Chrysler's Deutsch Treat

Its bold design is all-American, but this zippy new roadster boasts plenty of Mercedes-Benz power beneath the hood

The Chrysler Crossfire Roadster, a nimble, radically styled two-seater convertible, is one of a raft of daring new models to come out of Detroit. Of course, it isn't really an American car: Chrysler is now part of Germany's DaimlerChrysler (DCX), and the Crossfire's made-in-Germany mechanical guts come from Mercedes-Benz. But, hey, melding German engineering with American styling was one of the original rationales for the 1998 merger -- and in the Crossfire, it has led to a nifty set of wheels.

The Crossfire's styling is a little garish for my taste -- but it's as American as a Harley hog and low-rider jeans. For starters, the car has 19-inch spoked wheels in the back and 18-inchers in the front, so from the side it looks like a sprinter crouching for the starter's gun. The hunched rear end has something in common with the powerful speedboats that drug dealers and narcotics agents tool around in. The sides are creased and sculpted, with visible air intakes behind the front wheels.


  Up front, there's a retro-style grill with Chrysler's distinctive winged logo prominently displayed. My least favorite feature is the hood, which has six fussy creases running its length.

The Crossfire's dual-cockpit interior is just as distinctive. It's bisected by a center console in a metallic satin silver, and there are satin silver highlights throughout. The contrast with the black upholstery of my test car was striking.

Adding to the race-car feel, the gauges are white-on-black and the ignition switch sits on the dash, rather than on the steering column. And the design and positioning of the fighter-plane-style seats encourages you to keep the seatbacks tilted way back. This is probably because, though leg, shoulder, and hip room are adequate, head room is cramped, even by sports-car standards.


  Unfortunately, the Crossfire's pricing is more German than American. For the 2006 model year, the basic hardtop Coupe starts at just over $30,000, while the basic convertible Roadster starts at $35,110. The catch is that the base models only comes in black (though you can get the Roadster in "inferno red" for an extra $310), with slate grey cloth upholstery. If you want a wider choice of exterior colors, you have move up to the "Limited" version of the car, which goes for $39,470 -- for which you get seven color options, leather upholstery, an optional automatic transmission (add $1,070 for that), more interior colors, and extras such as cruise control and heated seats.

If you really want hog-wild performance, you can pay just over 50 grand for the Crossfire SRT, which has a supercharged 3.2-liter, 330-horsepower engine. The engine generates 330 lb. ft. of torque, which, as Motor Trend magazine notes, means it "cranks out the same amount of grunt as a late 1980s 5.0 liter Mustang." But to me, the higher cost and the fact that SRT only comes with an automatic transmission make the basic versions of the car more attractive.

Every version of the Crossfire comes loaded with German engineering. All-speed traction control is standard, as is an electronic stability-control system that automatically intervenes during extreme driving maneuvers, controlling the throttle and applying the brakes to prevent an unplanned encounter with a tree trunk. All versions of the car also come with a cool rear spoiler that rises automatically as the car tops 60mph. Of course, you don't really need a rear spoiler unless you regularly exceed the speed limit by wide margins, but it's fun to watch in the rearview mirror.


  The standard engine -- a 3.2 liter, 215 horsepower V-6 -- seems a little small until you get behind the wheel. It's geared to American tastes, so it generates a hefty 229 lb. ft. of torque -- which is a fancy way of saying the basic Crossfire accelerates fast even though its engine is smaller than the SRT's. Steering, braking, and shifting isn't as crisp as it is in, say, a Porsche or BMW, unless you pay up for the SRT, which has enhanced brakes and suspension. But the basic Crossfire is plenty sporty for most weekend drivers.

Fuel economy is pretty good, though it uses pricey premium gasoline. With an automatic transmission, the car is rated to get 28 miles-per-gallon on the highway and 21 mpg in the city. One reason it does so well is that it's only 159.8 inches long, 69.5 inches wide and weighs just under 3200 lbs-almost exactly the same size as the Audi TT.

Of course, the Crossfire isn't a wildly practical set of wheels. Trunk space is limited in convertible mode because the top folds down into the front area of the trunk, but there's room enough for soft-sided long-weekend bags. There's also a lot of wind turbulence in the passenger compartment with the top down at highway speed, even with the side windows up.


  The Crossfire's automatic convertible top is a little clunky. You have to unlatch and push it partway back by hand, then get out, open the trunk and put up a little barrier that walls off the front part of the trunk. It's also slow: It takes about 22 seconds to completely fold down. With a little practice, you can lower the Miata's manual rag top and be off and driving in less time than that.

Chrysler notes that the Crossfire outsells competing models such as the BMW Z-40 and the Audi TT. But it's a niche model that won't appeal to everyone. Through the end of September of this year, the company sold 11,503 Crossfires, up just 2% vs. 2004 -- despite a $2,500 cashback deal on the '05 model that ended on Oct. 31.

I suspect a lot of potential buyers look at the Crossfire's sticker and think: Boy, that's a lot of money for a Chrysler. Judging by Internet chatter among car shoppers, though, dealers are willing to bargain on price -- so check it out if you like the styling. And keep in mind that, mechanically speaking, it's a Mercedes, not a Chrysler.

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