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Review

With 200, Chrysler takes fight to mid-size giants

HIDE CAPTION

When a formerly top-shelf athlete is demoted to the minor leagues, there are two options. One, fight like Hades to get back to the bigs. Two, acknowledge with grace and humility – or with tantrums and finger-wagging – that you’re slouching toward the twilight. Chrysler has wisely opted for option one.

The brand launched its fully redesigned 200 mid-size sedan at Louisville Slugger Field in the US state of Kentucky, home of the minor league affiliate to the Cincinnati Reds baseball club.

It would have been too bold of Chrysler to launch the 200 closer to the elite greens of the competition. The brand has much to prove before the 200 is deigned worthy of playing ball with perennial all-stars like the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Volkswagen Passat.

Let’s consider how the Chrysler 200 found itself playing in minor-league Louisville. During the 1990s, the Sebring sedan was sleek and competitive, and the convertible variant was a popular choice at the rental desk for vacationers in sunny climes. But under the fraught DaimlerChrysler marriage, the Sebring was cheapened to the point of tragicomedy, ultimately ending its run with the hideous and uncompetitive 2007-2010 model. This was no mere rental car; it was the rental car of last resort.

With the first rush of investment from new corporate parent Fiat Group, Chrysler applied Band-Aid fixes in 2011 that brought some missing amenities to that model (touch-screen navigation) and minimised its fundamental homeliness (LED eyebrows on the headlights). The Sebring name also was shed, in favour of 200 – a move calculated to capture some goodwill from the respected 300 sedan.

The 2015 200 is consequently the first real, top-to-bottom-new 200. Reflecting the full integration of Chrysler into Fiat Group, the 200 carries underpinnings shared with the spry Alfa Romeo Guilietta hatchback – a platform also used by the compact Dodge Dart sedan – but US-specification powertrain components are on duty for the 200.

With its coupe-like silhouette and LED lighting fore and aft, the sedan is handsome enough to turn heads, though with  downright sexy machines like the Ford Fusion on the road, that is no longer remarkable in a segment where the Camry used to preach (lucratively, we might add) the gospel of boring.

The 200 is available in both base four-cylinder and optional extra-strength V6 form. Both engines use the company’s new nine-speed automatic transmission, the same unit that acquits itself so well in the all-new Jeep Cherokee. As with that off-roader, the box works seamlessly, slipping among its multitude of ratios without calling undue attention to itself.

Engineers prevent any of the 200’s other components from raising a ruckus, too, lavishing the sedan with sound-abatement measures that recall the cabin ambiance of cars a class higher in price and prestige.

Unfortunately, while Chrysler expects the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine to achieve 35mpg on the EPA’s highway test, drivers will note a marked lack of oomph. Two-lane passing manoeuvers become exercises in optimism and daring. A more routine annoyance is an accelerator that is calibrated to snap the engine’s throttle wide open at the merest thought of pedal pressure. Smooth driving at parking-lot speeds are achieved only when pretending there’s an egg under the gas.

The 295-horsepower Pentastar 3.6-litre V6 solves these problems, as its class-leading power evaporates two-lane obstacles while treating occupants to a hushed but lovely note that makes it difficult to lift off the accelerator. Chrysler has continued to polish the sound character of its stalwart Pentastar V6, and here it approaches the fine symphonics of the Honda Accord’s industry-benchmarker V6. The Pentastar makes a driver long for a tight manual transmission – like Honda offers in the Accord coupe – but none is coming to the 200.

All-wheel drive is available for those who need the peace of mind, but an extra two drive wheels are hardly required to put down the V6’s power.

Nearly 300hp coursing through the steered wheels would typically ignite a dispute between the gas pedal and the front tires to decide the car’s trajectory. But the 200 suffers no such condition – known as torque steer – and it is nigh on impossible to discern that the engine is even powering the front, rather than the rear, wheels.

Unlike the four-cylinder-powered model, there are no gas-pedal shenanigans with the V6. Throttle response is linear and true, a straight fastball to the four-cylinder’s change-up. Of course, that power will exact patronage at the filling station. (Chrysler has yet to announce fuel-economy estimates for the V6-powered car.)

The V6 test car stickered for only $2,000 more than the similarly equipped four-cylinder model.  Both were fitted with leather interior, GPS navigation and 19in aluminium wheels, ringing in at $31,470 for the four and $33,420 for the six – reflecting a pricing strategy on par with those of class competitors.

Where does the money go? Places where you see it, most notably the fabulous linen-hued leather and open-pore wood interior trim. At least when it is factory-fresh – before suffering the indignities of crushed breakfast cereal and abrasions of youth sports equipment – the cabin is an opulent counterpoint to the stolid, rather bloodless environments favoured in the class.

But hauling people is a requirement for the 200’s position, so its occupants will appreciate the high-grade cabin. Presuming Chrysler can wean itself from heavy sales to rental fleets – as brand president and chief executive Al Gardner pledges to do – no holiday-car stigma should adhere to the 200.

So the 200 is back and swinging in the thick of the mid-size division, not quite a benchmarker but nowhere near a benchwarmer. It now falls to Chrysler to communicate its strengths – and for casual fans to re-learn this player’s name.

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