I am not a fan of kicking people while they are down, believing only bullies and fatuous politicians are deserving of that fate. The same applies to car companies. Chrysler was laid low by the recession and by mainstream products badly in need of updating. By all accounts, and with the aid of Fiat, it is rising to the occasion where it can, with some great new products (take a bow, Jeep Grand Cherokee) and a sprucing up of current lines. In other words, it's trying to regain its competitive mojo.
That said, let me state the following in clear, precise terms: the 200 is not the car that will save Chrysler.
Despite the new moniker, it is an updated Sebring, a mid-sized car that underperformed and underwhelmed in the marketplace. Now, the upgrades are substantial - Chrysler didn't just pry off the old badges and stick on new ones. The exterior makeover includes new front and rear fascias and fenders, new grille and bonnet, new rear boot lid and exterior mirrors and new lights front and rear, with copious use of LEDs.
The interior revisions are just as comprehensive. There's an all-new instrument panel and steering wheel, upgraded seats, new leather and cloth seat materials, new heating and cooling outlets in the instrument panel and new ambient interior lighting.
Look at the mechanicals: In addition to the existing 2.4L four-cylinder - which has been recalibrated and is now available with an optional new six-speed transmission (although a four-speed is standard) - the 200 also comes with a strong 283hp 3.6L "Pentastar" V6 mated to a six-speed transmission. The car's suspension system has also been completely reworked.
So, with Chrysler busting its hump trying to make a silk purse out of sow's ear, how can I be so harsh about its efforts? Unfortunately, it comes down to this: While the 200 is a much better car than the Sebring ever was, the sum total of the transformation still results in a driving experience that leaves me wanting more.
Things initially look good when walking up to the topline 200 Limited and giving it the five-metre appraisal. Against the likes of the somnolent Ford Fusion, the 200 comes off as classy. Up against the edgier Hyundai Sonata and new Kia Optima, or even the older Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, the 200's overall softer, more organic shape will not allow it to age well.
Things are somewhat better under the bonnet. Though the 200 is not being marketed as a sports saloon, the 1,614kg Limited will go from zero-to-100kph in less than seven seconds. That's more than acceptable for a family four-door. And fuel efficiency is actually better than the old 3.5L, despite a fair increase in horses. I averaged 11.5L/100km during my test time. However, while the power delivery is smooth and the six-speed autobox reasonably crisp in its shifting, the engine suffers - under power, not when cruising - from the same sort of induction noise that afflicted Nissan's V6, what many have described as the "moaning moo". It's a low-level sound - one is more aware of it than actually hearing it, and it can be annoying. Fortunately, it can also be disguised by turning up the stereo.
As for ride and handling, it's a mixed bag. The steering geometry was completely re-engineered - the track is about 25mm wider, tyre width has been increased and the car has a lower, wider stance. The result is a smooth, compliant ride with good isolation on rougher, pothole-strewn roads, and there is less body roll when cornering than in the Sebring. That said, the steering is artificially heavy and positively wooden when it comes to providing a feel for the road. I found myself doing a lot of minute corrections with the steering wheel when the tarmac was less than arrow straight.
The cabin - at least the Limited version - showcases the transformation best of all. One can see the concerted effort to create an upscale ambience that exceeds the Limited's $27,995 price tag. There's a lot of black plastic, which is old school, but the new instrument panel, bezels, gauge face and steering wheel, plus the various shiny bits and analogue clock, wouldn't look out of place on a more expensive European saloon - albeit one from 1990. Headroom is good throughout, but legroom in the back is limited for a mid-sized saloon. The other compromise from the Sebring is boot capacity that, at 385L, is far from class-leading.
The 200 is not horrible. For someone looking for a mid-sized saloon, who does not place a premium on performance dynamics, or is more concerned about style over substance, it is perfectly acceptable. But, if taken as a brand-new model instead of just a comprehensive update of the Sebring, it is already lagging behind the competition, which is not what Chrysler wants or needs. My advice to the company is to treat the 200 to a complete redesign pronto.
The Chyrsler 200 is expected to arrive in the UAE by the end of this year or early 2012.