A winning personality with a brash exterior is set to challenge locally made large sedans, writes Robert Wilson
- Comment: The first rear-drive Chrysler seen here since the demise of the Valiant in 1981 offers a viable alternative to the local luxury limos. American gothic . . . and proud of it, but 300C is more European on the road. Only skinny part is the space-saver spare.
- Price: $59,990
- Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
- Engine: 5.7-litre V8
- Power/Torque: 250kW/525Nm
- Transmission: Rear-drive, five-speed auto only
- Seats/Weight: Five/1873kg
- Fuel tank/type: 71 litres/unleaded
- Litres/100km: 12.1 combined
- 0-100km/h: 6.4 seconds
- Turning circle: 11.8m
- Airbags/ABS: Six/Yes, with ESC
However, the classic Yank Tank has recently returned in triumph as the Chrysler 300C. It's arguably the most acclaimed American car since the 1964 Ford Mustang, which says a lot both about it and the dire standard of other offerings from US makers. And it's finally in Australia nearly two years after its debut in North America.
The 300C is a large rear-drive sedan that announces its presence with what must be the most brash and domineering grille this side of a Bentley. Following that impressive chrome-plated portcullis comes a high-shouldered and square-rigged body that evokes hot rodding, gangsters and the 1977 cult film The Car.
Despite the associations we like the look. The basic proportions are right, it's unapologetic about its American origins and it seems retro and futuristic at once. It also has that rare quality in today's computer-designed motoring world: a sense of occasion.
All of these make up for a few flaws and a couple of mild disappointments.
The 300C we see here comes from Magna Steyr in Austria, which builds it on behalf of Chrysler. Having driven both the US market and export versions it's impossible to avoid an unlikely conclusion: the Canadian-made left-hand drive 300C is better built. Trim is more accurately fitted, without the minor misalignments of the Australian market car, and the equipment level is higher. For example, while the right-hand drive Australian car gets manual height-only steering wheel adjustment, the North American version gets electric reach and rake control.
Minor quality gripes aside, it's an appealing interior. Despite the lack of reach adjustment, a comfortable driving position is easy to find. Thin-needled vintage-style instruments display speed and engine revs while an LED display shows the trip computer functions. A stalk-type cruise control is simplicity itself to use. Like much of the 300C, it's based on the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
The Mercedes-derived five-speed automatic uses the same sideways action for shifting in manual mode. Interestingly, the cruise control lacks the E-Class's speed limiting feature – that's not the American way.
While trim is metal-look plastic (or synthetic wood on the steering wheel) it does look classy and original, in keeping with the feel of the car. The seats are real leather and soft, in the American style. Although they don't cause any problems over a day's driving they're not the best in hard cornering. A foot-operated parking brake is a jarring note, although again it's probably adapted from the ones Mercedes persists in using.
The view from behind the wheel contains an unusual sight in a modern car: the bonnet. It adds to an impression of bulk, which is borne out in reality. The 300C is big. And it feels its size, even in the scaled-up driving environment of North America. Midway between a Holden Commodore and Statesman in length, it claims similar interior size to the Statesman. It doesn't feel quite as big to us, although it's certainly not cramped. Head room is particularly good while the boot, at 461 litres, is comparable to a Commodore's. Those massive 18-inch wheels might have something to do with its ever-so-slightly restricted interior dimensions. Ah well, the price of style.
Like all proper American cars, the 300C uses a V8. There is a six-cylinder version for $6000 less but that would be like buying a vegetarian hamburger. We'd rather wait for the diesel model, which will use Mercedes's outstanding 3.0-litre V6 CDI engine.
The petrol burning Chrysler Hemi V8 is a new design based on a legendary 1950s engine which was itself based on World War II aircraft engine technology. The basic design of the Hemi is still used by today's 5000kW top fuel drag racers, quite an association. But the latest version aims more at fuel economy with what Chrysler calls a multi-displacement system. It shuts down half its cylinders when under light load. When we drove this engine in a Jeep Cherokee we found the system seamless in feel but undetectable in effect. There is a payoff in the 300C with best fuel consumption on test of 11.0 litres per 100km.
Stand on the gas and you'll notice the effect at the pump, with fuel consumption swelling as rapidly as the all-American roar of its eight cylinders. The urban and hillclimb part of the drive consumed 16.8l/100km.
And you do have to stand on the gas from time to time because somewhat disappointingly there's not a huge amount of low-rev torque for a 5.7-litre V8. The peak figure – an impressive 525Nm – is delivered at a relatively high 4000rpm. While the Hemi is impressive when let off the leash it doesn't have the tractor-like low-rev pull of the local big-iron from Holden and Ford.
Suspension tune, too, is just slightly off best practice. It's pretty good by the undemanding standards of American cars, but its failings show just how well-sorted the local large sedans have become.
There's a touch more body roll than desirable in hard cornering and an occasional secondary movement after a hard bump. Ride is slightly firmer than the typical American pillowy sensation, with small bumps sometimes making themselves noticed. It's another case of Australia's coarse roads taking down a fancied foreigner, although tyre noise is well suppressed.
But the 300C is a good-handling car at heart. How could it be anything else with huge tyres on each of its widely spaced corners and double wishbone and rear multilink suspension derived from the E-Class?
Compared with the Pontiacs, Cadillacs and US Fords we've driven, it's like a race car but two aspects show how it doesn't quite cut it as sports sedan Down Under. The transmission persists in thinking it knows better than the driver when in manual mode and the brakes, while fine in everyday use, lack the bite needed for hard driving in a car of this size and weight.
However, the steering has an unexpectedly crisp feel and it's good to see electronic stability control as standard. It's a well-tuned ESC system that intervenes subtly. If it can't save you there are six airbags and a five-star US-standard safety rating.
There's a lot to like about the 300C, particularly when you consider how its price of $59,990 makes it the first real competition in decades for the locally made large luxury sedans. Even with its minor trim and equipment sins, it still matches their quality level, and if it doesn't quite match the back roads competence of a Ford Fairmont or Holden Calais, it will never be mistaken for a taxi.
It's an American abroad with a brash exterior but a winning personality, and a welcome newcomer to the Australian motoring scene. We can't wait for the larger engined SRT-8 version, due around April, to fling down the first challenge in living memory to HSV and FPV.[/FONT]