Posted: March 14, 2014

Executive wheels: Chrysler goes “clunk”

A big – very big -- disappointment

Jeff Rundles

2014 CHRYSLER 300C AWD

Chrysler has certainly had its ups and downs over the last two decades, what with bankruptcy, ownership and then rejection by Mercedes, and ultimately ownership by Fiat.

Except for its long-running and popular minivans – the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan – and its venerable Dodge Ram trucks, most of the models in its line were pretty stale throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s. Then, in 2004 with the all-new 2005 300 sedan, Chrysler suddenly seemed hot again. Sales for the first few years of the 300 were spectacular, topping well over 100,000 units annually.

Then, the Great Recession hit, and Chrysler, along with all automakers but especially the American brands, took a nose dive. Chrysler 300 sales in the 2008-2011 time frame dipped as low as the mid-30,000 units annually. The rebound, such as it was, began with the famous “Imported From Detroit” advertising campaign launched at the 2011 Super Bowl, brought sales back for the 2012 model year for the 300 to just over 70,000, and then they dipped again in 2013 to around 58,000.

I really love the “imported From Detroit” slogan and the image it projects; as a born and bred Michigander, it evokes images from the glory years of Detroit. But to capture the reality of the car business in the 21st Century, you really have to build a spectacular car. This 2014 Chrysler 300 isn’t spectacular.

It’s got everything you’d want in a modern luxury car, and it feels well-made. But it’s clunky, overly large in a way that American cars were when the smaller and more nimble foreigners moved in and captured the American car buyer’s imagination.

Except for the modern upgrades in equipment and quality, this Chrysler 300 feels too old-timey for my tastes. It’s a big, quite-square sedan – what my wife likes to call “a Dad car” – and it’s tough to see the corners, and as such hard to park, and it feels as though it won’t negotiate Denver's often tight side streets.

Large pillars holding up the roof obstruct the view for changing lanes or making turns. You really have to go the extra mile to make sure your way is clear before proceeding in many situations, and it bugged me all the more as my test-drive week went on.

The clunkiest things about this 300 just might be the steering wheel and the gear shifter. The steering wheel is extra fat – I heard it referred to as “meaty” – and I can imagine some people I know with smaller hands who might have trouble grasping it. The heated steering wheel feature, however, is great. And I never did figure out the shifter's quirks. It doesn’t really move into slots for each gear, but rather requires a shift of position each time, and I almost always overshot my desired destination and put it into park rather than drive or reverse, or inadvertently got it in low gear.

Not everything about the 300 disappointed. It is quite comfortable and roomy, although several back-seat passengers said the roof line in the corners made the roof too close for comfort. The rear-heated seats charmed them, however.

Also – and this is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in any car – the 300 had both heated and cooled cup holders up front in the console. It kept my morning coffee at just the right temp, and I can imagine it would keep a soda in the refreshing stage longer than an ordinary cup holder.

The dual-panel panoramic sunroof is also quite cool. They both open up to the light, which is great, and the front one opens and tilts.

I got to test out the all-wheel feature under some trying winter conditions, and I can attest that it works magnificently. The cool thing here is that the AWD system in the Chrysler automatically shifts from 2-wheel to 4-wheel depending on conditions, so on the dry days and roads the car maintains a fairly good mileage rating – 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. The 3.6-liter V6 Penstar engine features 292 hp, and I never once felt that it lacked power in any conditions.

There is all the standard luxury stuff here – great stereo, voice commands, Bluetooth, power everything, and the climate control features simple controls with dials that are easy to use. But almost everything else  operated through the 8.4” LCD screen. They are easy to use, of course, these controls, but one wonders what would happen if there was ever an electric issue.

The base price on the 300C AWD is listed on the sticker as $39,195, with $6,500 in options and $995 in destination charges, so the bottom line here is $45,670. I liked the AWD Buick Regal, a direct competitor, much better, and the Buick similarly equipped was some $6,000 less.  At $46,000 a car better be very impressive to meet the competition, and for my money, the 300C AWD doesn’t measure up.

I can’t really recommend this car unless you happen to be someone who really likes ‘em large.

RATING: TWO WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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