. Chrome circles the analog gauges. It surrounds the center console stack that houses climate, navigation, and audio controls -- all topped by a nifty analog clock. Chrome travels down from that center stack to define the shifter pattern.

If I have a complaint -- and for the sake of this car's lines, I'll gladly live with it -- it is that sight beyond the rear pillar is blocked by its thickness, and the high window ledges (not an auto term, but you can picture it) also make for some craning of the neck to see out. Also, because rear-wheel-drive brings back the drive shaft, that means a hump up the middle of the back seat, rendering the center slot a child's seat.

This is a remarkably quiet car. It is not at all "boaty" as we have come to expect from big American sedans, and in fact there was little body roll in cornering and the steering feel was firm and direct.

Chrysler is promising the launch of a host of new vehicles in the months ahead, and if this is the road they will be driving, put me behind the wheel.

2004 Chrysler 300C Hemi
MSRP base price: $22,970
Horsepower: 190
Torque: 190 ft-lbs.
Wheelbase: 120 inches
Overall length: 196.8 inches
Width: 74.1 inches
Height: 58.4 inches
Seating: 5 passengers
Fuel economy: City: 21 mpg; Highway: 28 mpg
Source: Edmunds.com