Chrysler’s $38,000 Booming Highway Hauler Recalls Swagger Era

2011 Chrysler 300
The 2011 Chrysler 300. Suggested retail starts at $38,170 for the V-8, and $27,170 for the V-6. Photographer: AJ Mueller/Chrysler Group LLC via Bloomberg

Do you miss the era when full-size cars like the Chrysler New Yorker and Cadillac Eldorado shouldered down Route 66? That was a time when supplies of heavy steel and even heavier leaded gasoline seemed limitless.

The type of sedan that easily accommodates three across on bench seats has largely gone the way of cheap gas, but the yen for a highway hauler remains. Which may explain the success of the first-generation Chrysler 300, a no-apology example of old-school American swagger.

This year brings the second-generation 300, a car that almost wasn’t. Fiat SpA helped pull Chrysler from the brink, but the question remains: Does the 300 have its groove back?

A number of the Chrysler Group’s autos have undergone desperately needed updates, including the generally reviled Sebring -- now the 200 -- and the Town & Country minivan.

The latest 300 is more a car for 1951 than 2011, but that’s why I like it. Much of its DNA is derived from the decades when drivers considered a jaunt down the highway a thrill.

(Suggested retail starts at $38,170 for the V-8 and $27,170 for the V-6. A high-performance SRT8 model will follow).

Big Cruiser

Booming along in my silver, V-8, Hemi engine-equipped 300C -- 363 horsepower-worth -- I rather wished I had a fedora to tip to the women as I whooshed by.

(A note on the 300’s Americanness: My test car’s final assembly was in Ontario, Canada, and the engine’s origin was Mexico. And of course Fiat is Italian.)

The original 300 was so big and blocky it seemed like its designers had begun whittling away at the clay model only to go on a break and, upon returning, decide they were finished.

This version is more subtle, mostly because the oversized grill has wisely been reigned in. Still, it’s a big cruiser of a car.

The obvious upside is loads of room. The cabin is expansive, though the rear headroom in my test car was impacted by the panoramic sun roof, a $1,295 option. The trunk is cavernous, too.

Big Wheel

The interior, a black mark on the previous model, is demonstrably better. Nicer to the eye and the finger pads. Most of the updating can be found inside, including snazzier gauges and better craftsmanship. The steering wheel is mega-sized, with the top half in wood, a nod to big cars of yore.

I realize we live in an XXL world, but the too-wide driver’s seat left me sluicing between the bolsters. And some parts are still dull and disposable-feeling.

The new Chrysler navigation system is dead easy to use, though it won’t allow you to program in new destinations on the go. It’s simple to connect your cell phone to Bluetooth, change the temperature or radio stations. The font size on the touchscreen is big and easy to read.

The 300C’s home is the wide open road. The wider and more open the better. The 300C does not care for turns, or, particularly, for stopping. The brakes feel anemic compared with the rolling mass of this thing. They are not linear enough, which can result in jerky stops in stop-and-go traffic.

Rolling Hills

At one point I found myself on tight, rolling hills, many off camber. Every time a curve tightened, so did my throat. Once the 300 sets on a driving line, it sticks to it, the steering wheel be damned.

Yet I also took on the most pitted patch of asphalt in all of Pennsylvania, a road that would have knocked me senseless in a tightly-sprung sports car. The 300 rolled over it completely unperturbed. This suspension can take a beating.

That’s because it is supposed to be on the freeway anyhow, where it just cruises and cruises. It’s quiet, with no tire noise, despite the large quantity of air that blocky nose is forcing out of the way.

Dip the gas pedal and the engine gives off a nice sound of American metal. Not quick, exactly, but purposeful. Just remember that you have all that car behind the driver’s seat if you like weaving in and out of traffic.

Changing Gears

The Hemi may be the engine of choice for some, but the 3.6-liter V-6 gets a not-exactly-shabby 292 horsepower. And an excellent sign that Chrysler is on the right track: The 2012 V-6 model will get an eight-speed transmission. Impressive, since the current models only have five. The transmission on the Hemi will be unchanged.

The eighth gear will kick in during highway cruising, the 300’s sweet spot, winning an extra four more miles per gallon over the 2011 model, for 31 mpg.

A little less gas hoovering, a lot of space and a love of the open road. It’s a highway hauler for today.

The 2011 Chrysler 300C at a Glance

Engine: 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi with 363 horsepower and 394

pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city; 25 highway.

Price as tested: $44,730.

Best features: Spacious interior and relative comfort.

Worst feature: Lack of finesse on tight roads.

Target buyer: Highway haulers.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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