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More refined Chrysler 300 is still a knockout

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Five years ago, Chrysler's then-new 300 sedan walked into the ring and delivered a knockout blow to the rest of the full-size car market. Like any boxer with a chip on his shoulder, this nascent Chrysler carried itself with an air of brash cockiness that consumers flocked to in droves and critics lauded for its design.

Now, Chrysler's rear-wheel-drive prizefighter is returning for 2011. This time around, however, the 300 has the tempered maturity of a champion that is less interested in establishing a name than maintaining one.

Fortunately, it still throws a mean uppercut to a segment that includes the Toyota Avalon, Buick Lucerne, Hyundai Genesis and Ford Taurus.

The most obvious manifestation of the 300's cultivation is its more refined look. Gone is the chunky, retro-infused design, and in its place is cleaner, more sophisticated sheet metal. The front of this Chrysler gets the most thorough makeover, with a nose that is less blunt than before, standard daytime-running LED headlights and a sleek chrome grille.

With a lower beltline and thinner roof supports, the 2011 model has more glass for better outward visibility and more conventional proportions than its squat predecessor.

The profile of the car remains the same, with a long hood and short front overhang countered by a short trunk lid.

Underneath that hood sits one of two excellent engines. The base 300 and 300 Limited that I tested get the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that makes 292 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

Although this engine is used across Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep's portfolio, the 300 is my favorite application of it yet. The power and torque are well suited for a car this size; the crisp, steady acceleration never leaves the driver with pangs of V-8 envy or the feeling that choosing the smaller engine entailed a compromise.

On the road, the 300 handles with confident civility. Despite being a big sedan it doesn't weave and lean like one in corners, and the suspension is generally compliant. Wind noise is appreciably nonexistent, even at freeway speeds.

Drivers looking to maximize comfort should skip the optional 20-inch wheels my tester had; they kick out a bit of road noise and harsh the 300's mellow ride characteristics. The extra-thick steering wheel also tends to diminish the driver's feel for the road.

Buyers still under the spell of a V-8 can opt for the 300C with a more powerful engine. Coming in at $7,000 more than the 300 Limited, the 300C features a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8, pumping to the rear wheels a healthy 363 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque. An all-wheel-drive version of the 300C is $2,150 more.

All the 300s get a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting. This aging gearbox is the weak link in an otherwise arresting driving experience. Its recalcitrance toward downshifting often gets in the engine's way, and knocking it into manual mode yields no improvement in shift times.

The transmission also impedes what could otherwise be a relatively efficient engine. Although 300s with the V-6 are rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, I averaged 18 mpg during 200 miles of city and freeway driving.

If a 300 is on your shopping list, consider waiting until next year. An all-new eight-speed automatic transmission will be an option on V-6 models for 2012 and probably will bring to the 300 improved gas mileage and less onerous shifting habits.

Other variants of the 300 are headed to dealerships next year as well. These include the barn-burning 300 SRT8 with a 6.4-liter HEMI V-8, making an estimated 465 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque; a 300S performance package on V-6 and V-8 models; and the 300C Executive Series that will feature more luxurious amenities and trim.

But even the base 300 was well equipped for its asking price.

The 300 starts at $27,995 and includes alloy wheels, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control, traction control, side-curtain airbags and the 8.4-inch Uconnect touch-screen system that's standard on all 300s.

This system controls the stereo and the heating and cooling, though redundant buttons for some of the features sit below the screen as well. It's intuitive, if a bit of overkill, for such straightforward functions.

Overall the dashboard layout and quality are good for a car of this stature, though it doesn't measure up to the near-Lexus quality of the Toyota Avalon, or even that of Hyundai's Genesis.

There was one glaring, stupefying oversight: A navigation system wasn't included. Not on the option-free base 300, and not on the $40,980 "fully loaded" 300 Limited I tested.

And not with that Bunyanesque screen sitting in the middle of the dashboard. This oversight made me want to bang my head against the acoustic windshield.

The only thing worse than not including a navigation system on a $41,000 car purporting to be luxurious is offering one that's as goofy and cartoonish as the Garmin system that's an additional $795. One half expects Dora the Explorer to pop up on the primary-color-saturated screen and tell you to take the next freeway exit, por favor. At least it's easy to use.

But the options on my tester did include adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled leather seats, a 506-watt stereo system, blind-spot monitoring and a panoramic sunroof.

The rest of the cabin received the same thorough reworking as the exterior. The seats are as comfortable as those I extolled in the Chrysler 200. The surfaces are soft to the touch and the rear passengers have more than enough leg and headroom to ride comfortably.

So while the 2011 Chrysler 300 doesn't have the braggadocio of its predecessor, frankly it's better off without it. In its place is a more refined, more able-bodied competitor for the full-size segment it already has on the ropes.

We'll call this a win by TKO.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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