2015 Chrysler 200, from pretender to contender

Neal Pollack
1 / 32
2015 Chrysler 200S

When we last met the mid-sized Chrysler 200 sedan in 2011, the company was still staggering out of bankruptcy and near-extinction. The 200 was a repurposed Sebring, a car that no cabbie or rental-fleet manager could love, a dull, clumsy, dated affair patched together out of straw and used chewing gum. In an era of “no bad cars,” it gave us something to disdain.

But Chrysler didn’t quit on the 200. For 2015, the now-Fiat-owned brand has made a serious effort to compete in the auto industry’s segment of death, which includes the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. The new 200 is a great improvement in every way on the old model — better-looking, better-handling, and slightly more fuel-efficient — though it’s hard to see how Chrysler could have made it worse. Regardless, this represents Chrysler’s best use yet of the Fiat-provided Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, for which the clumsy Dodge Dart was too smalland the soft-driving Jeep Cherokee was too big. The 200, on the other hand, feels just about right.

Whether or not the car is actually any good depends on how much money you’re willing to spend on a Chrysler. What should a mid-tier, mid-sized sedan cost? Like most contemporary cars, the 200 is actually several vehicles in one. At the high end, it has a 295-hp V6 engine, real-wood dashboard trim — designed, Chrysler pretentiously told us, “in the spirit of Charles Eames” — Nappa leather seating, a heated steering wheel, an eight-inch navigation system display screen, and adaptive cruise control. All told, the full top-end package will run close to $40,000. At the low end, it offers cloth seats, a 184-hp four-cylinder engine, and almost no frills at all, and will run less than $22,000, not including shipping.

We test-drove two different 200s this week in the hill country around Louisville, Ky, They all come standard with a nine-speed automatic transmission, which is at least three speeds too many for a car like this. But it’s also easy to operate, with a simple turn-dial mechanism like what you find in Jaguar sedans. Chrysler has clearly worked hard on the gearshift. What was awkward and hitchy in the Jeep Cherokee has been substantially smoothed here, providing a clean ride under most circumstances.

First, we took out the 200S model, not quite the highest-end, but close enough. This included comfortable black leather seats, a Pentastar V-6 engine, an LED lighting package, and a full navigation and sound package, among other comforts. It was front-wheel drive only, which provided a totally adequate drive, but nothing particularly nimble or fun. Including destination charges, the price topped off above $33,000. That’s just too much. For instance, the safety package: Rear camera, side collision warnings, and the like, all seemed to work very well. But I found myself annoyed by the upcharge, like I do in most vehicles. At this point, even the most advanced safety features should come standard in all vehicles, no matter what the price.

Admittedly, more than 20 years ago, a leather-seated sedan with nearly 300 hp and a halfway decent shipboard computer would have been an almost unimaginable suite of luxuries for most car buyers, something out of a spy novel. But now, for that kind of money, you’re looking at a nice starter Lexus, a hyper-fuel-efficient Volkswagen Passat diesel, or even a low-series BMW. The Chrysler 200 simply cannot dance with those competitors.

But toward the lower end of its price scale, the 200 seems like a decent deal. I drove the 200 Limited with front-wheel-drive, which Chrysler says will be the volume model for the car. Its inline four-cylinder engine yields 184 hp, it still has the nine-speed transmission, and the pleasant if nondescript exterior styling is more or less the same, minus a few fancy accents. The linen/cloth seats were perfectly nice, and I actually enjoyed the drive a little more than the V-6. It felt more honest, as did the price.

As tested, the four-cylinder 200 ran $25,790, again because of the upcharge on the safety features. But the base price was $23,255. That’s reasonably affordable for a contemporary car. When you factor in the estimated 35 mpg highway that Chrysler is saying the 200 is going to get, you’re suddenly looking at a decent value. By comparison, the V-6 engine is estimated to get 31 mpg combined — equal to what the Nissan Altima squeezes from its four-cylinder. Maybe nine-speed cars are the future.

Chrysler keeps saying the 200 was “made in Detroit,” but it was actually made in Italy and then mass-produced in Michigan, a more-than-subtle difference that means that when you buy a Chrysler, you’re buying European. Either way, there’s no chance on Earth or any other planet that the 200 is going to outsell the Camry or Accord. Those will continue to beat the competition no matter what apocalyptic fate awaits humanity. But this solid effort may not end up entirely on the rental-car slag heap like its predecessor. At least at the lower price ranges, it can compete with the Fusion, the Kia Optima, the Hyundai Elantra, and other second-tier competition. That’s a race in which this mild Italian sedan can run.