Chrysler's big gamble: Boldness defines rear-drive 300 sedan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif.--The over-sized chrome grille that dominates the face of the all-new 2005 Chrysler 300 sedan was so worrisome to the designers that they experimented with less flamboyant versions.

"But something looked wrong with those smaller grilles," said Ralph Gilles, 34, director of design. "So we went with the larger one, even though some people criticized it for being too big. I just worry that the pictures don't do it justice. You have to see it in person to appreciate the proportions."

Nearly everything about the new Chrysler 300 -- from its in-your-face styling and ample dimensions to the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with its whopping 340 horsepower and 390 pounds-feet of torque -- is imposing. But somehow it all works, and works quite well.

The car is a gamble for DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, which is betting that Americans schooled for more than two decades in the benefits of front-wheel drive can be persuaded to switch back to rear-wheel drive in a full-size sedan that straddles the family and near-luxury segments.

Another fear is that Chrysler, in its attempt to redefine the classic American automobile, may be guilty of over-egging the pudding. That is, cooking up something far too rich and unpalatable for American tastes conditioned to crave a more functional and rugged diet of trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Finally, the more traditional shape and style of the new 300 mark a radical departure for the company, which built a reputation in the previous decade for cutting-edge designs showcasing the so-called "cab forward" theme.

Our take on the new 300, after spending several hours and several hundred miles behind the wheel in the desert and mountains of southern California, is that this weighty new Chrysler sedan hits the perfect note in an uncertain era. It may even turn out to be a product that defines a new automotive epoch. In short, the bracingly different 300 makes us excited again about American family cars.

Its invincible -- some say intimidating -- bearing lends credence to the Chrysler executives who say they plan to pit the 300 against everything the global market can throw its way, from the family-friendly Honda Accord to the high-tech Audi A8. In fact, the 300's bold styling and innovative technology, including a multidisplacement engine that can run on four or eight cylinders, make it our early front-runner for the Detroit News Car of the Year.

The 2005 model, which replaces the front-wheel-drive Concorde and 300M, goes on sale in late April starting at $23,595, including a $625 destination charge. Three higher trim levels are available, including the 300 Touring ($27,395), 300 Limited ($29,980) and 300 C ($32,995). A well-equipped 300 C will top out at around $37,000. The upcoming all-wheel-drive version, due in August, could push t he sticker close to $40,000.

Even the base 300 looks like a luxury car. The over-the-top sedan is swathed inside and out with the most chrome on a Chrysler since the vehicles of the late 1960s. The 300 is not ashamed to be heavy on ornamentation -- name another vehicle that uses touches of tortoise-shell cabin trim -- with a personality that seems more befitting a monarch than a soccer mom or NASCAR dad.

The 300's stiff, fortress-like appearance, which copies liberally from luxury European brands such as Bentley, is the antithesis of the sleek designs that characterized Chryslers for much of the last decade.

Gilles says Chrysler designers looked to the happy days of the 1950s for inspiration. They strove to incorporate classic American design elements into the Canadian-built 300, festooning their studio with inspirational icons, such as Audrey Hepburn in her tiara and slinky blackgown from the movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and images of the Chrysler Building, which stands out like a shining Art Deco beacon amid the faceless concrete skyscrapers of Manhattan.

As brash as the 300's front-end styling is, the rear end looks a bit plain and boxy, and is vaguely reminiscent of the old Chrysler New Yorker, circa 1988-93. And while the ultra-long 120-inch wheelbase provides for a roomy rear seat and generous trunk, the car's overall exterior dimensions aren't as "super-sized" as they appear at first glance. The new 300 is 15 inches shorter than the Mercury Grand Marquis, its nearest domestic competitor in the full-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan category.

Inside, the cabin has a tailored look and feel, with a straightforward instrument panel and clean, but rather stark-looking, gauges and controls. The plush seats, which share their basic design with Mercedes-Benz, are comfortable and supportive, especially on long journeys.

In addition to the seats, the 300 shares a few other pieces with Mercedes, including a five-speed automatic transmission (available only with the Hemi engine) and an independent rear suspension design adapted from the E-class.

A four-speed automatic is standard on the base 300, which is equipped with a 190-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6, and the Touring and Limited versions, which get a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6. The latter engine has adequate muscle, but some buyers will find the smaller V-6 lacking sufficient power and torque, especially given the car's heavy 3,700-pound curb weight.

The powertrain combination that is sure to draw the most attention is the Hemi and the five-speed -- and they are indeed impressive in terms of performance. Chrysler claims 0-to-60 acceleration in just over six seconds with this package, and we wouldn't dispute that assertion. The Hemi is brutally quick, and the five-speed responsive, although we weren't always able to easily take advantage of the manual-shift mode on curvy mountain roads at rapidly plunging elevations. Shift buttons mounted on the steering wheel would make this feature much more user-friendly.

We drove the 300 in a variety of settings, from the ribbon-flat desert highways outside Palm Springs to the slick, ice-covered roads of Idyllwild and beyond to an elevation of 6,200 feet in the picturesque San Jacinto mountains. The car performed admirably in the changing terrain and weather conditions. With such features as electronic traction control and stability program providing an extra measure of grip on wet, slippery pavement, we didn't much miss the all-wheel-drive option. The 300 handled beautifully on the twisty mountain roads, and its extended wheelbase provides a stately ride on all but the most choppy sections of freeway.

One gripe: Chrysler did not include antilock brakes among the standard features on the base model. It's an oversight, especially if the company hopes to retrain a populace that has been comfortable with snow-fighting front-wheel-drive cars for the better part of the past 25 years.

You'll pay an extra $775 for antilock brakes as a stand-alone item on the base 300. Another option package, which bundles antilock brakes, traction control and stability program with brake assist -- all snow-beating features that Chrysler says makes the car "fully competitive" -- costs $1,025. Antilock brakes and traction control are standard on the Touring, Limited and C models.

If there are any design flaws in the 300, they tend to be more practical than esthetic.

Those flaws can be found in the car's high rear parcel shelf, which limits visibility and leaves the driver with no sense of where the car's rear end is -- a concern when backing up and parking, even with the optional ultrasonic park-distance sensors. We would have preferred seat belts built into the front seats, too, instead of the kind that are mounted between the doors. The small side windows can give the car a bit of a claustrophobic feeling, e pecially for rear-seat passengers.

The 300 tends to fall behind some of the Japanese and European brands when it comes to loading up on the latest in high-tech features. You can't get adaptive headlights that turn in the direction of the steering wheel on the 300, nor can you get adaptive cruise control, a more sophisticated version of cruise control that helps set the distance between your car and other vehicles ahead.

Where the 300 leads is with the new multidisplacement system on the 5.7-liter Hemi, which permits the engine to run on only four cylinders, thus conserving fuel, at cruising speeds and under part throttle. Even with this fuel-saving feature, we were disappointed that the Hemi and five-speed automatic are rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at only 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.

Optional safety features on the 300 are good and include a "protection package" that bundles front and rear side-curtain air bags, self-sealing tires and an air filtration system for $840.

We left Palm Springs craving more seat time in the new Chrysler 300, including a promised test drive later this year in the all-wheel-drive edition. But our initial impression remains upbeat and extremely favorable.

We thought designer Gilles aptly summed up the mood surrounding this impressive new entry from Chrysler: "People in America want things to be good again. This car is extremely timely. It's a can-do American car."