With the introduction this spring of the 1999 Chrysler LHS and 300M, America's No.3 U.S. auto maker is seeking to reclaim the status it gained from past luxury models such as the Imperial, New Yorker, and Fifth Avenue. This time, however, Chrysler is aiming for the entry-level, luxury-car buyer who might be tempted by the pricier Audi A6 or Lexus ES300.
The LHS and 300M "are significant to changing the image of Chrysler," says Chairman Robert Eaton, who hopes to sell 60,000 of the cars annually. The proof is in the driving, and the LHS and 300M are more than capable of holding their own. The $28,995 LHS and the $28,895 300M are built on the same platform as the middle-of-the-road Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid sedans. Like their cousins, the LHS and 300M boast cavernous trunks and loads of space in the front and rear seats. But unlike their relatives, the 300M and LHS are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that kicks out a satisfying 253 horsepower. Fuel economy is 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway.
The models' overall impression is comfortable and classy, although less refined than the competition. Both come with leather upholstery, power seats, white gauges trimmed in chrome, and a small analog clock in the center of the dash. Chrysler's imitation wood trim is an improvement over past models but still is a bit tacky for a luxury car. The exteriors, however, are striking. The LHS's tapered body is accented by sculpted headlamps and a dramatic, oversized grill. It's also about 11 inches longer than the 300M and aims for a clientele interested in elegance. The 300M is sportier. As befitting the successor to the letter-series, muscle-car nameplates of the '50s and '60s, the 300M also is more brawny, particularly in its chunky, squared-off rear.
NICE TOUCH. The comparison--elegance vs. sportiness--is evident in the way the cars ride. The LHS suspension is tuned for a soft ride, while the 300M's is stiffer. The LHS comes with a four-speed automatic transmission, but the 300M's "autostick" lets you opt for manual, clutchless shifting by flicking the gearshift lever. Both cars steer fairly tightly, and their ride is quieter than any other car or truck that Chrysler makes--and on a par with the Audi and Lexus models. Four-wheel antilock disk brakes are standard, as are dual front air bags.
Also included as standard gear are air-conditioning, heated power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with CD and cassette players, and power door locks that engage when you start moving. One nice touch: On both cars, the driver's seat slides back two inches when you remove the key from the ignition, giving you extra legroom to climb out.
Options are few. The LHS has a power sunroof for $795, chrome wheels for $600, and an upgraded stereo for $215. The 300M offers a $255 "handling" package--technical upgrades that provide tighter control--which is well worth the extra cost. Some luxury-car aficionados may quibble that the LHS and 300M fall short because they aren't rear-wheel-drive and powered by V8s. They make up for that with stylish looks and fine road manners. Besides, when Chrysler merges with Daimler Benz later this year, the new company will be offering its line of rear-drive Mercedes-Benz sedans. If Chrysler wants to go after drivers making the move up to cushier vehicles, this is a nice start.