by Paul Williams March 22, 2004 Palm Springs, California - Assembled in Brampton, Ontario, and with its signature V8 engine sourced from Mexico, the 2005 Chrysler 300 heralds the return of the Big American Car. After a decades-long and industry-wide period of downsizing, and an almost universal conversion to front-wheel drive, the 300 revives the concept of a full-size family sedan with a rear-drive platform, propelled by powerful engines, and priced for the mainstream consumer. In the case of its sister model, the new Dodge Magnum, the family wagon gets the same treatment. Chrysler Director of Vehicle Development, Jack Broomall, explains that in the quest for a large car with stately proportions, rear-wheel drive is the way to go. Fears about handling issues in the winter are unfounded, he says, because the 53/47 front-to-rear weight distribution ratio, and standard-for-Canada traction control, electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution make this car stable, safe and easy-to-drive in all road conditions. At least some of this equipment is derived from DaimlerChrysler’s luxury Mercedes Benz brand. According to Mr. Broomall, it’s also the rear-wheel drive platform that permits the departure from swoopy Chrysler sedans like the Concorde, Intrepid and 300M (all of which are no longer being made) to the more distinguished aesthetic of the new 300 range. Company executives think that the look of this car emphasizes the premium profile now being pursued by Chrysler. It adds up to a major gamble for Chrysler, which like all large automakers, needs a big market success. But judging by enthusiastic comments from local residents here, and interested looks from drivers in far more expensive vehicles, Chrysler has hit the mark with this design, at least. The 300’s substantial presence is tempered by a look of elegance and attention to detail (especially evident in its jeweled headlamps and tail lamps, chrome accents, tasteful badging and overall proportions). Chrysler, sensitive to what many executives admit was a clumsy introduction of its Pacifica sports tourer last year (one model, fully loaded, unexpectedly expensive) has sought to make 300 pricing equally attractive. “We know we have to get the price right,” said Ron Smith, Chrysler Canada vice-president of Marketing. “We’ve worked hard to get the most content at a very aggressive price point here in Canada. We believe people will see this car as a true value proposition.” The car arrives in four levels of trim, three of them with 3.5-litre, 245-horsepower V6 engine formerly found in the Chrysler 300M. Starting at $29,995 - about the average transaction price for a new vehicle in Canada - the Chrysler 300 has a four-speed automatic transmission, remote keyless entry, fog lamps, power driver’s seat, air conditioning, power windows, CD sound system and 17” steel wheels. For an extra $2,000, the Chrysler 300 Touring adds leather seating trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and seven-spoke aluminum wheels. At $36,995, the Chrysler 300 Limited comes with genuine walnut interior accents, dual-zone automatic climate control, automatic headlamps, trip computer, sunroof, auto-dimming rear view mirror, heated seats and chromed wheels. The top-of-the-line $42,995 Chrysler 300C features another Chrysler comeback, the 5.7-litre “Hemi” V8 engine making 340 horsepower and 390 lb.-ft. of torque. This engine uses cylinder deactivation technology to transform its operation from a V8 to a V4 when functioning in limited load conditions (highway cruising, for instance), which can result in fuel savings of up to 20%. The 300C also includes 18” chrome-clad aluminum wheels, dual exhaust, performance brakes, a higher specification suspension package, premium leather trim, power passenger seat, and faux tortoise-shell accents on the steering wheel and interior door handles. A navigation system, rear proximity sensors, xenon headlamps and side-curtain airbags are optional items on specific models. Coming later this year is optional all-wheel drive which, if selected with a V6 engine, will arrive with a five-speed transmission instead of the standard four-speed ‘box. By all measures the 300 is a very impressive vehicle. The car is 24-millimeters shorter than the 2004 300M, but has more interior room. In overall size, it’s in the same category as an Infiniti Q45 or Buick Century, although its 3,046 mm wheelbase is considerably longer than those cars. It’s bigger in all dimensions than something like a Honda Accord, for instance. In profile, the proportion of sheet-metal to glass is about two-thirds to one-third. Side windows, windshield and backlight are smaller than you’d expect in comparable cars. Wheel arches are huge and pushed out to the corners, the hood, fenders and decklid are tall and square. Chrysler invested $1.4-billion in the Brampton plant where the 300 is made, and the build quality, fit and finish seems excellent even on the pre-production models we were driving. On the road, interior cabin noise is virtually non-existent -- indeed, many testers commented upon the smoothness and quietness of the ride. Basically, there was no wind-noise and no exterior noise. On a nicely paved road, all that could be heard was the tires, and even they (Continentals, by the way) only hummed softly in the background. In the four vehicles I drove, there were no rattles, squeaks or vibrations. The car was vault-like. On harsher pavement, the suspension absorbed bumps well, producing only dull thuds as the 300 traversed expansion joints, cracks and other road imperfections. The 300 was completely stable in high-speed or rapid manoeuvres, with little body roll and surprisingly nimble handling for a 1,689-1,836 kilogram car. The four-wheel disc brakes with ABS stopped the car quickly and without excessive dive. Visibility in all directions was good, although the glass is short due to the car’s high waistline. You don’t feel like you’re dropping down into the car, however, as the seats have been raised to compensate for the tall doors. The seats are comfortable and with the steering wheel adjustable for tilt and telescope (a standard feature throughout the range; powered on the 300C), a good driving position is easily found. Rear-seat headroom and legroom is more than sufficient and the trunk is large. In normal driving conditions, both engines were impressive, with the V8 obviously providing a significant increase in power over the V6. That being said, the V6 will not disappoint -- put your foot on the accelerator and the V6 car gets up to speed smoothly and quickly. On the highway it’s very quiet, only barely making 2000 r.p.m. at 120 km/h. Mr. Broomall pointed out that the four-speed automatic transmission would likely not see the end of this product cycle for the V6-powered cars, being replaced with a five-speed transmission subsequently. The V8 is the star, of course. Mr. Broomall was unsure how many cars will be ordered with this engine, but suggested maybe 40% (although he concedes he underestimated demand for the engine in the Ram truck line). In comparison with other sedans in the 300C’s price range, at least one of which is driven with a four-cylinder engine, this car in particular seems an extraordinary value. With gasoline prices volatile, however, fuel consumption could be a factor into the future. Mileage for the V8 is estimated at 13.8 L/100 km city and 9.4 highway. For the V6, Chrysler’s estimate is 12.4 city (down from 12.8 in the previous Concorde with the V6) and 8.7 (up from 8.3). Consumption will increase with AWD. For both the V6 and V8 engines, mid-range (89-octane) fuel is recommended, but regular (87-octane) is acceptable. Apart from the rear-wheel drive platform, the most interesting and perhaps controversial feature of the Chrysler 300 series is its design. Eschewing the move to aerodynamic forms for cars, lower co-efficients of drag (down to 0.26 for the Infiniti G35 with an aero package; the 300 is 0.35) and high-technology, high horsepower, very low fuel consumption engines by Asian and European car makers, the 300’s four-square style is as much a major departure as its iron-block, pushrod V8-engine. But although the Chrysler 300 may be a return to the big American car, it’s not a return to the big American car of old. This is a modern interpretation, with elegant design, apparently superior craftsmanship and a surprisingly complete specification. Whether it’s the particular package that consumers want will be learned very shortly. DaimlerChrysler has high hopes for this car, and a lot is riding on its success. Chrysler executives hope it will strike a chord with car buyers tired of smallish vehicles and cookie-cutter designs. The 2005 Chrysler 300 will begin arriving in dealerships in late March/early April, 2004.