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2011 Chrysler 300 (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Chrysler 300 (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

2011 Chrysler 300 and Chrysler 200

Chrysler 300: Iconic look softened around the edges Add to ...

Chrysler is back with a vengeance. Over the past 12 months the company has replaced its lineup with 16 all-new or improved vehicles. At the forefront of the brand's resurgence is its halo sedan - the 2011 Chrysler 300.

When the Chrysler 300 hit the streets in 2004 as a 2005 model, it ruled the road.

"When the first-generation 300 came out it was the most award-winning car ever. The team took it very seriously when we were to work on the second generation of that car. How can you make it even better than it was?" says Chris Barman, vehicle line executive for the 300.

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Executives turned to customers for the answer. More than 4,100 people weighed in with feedback on the 300's strengths and weaknesses. The top reason for rejecting the 300 after driving it was the "visibility. We took that seriously and improved the visibility by 15 per cent in the new model through laying back the windshield, moving the header up three inches, and thinning out the pillars," Barman says.

Designers succeeded - the all-around visibility has improved significantly. And when riding in the back seat, it feels airier and less claustrophobic, too.

The profile of the 300, built in Brampton, Ont., retains its iconic look, but softer, more elegant lines replace its sharp edges. But the new grille leaves a lot to be desired - it has morphed into a boring run-of-the-mill design that's spread across the entire Chrysler lineup; even the Town & Country minivan has the same face. I understand the premise, but the grille is too tame for the 300. Bring back the old grille - it's distinctive, macho and instantly recognizable on the road.

Inside, it's more upscale with premium high-quality materials and innovative technology such as a large 8.4-inch touch screen, a park-assist system with cross and blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control and a panoramic sunroof.

For 2011, the 300 also gets a power boost thanks to an all-new 3.6-litre V-6 engine, which delivers 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Despite the 42 extra ponies, the fuel economy has improved, too, by 11 per cent. Thrill seekers will prefer the 5.7-litre Hemi V-8 engine - 363 horsepower and 394 lb-ft - that can do 0-100 km/h in less than six seconds. Mated to both engines is a five-speed automatic transmission - next year, it will be replaced by an eight-speed automatic next year. Both engines are powerful and refined.

And even though it's a large, heavy vehicle, the 300 handled the curvy roads beautifully and felt firmly planted to the ground. The Hemi has a lot of juice for accelerating and merging onto the highway. A multi-displacement system also shuts off half the cylinders for better fuel economy.

Available in four models, the base 300 Touring starts at $32,995. It has more than $3,600 worth of added features compared to the outgoing 2010 model. It offers keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, a 12-way power driver's seat with four-way power lumbar adjustment and a tilt-telescoping steering column. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags, a driver knee airbag, electronic stability control and traction control; the 300 was named a 2011 Top Safety Pick designation by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The most expensive trim is the 300C AWD; it costs $41,995 and adds 19-inch cast aluminum wheels, all-wheel drive, adaptive bi-xenon HID headlamps and rain-sensitive windshield wipers.

2011 Chrysler 300

Type: Five-passenger, full-size, four-door sedan

Price range: $32,995-$41,995

Engine: 3.6-litre, DOHC, V-6/5.7-litre Hemi V-8

Horsepower/torque: 292 hp/260 lb-ft for V-6; 363 hp/394 lb-ft for V-8

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel or all-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.7 city/7.3 highway for V-6 RWD; 13.5 city/8.0 highway for V-8 RWD; 14.4 city/8.5 highway for V-8 AWD

Alternatives: Cadillac CTS, Acura TL, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Genesis, Nissan Maxima, Lincoln MKS

2011 Chrysler 200

200 convertible

Another big change in the Chrysler lineup is the 200, formerly called the Sebring. But make no mistake this isn't just a name change - it gets significant upgrades to the exterior, interior, and engine. The 200 sedan came out a few months ago and now it drops its top.

Stylistically, the 2011 Chrysler 200 convertible is rather conservative and somewhat dull in its design. The inside, however, is a marked improvement over its predecessor; it's no longer littered with plastic materials and doesn't feel cheap in the cabin.

You can choose between a retractable hard top and a cloth soft top. There are no clasps or latches to fiddle with when opening and closing the roof. Just push one button and it lowers in less than 30 seconds. The wind blocker is amazing, too - it does an excellent job when travelling topless at high speeds. But it eats up space sitting across the two rear seats so you won't be able to have back-seat passengers when using it.

Powering the base LX model is a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine with 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque mated to a four-speed automatic; a six speed automatic is available. On the road it's no speed demon, but it's a pleasant cruising machine. It feels big and heavy to drive and at times to park. The ride and handling has improved; it's tighter, but still a little too soft for my tastes.

The 200 convertible is one of the cheapest on the market. The LX starts at $29,995 and includes air conditioning, power windows, locks and heated mirrors, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 17-inch aluminum wheels. The top Limited trim costs $38,495 and adds leather-faced seats, a 6.5-inch touch screen, which can be hard to read in the bright light, and a more powerful 3.6-litre V-6 engine with 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler's rebirth is a necessity, but it's still too early to predict if its 300 and 200 convertible are a hit with Canadian consumers.

2011 Chrysler 200 Convertible

Type: Two-door, four-passenger convertible

Price range: $29,995-$38,495

Engine: 2.4-litre inline-four/3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 173/166 lb-ft for I4; 283 hp/260 lb-ft for V-6

Transmission: Four-speed automatic/six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.3 city/6.9 highway for I4 with four-speed; 11.5 city/6.8 highway for I4 with six-speed; 11 city/6.8 highway for V-6 with six-speed

Alternatives: Volkswagen Eos, Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Chevrolet Camaro, Volvo C70

pgentile@globeandmail.com

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