2012 Chrysler 200LX (USA)

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You can’t, so the saying goes, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When Fiat Group looked at the Chrysler Sebring, one of a pair of the old Chrysler Corporation’s offerings in the commercially crucial American full-sized sedan market, and universally panned by critics and customers alike right from its autumn 2006 launch, they must have wondered if in fact there were enough tricks that meant that you could. Full replacement was still far enough away that no design work had started, so the only solution was to try to make an emergency set of changes to try to improve what they had, as quickly as possible. Launched late in 2010, for the 2011 model year, the external alterations were the most immediately obvious, with a new front end, and new rear light clusters connected by a chrome strip, along with other detailed finishing touches designed both to give the impression of something different and to accord with the Chrysler “look” evident on the far better received 300 and the Town & Country MiniVan. Inside, a similar transformation was called for, as the low rent interior was one of the many complaints called out by each and every reviewer, so that had to go, replaced with something which did not look quite so evidently cheap. However, making it drive better was also necessary, and whilst a new chassis and new engines were really the order of the day, they would not be forthcoming, so the engineers had to content themselves with detailed tuning of the existing setup. To emphasise that a lot had changed, the Sebring nameplate was consigned to history, replaced with the 200 moniker, a clear reference to the fact that this is the much lauded 300’s smaller brother. All this lot seems to have worked. Whilst the 200, and its sister car the Dodge Avenger, are still not coming anywhere other than bottom of comparison tests, the real measure of success is determined by sales, and they rose dramatically, from a low of under 28,000 Sebrings in 2009 to over 127,000 Chrysler 200s in 2012. I sampled a Sebring a couple of years ago, and whilst it was not perhaps as bad as reputation suggested, it was far from the car that I would choose if there were any alternative, so it seemed only fair that I find out for myself how much better is the 200 by testing one.

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Slightly unfairly, I came to this test car having spent a day at the wheel of a Mercedes C250. That car is roughly the same size as the 200, so it was inevitable that my mind would make more comparisons than would be the case if I had been in a completely different category of car. Of course, it is not really much of a comparison, as there is the small matter of price. The sticker price of that Mercedes with options was $38, 300 whereas that of my 200, in entry level LX trim had been just $18,765 (prices rose for 2013 model year cars). So I had to remind myself that the yardstick should be something other than that Mercedes. On the preceding US trip, I got to drive the latest Nissan Altima, immediately followed by a Hyundai Sonata and a US model VW Passat, and the car that followed this Chrysler was a Kia Optima, so 4 of its closest competitors are fresh in my memory, and it is against them where the real assessments must be made. On paper, of course, all are very closely matched. The default engine for the lower spec models in this class is a 2.4 litre 4 cylinder unit developing in the range 170 – 180 bhp. And that what was under the bonnet of this rather well used (46,000 miles on the clock, and nearly 2 years as a rental hack) Chrysler, the familiar 2.4 litre 4 cylinder Chrysler unit which puts out 173 bhp. This was one thing which was not changed when the 200 chrysallis came off, and that is a pity, as this is not a refined engine. Indeed, it is a noisy engine at anything other than very moderate revs, and as you work it harder, it simply becomes harsher. The old Sebring had a 2.7 litre V6 available as an option, but that engine is no more and the only alternative is the 3.6 litre Pentastar unit which generates 283 bhp. I imagine that this transforms the car. Without it, the case for the 200 is seriously weakened even without any other flaws. Sadly, it has those, too. Starting with fuel economy. Compared to the very frugal Altima, this car will more than eat into the savings you made when buying it every time you visit the pumps. I only had the 200 a day and drove just over 100 miles, so was quite surprised when it took just under 5 gallons to fill it up.  Doing the calculations, it appears I achieved 24 mpg US, which is 28.75 mpg Imperial – a figure that is worse than my 333 bhp Audi delivers.

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Among the changes that Chrysler made to the 200 to make it drive better, were stiffer body mounts, a softer ride rate, revised suspension geometry, a new rear sway bar, and upgraded tyres. Without a back to back comparison, and probably harder driving than you can do on public roads, it is hard to tell just how much of a difference they made, though the light and feel-less steering that I complained about in the Sebring appeared to have been banished. I took the 200 up on some of the canyon roads above the LA valley and found that whilst it was not exactly the most sporting ride you will likely encounter, it was not too bad. The steering now has some weighting and feel to it, and the Chrysler tackled the bends without causing any heart stopping moments. It also acquitted itself decently well over the awful road surfaces of the freeways back down in the valley. The brakes worked well. There is a central pull up handbrake between the seats. There were no issues with visibility, either.

