Stephen King’s novel, Hearts In Atlantis, the bad guys drive around in what King calls “low cars,” scaring the daylights out of everyone and creating a sense of menace that pervades the book from beginning to end. When I read the book a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but think of the Chrysler 300.
It is definitely a low car and looks like it left the factory chopped and channelled (this is when customizers lower the roof and remove a section of the body, length-wise). If nothing else, it is unique, and rappers and gangstas seem to love it. Interestingly, the sound system was designed with input from rapper Dr. Dre.
It’s also one of the easiest cars on the road to get in and out of, which may be its biggest virtue. Because of the unusual body style, you actually step down to get into the 300 and it has very comfy front seats.
It also comes in a surprisingly wide range of models – 10 in all, including all-wheel-drive versions and a ground-shaking Hemi-powered SRT8 that belts out 470 horsepower.
My tester, a lower-level S with rear-wheel-drive, is propelled by Chrysler’s ubiquitous Pentastar V-6, which in this case develops 292 horsepower and is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, new for 2012. This gearbox is also unique in this segment of the market, and no one else offers one. That said, I question the need to have eight speeds, because rival models – Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala – with their paltry six-speed automatics, have slightly lower but nonetheless competitive fuel economy, especially on the highway, where presumably the taller gear ratios of the eight-speed would come into play. However, Chrysler also offers a five-speed automatic with some models, so it’s not like you have to get the eight-speed.
Whatever; there it is and it doesn’t affect the driveability of the 300. In town, performance is adequate and on the highway there is enough reserve power to keep things moving. The V-6 version of the 300 can’t be classed as a high-performance sedan, but it’s got enough pep for most drivers. Were I to choose the all-wheel-drive version of this car, I’d have to think seriously about getting a V-8, however (363 hp versus 292 hp, hmmmm).
Inside, the 300S has a comparatively high level of equipment. For example, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters (excellent feature), heated front seats, tilt/telescoping steering, illuminated cup-holders, dual-zone climate control and Dr. Dre’s sound system are all standard. There are also at least seven airbags, which helped the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) name the 300 as one of its top safety picks for 2012.
When you drive the 300 – whatever model you choose – you definitely feel like you’re behind the wheel of a big car. Proportionately, it’s in the same ballpark as, oh, the Impala and Avalon – it’s a couple of hundred kilograms heavier, with a longer wheelbase and shorter overall length, but it features a much larger trunk than the Avalon, and is blessed with all kinds of interior elbow room. Not the easiest vehicle in the world to back up, though, with a massive blind spot behind you. Parallel parking this one is a challenge.
And I can’t get my head around the way it looks. This is an odd duck, with random styling cues and an overall presence that copies no one. So many manufacturers are keeping tabs on each other and some models are so similar, it’s hard to tell them apart. That is definitely not the case here; the 300 stands out in a crowd and can’t be confused with anything else.
But that doesn’t make it pretty. The Avalon, for example, is a nicer-looking automobile, if a little on the bland side. Ditto with the Impala, which is probably the 300’s closest competitor. Taste is a personal thing, but the 300’s oddball styling might be the deal-breaker for me.
That, and Chrysler’s sketchy dependability performance. The votes are still coming in for the 2012 models and they’re getting better, but the 300 up until this point has had an irregular reliability record. Particularly in the area of transmission issues; Consumer Reports gives the 2012 version of the 300 an overall score of 82 out of 100. To put this in perspective, 73 is the lowest and 92 the highest. Fuel economy – or the lack of it – has also been a problem, especially with the V-8 models, but the new eight-speed may address that issue.
Tech specs: 2012 Chrysler 300C RWD
Type: Five-passenger, full-size sedan
Base Price: $35,995; as tested, $44,490
Engine: 3.6-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 292 hp/260 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/6.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Impala, Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKS, Buick Lacrosse, Dodge Charger, Hyundai Genesis