The 2015 Chrysler 200 is so much improved that the automaker should have considered changing its name. Really, just about every time I told someone that I was test driving a 200, I’d get a wince in return.
That’s because people remember the previous 200, basically a warmed over Sebring that was dull and ordinary and far behind the curve. What made it worse was that the 200 debuted in a memorable 2011 Super Bowl ad about Chrysler’s rebirth, complete with evocative scenes of Detroit and a voiceover by rap superstar Eminem. But when the 200 hit the streets, it was a dud. Nobody was impressed.
Not so for the all-new 2015 200 sedan, which finally gives the renamed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles something with which to compete in the high-stakes midsize-car segment against such established rivals as Camry, Accord and Fusion. Strong recent sales for the midsize Chrysler prove the point.
The new Chrysler 200 is handsomely styled with a coupe-like profile, high-relief character lines and expressive details, and the interior is well-finished and thoughtfully designed with useful touches, such as the large, open-sided stowage area under the center console. In that compartment, a rubber mat has an embossed depiction of the Detroit skyline, a not-too-subtle reminder of the car’s all-American roots.
Well, to a degree. There is some DNA from the Italian part of the family, such as the firm chassis derived from the sporty cars of Alfa Romeo. That’s certainly a good thing and contributes to the 200’s feeling of stability and sure-footedness in fast driving.
More than anything, the Chrysler 200 is surprising in both refinement and performance, a big step up for Chrysler in a part of the auto market in which it has never excelled. The premium ride and sophistication belie the sedan’s modest price points. Starting price for the base LX model is $22,695, the more luxurious 200 Limited or the sporty 200S around $25,000, while the top-drawer 200C is priced from just under $27,000. Of course, the total can add up quickly as you layer on the available options.
The 200S I drove on a long and winding trip through northern Arizona was fully equipped, its $24,725 base jumping to $33,185 as tested with the addition of such items as navigation, premium sound system, lighting group, 19-inch black alloy wheels with performance tires and the 295-horsepower Pentastar V6 engine. The bottom line also includes $995 shipping. At that price, the 200S had the level of equipment and panache of a higher-range sport-luxury car, so it still felt like a pretty good deal.
The optional V6 engine – a 2.4-liter Tigershark inline four comes standard – was plenty powerful for the long mountain grades of the outsized Western landscape, with strong acceleration on tap at any speed. Chrysler claims the Pentastar engine is the most powerful in its midsize sedan segment. The V6 is quiet and relaxed most of the time, but it does set up a roar under hard throttle. Not too loud, but noticeable.
The real drivetrain story is the automatic transmission, first seen in the latest Jeep Cherokee. It has nine gears. That’s right, nine. While that might seem over the top, the technology contributes to the 200’s strong highway EPA fuel mileage estimate of 32 mpg with the V6 or 36 with the four.
The shifting is seamless and hardly noticeable, although there is an occasional clunky downshift, as if the transmission was a might confused about all those gears. The gear numbers are displayed on a small readout in the gauge cluster or you’d never be able to guess which gear you were in. What I noticed is that the shifting rarely gets beyond fifth in regular city driving, then it maxes out in seventh at quicker urban speeds. Gears eight and nine are pretty much reserved for the highway.
Actually, the transmission performance was quite impressive and I rarely felt the need to activate the paddle shifters except when I wanted to test them. They work just fine and you really don’t get lost rowing through all those gears since you’re generally shifting through the first five. So while nine gears might seem excessive, it all seems to work out OK, especially with the fuel-mileage benefits.
The steering in the Sport model is quick and precise, though relatively numb. The electronic stability control is effective without being intrusive; I turned a little too fast onto a side road that unexpectedly tuned into loose dirt, but instead of having the car plow straight ahead, the stability control gathered it up and pulled it into the turn. All-wheel drive is an available option with either engine. Overall, the handling feels firm and neutral.
The 200’s interior has been brought up to a premium level and shows Chrysler’s renewed attention to detail and refinement. The surfaces and materials feel first rate, with attractive stitching on the dash and doors, lots of stowage areas (including a secret space under the flip-up passenger seat, testament to Chrysler’s minivan expertise).
