Chrysler finally has a mid-size contender

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Before Chrysler's new 200, the company's mid-size car was on its deathbed.

Last known as the Sebring, the third generation of this vehicle was roundly considered a mess. It was produced without compunction by Chrysler when the company was owned by DaimlerChrysler and later, private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.

The Sebring was ugly, stark, poor-performing and noisy. The only excuse for having one in your driveway was you had robbed a Hertz rental agency or had a good day as a contestant on "The Price Is Right."

And yet, from deep within the recesses of Auburn Hills, Mich., comes a step in the right direction. After a quickie bankruptcy restructuring in 2009 and a large stake acquired by Italian automaker Fiat shortly thereafter, Chrysler isn't giving up on the mid-size market.

That is evident in the Chrysler 200, a thoroughly reworked update of the errant Sebring. It finally gives the company a viable, albeit still compromised competitor for the segment until Chrysler brings out a completely new 200 in 2013.

Trading on the name equity that Chrysler built with its popular 300 full-size sedan, the front-wheel drive 200 competes against such cars as the volume sellers Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. It's available as a sedan, or as a hardtop or soft-top convertible.

The most noticeable changes are the 200's new front and rear end. Whereas the previous styling was a mess of curves hitting edges, the refreshed look is simpler and cleaner.

Yes, it's generic and vanilla, but standard touches of chrome, the LED taillights and LED strips in the headlights give the 200 a dash of class. Consider it French vanilla.

Unfortunately, Chrysler's limited production timeline forced it to keep the Sebring's awkwardly upright profile and short trunk lid for the 200. At the right angle, the tall roofline makes the car's greenhouse look like Gen. Patton's helmet, though the upside to this shape is an abundance of headroom inside the car.

Other highlights to the interior include wonderfully comfortable and supportive seats and great noise isolation from the road. The 200's cabin has a greater attention to detail, with better materials and a higher level of fit and finish than the Sebring.

Unfortunately, better doesn't mean great -- and this is a general theme of the 200. There's a fine line between simplistic and intuitive for a car's dashboard, and the 200 falls toward the former. Even worse, the antiquated blinker stalk and the gear shift knob feel as if they're on loan from George Costanza's old Chrysler LeBaron.

Not helping matters is the transmission that the shift knob is connected to. It's a new six-speed unit with a manual mode and comes standard on the mid-level 200 Touring and top-end 200 Limited.

The transmission's biggest downside occurs during steady acceleration. The transmission had a tendency to let the engine's power lag for a moment after each upshift, causing passengers to bob back and forth slightly each time. This hesitation became tedious over time.

Also annoying was the tranny's overreaching enthusiasm for fuel efficiency. Upshifts came very early, as the car hurtled to the highest gear possible. Finding yourself in fifth gear at 25 mph on the freeway isn't uncommon in this vehicle.

However, this shift strategy is effective at cutting fuel consumption. My tester had the optional Pentastar V-6 engine that puts out a hearty 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. After driving the car more than 600 miles, I averaged a decent 21 miles per gallon. The official EPA estimates peg the car at 19 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Power from the Penta- star engine is smooth and linear. It has an assertive but refined voice to it, and its only major flaw is some torque-steer evident during hard acceleration.

If the V-6's power or $1,795 price premium are too much for you, there's the 200's standard four-cylinder unit. It's the same 2.4-liter engine that was in the Sebring, and horsepower is clocked at 173 and torque comes in at 166 pound-feet. The EPA rates it at 20 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Regardless of which engine you choose, the ride quality of the 200 is also much improved from the Sebring. Chrysler made a point of updating the suspension and steering, and it shows. Although the car still errs slightly toward the soft and torpid side of handling, it's comfortably proficient in nearly every driving situation.

Perhaps the best thing this Chrysler has going for it is its overall value. The fully-loaded 200 Limited I tested goes for $27,160 and includes a remote start, leather seats that are heated in the front, a touch-screen stereo system with a 30-gigabyte hard drive, the optional V-6 and a $400 optional in-dash Garmin navigation system. The only option the car lacked was the $900 sunroof.

A similarly equipped Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or even Ford Fusion would run at least $4,000 more. Yes, those cars are undeniably better and more sophisticated, but for 4,000 clams, they had better be.

The other 200s available are the mid-level Touring model and the base LX. Skip the LX if you can; it comes with an ancient four-speed transmission and really only exists for rental-car fleets.

All 200 sedans were a 2011 top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and feature anti-lock brakes, front- and side-curtain air bags and traction and stability control as standard features.

And let's not forget the convertible version, the best looking of the 200s since it lacks the sedan's goofy roofline. The convertible starts at $27,195 for the four-cylinder Touring and goes up to $33,655 for the loaded V-6 Limited. A power-folding hardtop is a $1,995 option on either.

Chrysler and its stakeholder Fiat deserve a trunk-load of credit for turning the slag-heap that was the Sebring into the undeniably competent 200 in a short period of time. This car can now compete in its segment and will appeal best to those looking for budget luxury.

Yet there's a big difference between a much-improved car and a great car; unfortunately the 200 still remains at the lower end of the mid-size segment.

See you in 2013, Chrysler.

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