Review: Chrysler 300 Limited

Have you heard of “scared straight” programs that reform problem teens by showing them how bad life is behind bars?  I’m convinced that the Chrysler 300 is a better car precisely because Chrysler looked death in the eye, and its management realized the need dramatically improve their vehicles, lest the company cease to exist.  This car is the fruit of that scare.

Externally, the car maintains most of its predecessor’s distinctive shape – you will not mistake this car for anything but a Chrysler 300 – but softens and refines the Al Capone getaway car look of the old one.  LED accent lighting around the headlights give the car a nighttime face nearly as distinctive in the dark as the car’s daytime silhouette. I really don’t particularly care for the shape of the rear end; there’s a continuous angled line that begins at the top of the trunklid and blends into the bumper and makes it look like the car has no rear bumper.

Though the exterior is all-new, the interior’s changes are more dramatic.  Refreshingly, the only squared-off shape is the giant 8.4 inch touchscreen, with the rest of the interior design comprised of organic curves and mostly soft-touch materials.  The upper dash is soft-touch and low-gloss – score!  The metal-look trim is refreshingly made of actual metal.

Rather than dabbling in new control interfaces like joysticks mice, dials, or whatever else, Chrysler moved nearly all secondary controls to the touchscreen.  Because the screen is responsive and backed by a fast processor, it’s among the most responsive touchscreens I have used in a car.  Its large size makes it easy to spot the function you’re looking for and easy to hit the right part of the screen.  The only functions that have discrete knobs or buttons on the center stack are audio volume/tuning and climate controls.

For 2012, V6-powered 300s get Chrysler’s new 8 speed automatic.  The benefit of eight forward gears is that you’re always in the sweet spot of the engine’s powerband.  In addition, first gear is lower (meaning faster starts off the line) and eighth gear is higher (meaning the engine lopes along at 1500 RPMs at 75 MPH).  The HEMI provides more effortless power, but the V6 with the eight speed is more than fast enough for most drivers.  The 5.7 liter HEMI would be great with the 8 speed.  I hope that’s in the pipeline for next year.

The new automatic also has an electronic shifter, like those you’ll find in a BMW or Mercedes-Benz (or, ahem, a Prius).  It worked well and adds to the interior’s perceived sophistication, but there’s no way to manually shift this car unless you spring for a 300 S.  If you want to go forward, it’s either D or L.  Downshifts come quickly, and it mercifully will drop several gears at once to get you to the exact engine speed you need.  During my time with the car, I saw 30 MPG on the highway, about 20 MPG around town, and 16 MPG carving corners on area back roads (forget city/highway on window stickers – I want those three categories!).  The big car felt reasonably well planted on small back roads, but the big steering wheel and wide track make it feel a little clumsy in those situations.  I’d also prefer firmer suspension, larger wheels, and grippier tires.  The performance tires and wheels are available in the 300 S.

Luxury car buyers are looking for comfort and convenience.  In the 300 Limited, the comfort comes from quality interior materials, cushy seats (though ‘comfy’ means ‘soft’ and ‘very little lateral support’), a large trunk, and enough room to carry four six-footers in comfort.  The convenience comes from up-to-date in-car technology features, including available adaptive cruise control and Garmin navigation.

The 2012 Chrysler 300 Limited is a much better car than you’d expect, and a huge improvement over the car it replaces.  But that’s selling it short.  It doesn’t have any direct domestic competition – in fact, the Hyundai Genesis sedan is really the only similar vehicle in its price class.  If the attention to detail demonstrated in this car is the future direction of Chrysler, the future looks much brighter than the past.

Kate Morris at Courtesy Chrysler-Jeep in Coatesville, Pa. provided the vehicle reviewed.  She can be reached at (610) 384-7800.

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This article has not been altered by Chrysler.

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