The center console is very nicely done, though I would like it better if it were narrower and didn’t take up so much space. Keyless entry and pushbutton start come standard for all 200 models, and a rotary shifter knob on the center console is a nice innovation that works well.
The sporty gauges in the S model look pretty flashy, maybe a bit too flashy. They do provide a lot of useful information for the driver.
The full-featured infotainment system with its large, colorful video-display screen seems busy and complex until you get used to it. There are physical knobs for audio and climate control, which are always appreciated. A nice feature: a button on the console turns off the video screen when you don’t feel like looking at it.
The Chrysler 200 is something of a game changer for Fiat Chrysler, and at last, Chrysler has a midsize sedan to go up against the leaders in the heart of the U.S. auto market.
Second opinion by Larry Edsall
I’d read and even heard not just a lot of praise, but very high praise indeed from the automotive media about the new-for-2015 Chrysler 200. Finally, no more Sebring-based anything. This car was all new and all wonderful, ready to take on not only Malibu and Fusion but Camry and Accord and Altima and Optima and any other mid-size sedan on the planet.
And finally it was my turn for a week at the wheel. I was eager for the experience. Now, just midway through my week, I’m eager to see the car go away.
I try not to prejudge the new vehicles before I actually drive them, so I didn’t examine the details of the 200’s Monroney pricing sheet before driving the car, though while driving it was immediately obvious that, yes indeed, this new Chrysler 200 is an attractive and comfortable and in some ways superior midsize sedan. But it also was obvious — painfully obvious — that the standard four-cylinder engine just doesn’t provide enough power.
So I checked the technical specs that Chrysler provides to the media and discovered the standard engine for the 200 is FCA’s 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder, which is rated at 184 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque. A version of that engine was in the Ram ProMaster City cargo van I’d driven not too long ago and it provided plenty of oomph for what is basically a commercial vehicle designed to carry substantial loads. So why did it feel so wimpy in this family sedan?
Finally, I looked at the 200’s Monroney and discovered that the car I’m driving doesn’t have the Tigershark 4 but a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, an engine rated at 295 horsepower and 262 pound-feet.
Disbelieving, I opened the hood and, sure enough, there’s the V6.
I’m perplexed. I’ve been driving the car now for several days and even with the 9-speed transmission in Sport mode, the 200 feels underpowered to me.
As I discovered a few years ago when I bought a bicycle, I live in a neighborhood with seemingly no level roadways. Tucked into the foothills of Phoenix’s South Mountains Park, you’re either climbing or coasting, not simply cruising along on a level surface.
One way I test the powertrain of the cars I drive is by accelerating uphill from a pair of 90 degree right-hand turns. One of those turns is steeply uphill and presents a real challenge for most cars. The other isn’t nearly so steep but still had the 200 struggling to find the right gear/engine rev combination.
Once up to speed, however, the Chrysler 200 provides a very pleasant driving experience, and even with the V6 is rated at 32 miles per gallon at highway speeds.
I’m among those who like Chrysler’s use of a rotary control to select a gear. It’s a simple and effective device and eliminates the traditional lever that takes up a lot of room in most car interiors. My issue with the one in the new 200 is its immediate environment on the center console. Just above and to the right of it is a slightly smaller rotary control for the HVAC system and just above and to the left is the rotary controller for the audio system volume level.
While driving, you should be able to reach over and manipulate the various controls without taking your eyes off the road. And while I’m sure people who own the 200 and drive it regularly soon would develop such muscle memory, I’ve already shut off the HVAC (something you do not want to do in Phoenix) while trying to twist from Drive to Sport mode, and another time I turned up the radio volume instead of the drivetrain power level.
On the other hand, void of a gear-shift lever, designers were able to create one of the best center console storage systems and power outlet/device connecting arrays I’ve experienced in any vehicle. There’s even a sliding cup holder to enhance access to the enclosed storage area in the box, plus a large open storage shelf beneath the console.
2015 Chrysler 200S
Vehicle type: 5-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base Price: $24,725 Price as tested: $33,185
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 295 horsepower @ 6,350, 262 pound-feet of torque @ 4,250 Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 108 inches Overall length/width: 192.3 inches / 73.6 inches Curb weight: 3,124 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 19 city / 32 highway / 23 combined
Assembled in: Sterling Heights, Michigan