Chrysler hasn't been able to claim more than mid-pack status in the mid-size family sedan segment for the past 10 years, overshadowed by sales juggernauts like the Nissan Altima, the Toyota Camry, and the Honda Accord. Even domestic rival Ford more than doubles Chrysler's performance with the Fusion. The time has come to make a splash, and the 2015 Chrysler 200 is intended as the cannonball that will clear the pool, so to speak.
Borrowing the same platform that underpins the compact Dart (amongst other Alfa Romeo-sourced models), wearing distinctly European styling, and featuring a long list of trims and features, the all-new Chrysler 200 is making a strong play to capture the hearts and minds of buyers who have passed it by for far too many years. Is it a successful metamorphosis? Has the re-imagined Chrysler 200 emerged a beautiful butterfly destined to decorate suburban driveways, or a scary moth hell-bent on banging its head into a single bare light bulb hanging in the front room of an empty shack? As might be expected, the answer isn't clear cut, and depends entirely on how much money you're willing to spend to get your Pentastar fix.
More Than Skin Deep
The 2015 Chrysler 200 is interesting to look at, with its LED running lights up front, its broad snout, and a roof that tucks down onto the rear deck in an almost hatch-like fashion. It's not a memorable car - in entry-level LX trim the 200 is easy to pass by in a crowded parking lot - but it's got potential, particularly when decked out in the S model's blackened chrome accents. Wheel sizes of up to 19-inches are available, yet even the mid-level 18-inchers look good on the sedan.
Whereas the 2015 Chrysler 200's exterior might vacillate between pretty and forgettable, depending on trim level, the passenger compartment is anything but. Volvo kicked off the 'pass through waterfall' center console concept several years ago with its compact and mid-size sedans, but Chrysler has taken the idea to a new level in the 200 with an open storage area in the space typically reserved for shifter guts, and one that connects through to the more traditional covered console in order to allow for wires and charging plugs to find their way to the appropriate gadget unchallenged. As in recent RAM trucks, a rotary shift dial is the innovation that makes the console's cargo capacity possible, and while it takes a bit of getting used to - it's easy to reach over and blindly grope the fan speed control while trying to put the car in Drive - it's a welcome feature.
As with most of its recently-refreshed vehicles, the new 200 also features the latest version of Chrysler's Uconnect touchscreen interface. The system takes up 8.4-inches of dashboard real estate, a measure that truly hits home when transitioning to the smaller screen found on entry-level editions of the car that is framed into the center stack by a sea of plastic dead space. It's worth it to upgrade to the larger Uconnect, which is by far the easiest to use and best-looking, navigation, communications, and entertainment system available at any price. A pair of TFT screens - measuring either five or seven inches - are also offered inside the car's gauge cluster, where they look quite upscale.
Denied At The Backdoor
The 2015 Chrysler 200's passenger compartment features a generous amount of passenger space in the front seats, and those sitting in the second tier will also be pleased with their accommodations. Accessing the sedan's back seat, however, will be an exercise in futility for anyone over six feet tall. Even with my much smaller frame, I had difficulty sliding into the rear accommodations without completing an overly-complex reverse crawl, as the cutout for the door follows the 200's plunging roofline so faithfully that it's barely accessible for adults. It's shocking that such a sacrifice was made to preserve the car's sleek looks - no other mid-size sedan requires the same level of contortion to simply sit in the back.
It's a real shame, too, because both affordable and upscale editions of the Chrysler 200 have been gifted with well-turned-out interiors that speak to the detail and care taken in materials choice that the brand's designers obviously invested in. This is nothing like the 200 of old, nor does it mimic the Dart on which it is based; rather, I am reminded of the comfortable and cozy environs of the recent Grand Cherokee, which is similarly soft-spoken in its interior presentation.
A Tale Of Two Drivetrains
Although the 2015 Chrysler 200 is intended to compete on value - that is to say, offer more features for your money than most of its competitors - time spent behind the wheel of the car's base 2.4-liter Tigershark engine will undoubtedly push you to spend more than you had initially bargained for on an upgrade. The problem isn't so much the motor's 184 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque, which are capable of motivating the mid-size car with reasonable gusto, but rather the nine-speed automatic transmission than handles the gear shifting duties.
Again and again, the nine-speed turned in harsh up-shifts, especially when moving from first to second gear. At other times, it seemed unable to decide which cog to select when kicked out of ninth, ultimately passing through several options before finding its ultimate ratio. I was told that the problem could be related to the pre-production nature of the cars at the launch event, but having heard similar stories from drivers of the compact Jeep Cherokee - which features the same drivetrain - I am more inclined to recommend avoiding the 2.4-liter despite its promise of 35-mpg on the highway.
Much more impressive is the 200's available 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which churns out a class-leading 295 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. This is enough grunt to mask most of the nine-speed auto's brusquer mannerisms, and it's also the kind of power needed to scoot the sedan down the road at an impressive rate of speed. The Pentastar is slightly less efficient than the four-cylinder, but still checks in at over 30-mpg while cruising. It also opens up the availability of all-wheel drive and, on some models, paddle shifters.
Composed Ride, But No Funny Business, Please
The latter are more of a novelty than a necessity with the 2015 Chrysler 200, as time behind the wheel revealed that this car isn't looking to participate in any shenanigans unless it absolutely has to. Suspension tuning is sufficiently soft to satisfy the family crowd, which means body roll is present at higher rates of cornering. This is perfectly acceptable - no one is going to buy the 200 with an eye towards setting a record lap time at their local road course - but it also means that rough pavement can upset the sedan's rear-end balance. It's not at the same level of fun as the Ford Fusion, although it does give the staid Altima a run for its money. All-wheel drive goes a long way towards correcting any perceived instability at speed in the Chrysler 200, and it also allows the six-cylinder engine to lay down all 295 ponies with a minimum of drama.
Good, But Not Great - And That's OK
The 2015 Chrysler 200 may not set a new standard amongst mid-size sedans, but it's also no longer the placeholder car it once was, destined to populate rental lots and sag under the weight of inventory-clearing incentives. Chrysler clearly wants to be a family player, and although the vehicle is burdened by the difficult-to-access rear seat and the corporate directive to use what was originally intended as a compact car platform underneath, the 200 is competitive to the point where it's worth a test drive for those tired of the usual suspects in the field. My advice: pay a little more for the interior features and engine performance that help the car shine, and you'll avoid being disappointed by the less-than-stellar aspects of the entry-level versions of this automobile.