Chrysler's Crossfire: German Skill, U.S. Pizzazz

Chrysler's sporty Crossfire two-seater is about to hit the showrooms

Five years into the transatlantic merger that produced DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) the company is finally rolling out its first genuine German-American car. Chrysler's sporty Crossfire two-seater, which goes on sale July 4, aspires to blend Chrysler's flair with precise Mercedes-Benz engineering.

It's tough to live up to that billing, but the Crossfire does. Starting at $34,495, it's arguably the most attractive car in a competitive segment that includes the Audi TT and brawny Nissan (NSANY ) 350Z. From its long, sculpted hood to the elegant boat-tail rear, it's a lovely piece of design. When Chrysler's then-new German bosses saw the concept version in January, 2001, they insisted on producing it, although Chrysler was strapped for cash (as it is still). But Chrysler Group Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche needed a winner -- and fast -- to pep up the tired lineup. He wrangled a transmission, axles, and six-cylinder engine from sister brand Mercedes and commissioned German specialty carmaker Karmann Group to build the car in Osnabrueck, Germany.

The factory version of a new car often falls short of the original concept. But Karmann has skillfully mass-produced even tricky flourishes, such as the diagonal creases across the doors and side panels that reflect the name.

For all its aerodynamic glamour, the Crossfire is no road-scorching Lamborghini. With a maximum 215 horsepower, compared with the Chevrolet Corvette's 350 hp, it's more of a sporty coupe than a sports car. It offers a six-speed manual transmission for purists; there is also a $35,570 version with a five-speed automatic, featuring an autostick that lets you shift up or down without a clutch. Both handle capably.

Plush touches, such as the power-operated seats, mirrors, and door locks, and green-lit instrumentation create a snug cockpit with a premium feel. Chrysler's marketing people emphasize the silver-colored central console, with laser-etched symbols on the switches and buttons. What I liked best was the streamlined styling of the trunk: It doesn't have the bulky, silhouette-spoiling rear so prevalent these days. That reduces the trunk space, but Chrysler borrowed an idea from BMW's Mini brand and offers matching, precisely fitting luggage as standard equipment. With help from its German friends, Chrysler has rolled out a spiffy contender in the glam world of sporty cars.

By Christine Tierney

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