With the 2015 Chrysler 200, the automaker finally has a legitimate contender in the midsize class.
You know that shocking, tear-filled moment at the end of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" when the owners of a previously dilapidated house feast their eyes on their new masterpiece? That was me after spending a day behind the wheel of the all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 sedan. (OK, there were no tears, but I was more than pleasantly surprised.)
Chrysler has transformed the dud of its lineup into a refined, stylish, comfortable and affordable sedan that should worry competitors. The 200 is a clean-sheet redesign that shares a platform and some components with the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee. It's all new inside and out, with revised powertrains, a restyled cabin, and more convenience and safety features, like available all-wheel drive and park assist.
This year, the 200 comes only as a sedan; the convertible has been discontinued. Compare the 2014 and 2015 models here. The 200 goes head-to-head with some of the best-selling midsize cars on the market, including the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. Compare all four here.
It's no surprise that Chrysler's ad campaign for the new 200 relies heavily on the familiar "Imported from Detroit" tagline — it's made near the city and was designed in Chrysler's Detroit studio. The irony is that the new 200 has a very European look, which it wears well.
One of the previous generation's (only) strengths was its classy styling. The 2015 model builds on that with a more flowing, aerodynamic look. Sweeping lines coupled with a large, aggressive double grille and prominent winged Chrysler badge complement the dramatic and unmissable light-pipe headlight design. The sport-minded S model wears a unique lower grille, glossy black exterior trim and dual tailpipes. In back, a built-in decklid spoiler, sloping roofline and standard LED taillights help it stand out.
The overall look is modern and dynamic, but it errs on the side of classy rather than edgy. Parked alongside the bland Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, it practically oozes style.
How It Drives
Two engines are available, and I drove the V-6 first. That engine is a version of last year's 3.6-liter but tuned to make 295 horsepower this year, up from 283 hp. Power is ample from a stop and builds steadily, but the big story is the nine-speed automatic transmission, which is controlled via a rotary dial instead of a traditional shifter; it's new this year and standard across the lineup. Overall, it ticked off smooth, timely shifts, with little hunting. On occasion, however, I noticed an abrupt, rough shift upon deceleration at around-town speeds.
I was less enthused by the nine-speed's performance with the four-cylinder. Power wasn't an issue; the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder mustered enough gusto off the line and managed to handle merges and hill climbs without seeming overly taxed. It's a big improvement over the outgoing four-cylinder — quicker, quieter and more refined. Shifts, however, often felt more erratic and harsher than they did with the V-6, especially at lower speeds. Chrysler said we tested pre-production models and that another transmission calibration is in the works.
Thanks to the new nine-speed, fuel economy will be up for 2015, but just how much is the question. EPA numbers aren't in yet, but Chrysler expects the four-cylinder to get a 35 mpg highway rating; the equivalent 2014 model got 20/31 mpg city/highway. A 35 mpg highway rating would finally make the 200 competitive with the Accord (26/34 mpg), Fusion (22/34 mpg) and Camry (25/35 mpg).
Behind the wheel, the 200 is a comfortable long-trip sedan with muted-sounding engines and impressive isolation from road and wind noise. Both V-6 and four-cylinder versions had nicely weighted, natural-feeling steering. The ride was compliant, and models with the 18-inch wheels felt composed over road imperfections. Bumps were heard and felt more keenly with the available 19-inch wheels, however. The 200 remained tight in corners with little body lean, easily slicing through an onslaught of northern California's coastal switchbacks.
The cabin's design and materials echo the car's elegant, tasteful exterior, with sweeping panels of painted plastic or — in the case of the uplevel C model — optional genuine wood trim in matte finish. It all feels good, too, with an abundance of padded surfaces and bolstered, supportive seats. Leather seats are optional on uplevel trims, but even the base interior with grained plastic panels and subtly patterned cloth upholstery looks upscale. I drove the base Accord and Camry back-to-back after my time in the 200, and their interiors struck me as bland by design and cut-rate in terms of materials quality.
