Since Henry Ford first launched the Model T, hauling five people and their cargo in comfort has defined the standard-size car that Americans most favored. Despite the rise of the SUV, automakers sold 2.4 million midsize sedans in the United States last year, with the Toyota Camry once again the most-popular car of all.
And yet for much of the past decade, Chrysler has been left behind. The Chrysler Sebring introduced in 2007 was almost immediately surpassed by competitors, and Chrysler's bankruptcy forced it to soldier on with the Mitsubishi-based model. A post-Fiat refreshening only made it passable; today the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger's biggest fans may be the buyers for rental-car fleets.
So to get back into the hunt, Chrysler not only has to make a competitive model, but leap ahead and gamble it can suss out what Americans want next — and for the all-new 200, Chrysler will bet more than $1 billion that it has its game back.
The new 200 comes from a clean-sheet design, using a chassis that underpins several Fiat-Chrysler models, including the Jeep Cherokee. From the outside, it resembles no other Chrysler product on the road, and its small front end with standard LED lighting accents cuts a far sleeker profile than the older 300 sedan. By its dimensions, the 200 falls into the middle of the pack — a few inches shorter than a Ford Fusion, a few inches longer than a Toyota Camry.
Under the hood, Chrysler will offer either a 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 184 hp and 173 lb.-ft. of torque or the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 with 295 hp — the most powerful engine among its competitors — both mated to the company's nine-speed transmission. While most 200s will be front-wheel-drive, Chrysler will also offer an all-wheel-drive variant. That nine-speed transmission enables Chrysler to claim the 200 will get up to 35 mpg on the highway, placing it just behind the fuel-economy leaders in the class without the cost of a hybrid or diesel system.
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The starkest changes come inside, where Chrysler has gone to extreme lengths to banish the rental-counter memories of the 200. From real-wood dash insets to a sloping console where the gearshift has been replaced by a rotary knob, the interior designers created a near-luxury space. By using an electronic knob gearshift, Chrysler freed up storage space underneath the dash — covered by a small rubber mat with an embossed silhouette of the Detroit skyline.
And in place of the monochrome displays it sports today, the 200 will offer either 7-inch or 8.4-inch touchscreens and a bevy of software aids, from adaptive cruise control to perpendicular and parallel parking help. All of which will be built in Sterling Heights, Mich. — a plant that Chrysler had planned to close in its 2009 bankruptcy, but that was spared by Fiat management and will get $1 billion in new equipment for the 200 (and likely a Dodge twin.)
Production begins in a few months, with the first cars expected in dealerships by June, with prices starting at $21,700 for base models. With Fiat and Chrysler moving toward a full merger, the 200 epitomizes what the Italian-American automaker can do at full strength — and whether it can get Americans to buy more than a few days at a time in its family sedans.