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If you compare a picture of the dashboard of the 200 with that of the Sebring, a first glance suggests that the two are completely different. Look again, and you will spot that a number of the hard points are actually shared, with the same instrument layout, and audio unit and air conditioning controls. Chrysler have effected a clever transformation in a bid to make the cabin look less low rent. It certainly is better, with none of the particularly bizarre wood that featured on the Sebring I tested, but it will still win no prizes for ambience or quality. The plastics are still hard and not particularly up-scale, but the curvier design on the main mouldings and the instrument binnacle helps, as does the judicious use of chrome rings which encircle the dials, go round the gear lever selector and indeed feature on the gear lever, as well as breaking up the black design of the steering wheel boss. The actual dials have not changed. There are three, presented in nested together recessed and separately cowled dials, with central speedo flanked by rev counter and a combined water temperature and fuel gauge. There are twin column stalks, with indicators and lights on the left and wipers on the right. The centre of the dash contains what now looks like quite an old tech audio unit, which lacked XM satellite capability, but which was easy to use, and below this are three rotary dials for the air conditioning set up. There is a Chrysler logo-ed analogue clock in the centre of the top of the dash, which I guess tries to lend an air of class, but is fighting an uphill battle by itself. The steering wheel hub contains the cruise control buttons and allows you to cycle through the trip computer displays. There are no repeaters for the radio here. Whilst it is all easy to use, and not as grim as in the Sebring, the overall effect is still not particularly impressive.

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With no changes to the basic design of the 200 compared to the Sebring, it is no surprise that the amount of space in it has not changed. By the standards of the class, it is on the small side these days, and that is reflected in the fact that the rear seat appears that much tighter than in some competitors. That said, despite the shape of the roofline, there is ample headroom for those in the back, and leg room will only be an issue for the tall if they are sitting behind a front seat occupant who has his perch at the rearmost extent of its travel. There is a notable transmission tunnel (except the 200 is a front wheel drive car, so it does not contain a prop shaft) which will further challenge the middle occupant, and if there are three people sitting on the back seat, shoulder room also would be an issue. The boot is of moderate size, too, with the height quite limited in the area under the rear parcel shelf. The rear seats do not fold, but there is a ski flap through the rear armrest. Annoyingly, there is no external release or even a lock for the boot, so access is either from a button on the dashboard or by pressing the button on the key fob. The boot lid was surprisingly heavy for such a relatively small piece of metal. Inside the cabin, there is a modest glove box, bins on each door, and a reasonably generous amount of space under the central armrest. There is a map pocket on the back only of the driver’s seat. What has changed with the 200 are the seats. I struggled with those in the Sebring, yet had no issues with these, so the revised design with more padding in it does seem to have alleviated that problem. Seat adjustment is all manual, and as with most American cars, the backrest rake is altered by a lever in a series of defined steps rather than the continuous wheel that Europeans prefer. There is a lumbar adjuster as well.

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The 200 is available in three trim levels: LX, Touring and Limited. The test car was the cheapest of these, the LX, and you really can see one way that the price has been kept so low. It is pretty basic, with cloth trimmed, manually adjustable seats, air conditioning rather than climate control, a non-satellite radio, without any repeater controls on the wheel and only one front seat map pocket.  The attraction to some will be the price which even now is $19,695. Upgrade to a Touring and as well as the V6 engine and a six speed automatic gearbox, you get an 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, automated climate control, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, premium headliner with map assist and grab handles, 6 speakers rather than 4 for the audio system, Sirius XM satellite radio, 17″ alloy wheels and auto sensing headlights. The top spec Limited adds dual chrome exhaust tips, projector style fog lights, an upgraded stereo system with 6 Boston speakers, One Touch operation for both front windows rather than just the driver’s, leather seats with the driver’s being heated and a wider range of choices for the interior trim colour and a lot more cost options than are even offered on the lesser models.  Both Touring and Limited models can be specified with the S Pack fitted, and this brings 18″ aluminium polished and painted alloy wheels, a black finish to the fog lamp bezels, a black S Grille, black headlamp bezels, black inlay Chrysler S wing badging, P225/50R18 BSW All Season Touring Tyres, projector fog lamps and S Badging on the exterior.

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Whilst the 200 is definitely a better car than the much despised Sebring, it struggles in comparison with a field of very strong competitors. Of those I’ve tested, I’d say that by any objective standard, all of them are better cars than this Chrysler. The one trump card that this one has is its value for money, a consequence perhaps of the fact that as the oldest design in its class, it can only really compete by offering pricing that is several thousand dollars below its rivals. Rumours abound that the replacement model 200 will premiere at the 2014 Detroit Show and hit the market sometime later in the year. Whilst the increased sales figures that the 200 has achieved over the Sebring must have been some comfort for Fiat, they know now, as indeed they must have known all along, that you really cannot make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear, and that the only solution is to start again with a new design. Let’s hope that they produce that proverbial silk purse first time out.

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