The backseat is adequately roomy for two adults. The outboard seats are lightly bolstered for a snug, comfy fit. The inboard seat should be avoided; a small floor hump will cramp the middle passenger's legroom. By the numbers, backseat legroom is up slightly this year, to 37.6 inches, but the other sedans still offer around an inch more.
Overall length is up only slightly for 2014, but the 200's interior dimensions haven't changed much. Front headroom is down slightly, to 37.7 inches, but that still holds up pretty well against the Accord (39.1), Fusion (39.2) and Camry (38.8).
Ergonomics & Electronics
The wonderfully clear and simple Uconnect 8.4-inch touch-screen multimedia system finally joins the 200's cabin this year, but only in uplevel versions. The base LX model uses a generic-looking traditional radio interface, and the trims in between make do with a new 5-inch touch-screen unit, which has some of the larger Uconnect system's functionality but is comically small. Too much plastic paneling surrounds the tiny screen, making it appear even smaller, like a toddler bundled up in a gigantic snow suit. Some of the icons on the screen are fingernail-sized and difficult to read and press with accuracy.
Both the large and small screen-based systems use a mixture of buttons and knobs in addition to the touch-screen itself for audio functions and some climate controls. Nearly all the climate functions can also be controlled via separate knobs and buttons under the screen; they're large, well-marked and easy to reach.
A very easy-to-use navigation system with the larger touch-screen is optional on uplevel S and C models but unavailable on base LX and Limited trims. Bluetooth audio streaming with hands-free connectivity is standard on all models except the LX sedan, where it's optional.
Cargo & Storage
Clever is the best way to describe the small storage spaces in the 200's cabin. By switching from a traditional transmission shifter to a rotary dial, Chrysler opened up a large storage cubby underneath the dial. It's conveniently close to the center console's charging outlets and wide enough to hold a tablet.
There's also a creative sliding cupholder setup; when the two cupholders aren't in use, slide them under the center console to access another deep storage well. Backseat passengers are treated to two cupholders and a small storage box in the pop-down center armrest.
The bench seat folds in a standard 60/40 split, and a pass-through to the trunk is standard across the lineup. The trunk itself (16.0 cubic feet) is generously sized, with a wide opening. Intrusive hinges dip down and steal some luggage space, however. By the numbers, the trunk is about 2.5 cubic feet larger than the outgoing model's, and it's competitive compared with the Accord (15.8), Fusion (16.0) and Camry (15.4).
The 2015 Chrysler 200 has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The sloping roofline somewhat hinders visibility to the rear corners, but new this year is a backup camera, standard on the C trim level and optional on all but the base trim. In versions equipped with the 5-inch screen, however, the image is tiny and questionably useful.
Also new are a host of optional active safety features, including adaptive cruise control, a blind spot monitoring system, Rear Cross Path Detection, forward-collision warning and lane departure warning. Chrysler is also debuting a new park assist feature on the 200 that will assist in parallel or perpendicular parking maneuvers. It guides the car into the spot and automatically controls the steering-wheel angle, gear position, brake and accelerator. Unfortunately, with the exception of the blind spot monitor and cross path detection (which are optional on the S), the availability of these systems is limited to the highest trim, the C, where they're bundled into a Safetytec option package.
Click here for a full list of safety features.
Value in Its Class
Value is a big consideration for many midsize sedan shoppers, and the 200 delivers again with a low entry price — one that's actually $95 less than the outgoing model. The 2015 Chrysler 200 starts at $22,695 (all prices include destination), which slightly undercuts the Accord, Fusion and Camry. If you want all-wheel drive, however, the base price jumps to $29,690 for an S model. Still, that's less than an all-wheel-drive Ford Fusion, the only other sedan in this competitive set to offer all-wheel drive. There, it's available only on the top Titanium trim level, which runs $33,425.
The 200 is a win for both Chrysler and shoppers looking for style, comfort, quality and value. It went from a car I'd never recommend to one I think should be on every midsize-sedan shopper's list. An extreme makeover, indeed.