Chrysler is hitting the reset button on its all-important family sedan, the 200, as part of an overhaul of the entire product lineup.
The next 200 will make its debut Monday at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit with an overdue redesign aiming to compete against stalwart sedans such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
It will replace an outdated and outmatched version of the 200 that was tainted with the vestiges of Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy and associated cost-cutting.
"This is as important — if not more important than anything else we've done," Al Gardner, president and chief executive of Chrysler, said in an interview before the show. "This is a relaunch, if you will, of the entire Chrysler brand, and we want to do that through products, not marketing."
The front-wheel-drive 200 will be built in a Michigan plant that Chrysler recently spent more than $1 billion refurbishing, according to the automaker. This included a new paint shop, a fully robotic body shop and upgraded assembly area.
The Chrysler Group will discontinue the Dodge Avenger at the end of 2014, making the 200 the group's only family sedan.
When the new 200 goes on sale in the middle of 2014, it will start at $21,700, excluding destination fees.
The interior and exterior have been thoroughly overhauled. Two new engines, a four- and six-cylinder, should give the 200 lineup more range to compete with a variety of peers. Both engines come paired with a new nine-speed automatic transmission.
With more than 3.6 million mid-size cars sold in the U.S. in 2013, the importance of having a competitive player in the segment can't be overstated.
"This is the largest segment in the marketplace today. If you want to be viable in the segment, you want to be visible in a very big way," Gardner said. "The previous 200 was competitive, but it never got to the point where the product was going to go head to head with real big guns."
Although 2013 sales of the outgoing 200 weren't bad at 122,480, Honda sold 366,678 Accords and Toyota sold 408,484 Camrys in the same year, underscoring the importance of the segment.
The 200 had essentially been around since 2007, when it was called the Sebring, a much-derided and poorly executed car. That Sebring fell victim to rampant cost-cutting by Chrysler's then-owner Cerberus, a private equity firm.
Fiat took control of Chrysler in 2009, after its bankruptcy, and the Italian automaker gave the car a visual refresh in 2011. It renamed it the 200, as it slots below the full-size Chrysler 300 sedan.
In the years since that Sebring launched, the mid-size segment has evolved mightily.
"Everybody has elevated their game," said Mike Wall, an analyst at IHS Automotive. "The mid-size sedan segment is probably the most competitive segment in the industry."
Nowhere have the improvements been more conspicuous — or important to consumers — than with fuel economy. Nearly every mainstream brand (Honda, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Chevrolet) offers not only a fuel-efficient gas model, but also a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or diesel option.
Chrysler hasn't released details on the potential for green versions of the new 200. Yet the base four-cylinder engine will hit 35 mpg in highway driving, a number crucial to be competitive in the segment.
"The point of entry is that mid 35-mpg range," Wall said. "Once you get beyond that, it's about how you differentiate yourself with other aspects of the vehicle."
Chrysler hopes the 200 will do just that with a new nine-speed automatic transmission, an optional all-wheel-drive system, and a restyled interior and exterior.
The new transmission is similar to the one in the 200's corporate cousin, the Jeep Cherokee. Controlled by a rotary knob on the center console, this nine-speed gearbox will be paired with one of two engines.
The base model is a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder that makes 184 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque. Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine will be optional. In the 200, it will make 295 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque.
The most conspicuous change to the 200 is its design. Inside and out, Chrysler put considerable time and money into modernizing the car, which is built on the same platform as the smaller Dodge Dart and the Jeep Cherokee crossover. All three are based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, an arrangement made possible by Fiat's ownership of all the brands.
The 200's exterior is about the same size as its predecessor, though sleeker and more aerodynamic. The profile of the car follows the recent coupe-inspired trend of a gently sloping roof at the back, with a short trunk lid. The headlights and taillights flow around the corners of the car.
Inside, the 200's evolution continues. The center console is raised and meets the middle of the dashboard higher than in many cars today (though Audi and Porsche have recently adopted this layout too). This puts controls for the climate and stereo, as well as the transmission's rotary knob, at fingers length from the driver and passenger.
An 8.4-inch touch screen in the dashboard will be optional. Below the raised console is a pass-through storage area for small bags or purses. The interior and trunk are also marginally larger than in the previous 200.
The base Chrysler 200 LX will start at $21,700, followed by Limited, 200S and 200C models. Options include the V-6 engine, an all-wheel-drive system that disconnects the rear axle when not needed, a panoramic roof, navigation system, Nappa leather seats, adaptive cruise control, automatic parking and a collision-mitigation system.
Whether this will be enough to challenge the industry's fiercest competitors remains to be seen, but the 200 has several factors working in its favor. The new model will probably have better resale value, enabling Chrysler to offer competitive lease deals now.
Additionally, many of the segment's leaders have already come out with the next generation of their cars, including Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Mazda. With Chrysler's 200 the latest to join the party, it has a competitive advantage in its freshness.
California will be crucial to the 200's success. Buyers in the state traditionally favor imports more than other parts of the country. Chrysler is keenly aware of that marketing challenge.
"We have to launch this car right, and California is a huge piece of this," Gardner said. "We look to be extremely successful out in the West Coast, and the way that happens is with the right message."
"That it will absolutely go head to head with its peers," Gardner said. "This is three years in the making. Monday is going to be a big day for us."