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Bland Ambition

2013 Chrysler 200 Touring Review

Chrysler is a brand of cars that I just don’t understand. They only make four models of car, and, really, those cars are just rebadged Dodges. The mechanicals are all the same, and so are the materials used in the interiors. The only difference between the Chrysler and Dodge versions of a car is that the Dodge incorporates exterior styling that makes it look like it wouldn’t mind slitting a few throats if it got bored. Chryslers have softer exterior styling, and look a little less blue-collar than Dodges on the inside.

chrysler200out

Chrysler is supposed to be Mopar’s more upscale brand, but it’s not that much more upscale than Dodge. Chrysler used to have real luxury cars like the New Yorker and the Imperial. Now, they don’t. If you want a relatively nice Mopar-branded car, Chrysler is your only choice. That means that if you think the Dodge Avenger looks a little too brash and immature—which it does—and you want to show everyone you’ve got a bit of extra cash, you’re stuck with the Chrysler 200.

How it looks

Unlike the Dodge Avenger, the Chrysler 200 doesn’t come off as poseur performance car. Really, the Avenger just irritates me. It’s a Front Wheel Drive car that looks like it’s up for a bit of street racing, but totally isn’t. The 200, on the other hand, looks like a sedate, small sedan, with no pretensions. Which is a good thing, I suppose, because that’s exactly what it is.

If anything, the Chrysler 200’s exterior styling is a bit bland. I look at it, and try to find something distinctive, and I just can’t. I can’t even describe it, because the power of its blandness is so compelling. Your eyes just sort of slide right over it, almost refusing to even acknowledge its existence. On the other hand, it’s the perfect car for undercover policemen or international spies to use as a tail or surveillance vehicle. Your subject absolutely will not notice it. You could not be more successfully camouflaged if you were wearing tiger-stripe fatigues in the jungles of Vietnam.

On the inside, you do notice that Chrysler, like Ford, has taken steps to substantially improve the styling and materials used in the cabin. Soft-touch materials are employed liberally, and the Touring-spec 200 even has a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Even the basic cloth seats have a pleasing, textured design.

chrysler200inChevrolet, then, appears to be left as the only US automaker that still fills the cabin with cheap-looking plastic and cardboard headliners. You can pay Chevy $50,000 for a ZL1 Camaro, and you’ll still get a maddeningly cheap-looking and worse interior than you get in the Chrysler 200, which, at $22,665, costs half as much. The Camaro’s steering wheel will telescope, however, which the Chrysler 200’s does not.

What is notable about the Chrysler 200 is not what is inside the cabin, but what isn’t. Other than SiruisXM satellite radio, the 200’s cabin contains nothing that wasn’t available in 1990. There’s no Bluetooth, no iPod/USB connectivity and no sat-nav. Frankly, I’m a bit incredulous at this, since all of these things are available in, say, the Kia Rio, for thousands of dollars less.

Maybe I can accept that Chrysler leaves these things out of the blue-collar Dodge Avenger. And maybe I can see leaving off the sat-nav to keep the price a bit lower. But, in a world where even 6 year-olds have cell phones, and hands-free phone use has become mandatory in cars, I honestly can’t see why a mid-level sedan doesn’t have phone connectivity and/or Bluetooth. The Ford Fiesta sedan has it standard, along with a nice touch-screen, leather-trimmed seats, keyless start, and a rear-view camera, for more than $4,000 less.

The 200 doesn’t have an overly large cabin. It’s a bit small, actually. Head and leg room is acceptable in front, but a bit cramped in back, and the cabin itself isn’t anywhere near the largest in its class. It’s comfortable, but it’s nothing special.

“Why, then,” you might wonder, “am I paying more than $22,000 for car with 1990s technology and a small cabin?” At least, that’s what I’m wondering. “But,” you think to yourself, “perhaps the driving dynamics justify the unreasonably high price tag.”

How it Drives

Are the driving dynamics of the Chrysler 200 special enough to justify a little extra scratch on the sticker price? No. They are not. Nothing about driving the 200 is all that good, actually. It’s just OK. Maybe a decade ago, this would’ve been a relatively fun car to drive, but in the stock Touring spec, it’s only “Meh”.

Part of the problem is the standard 2.4L I-4 powerplant. The 178 HP and 166 lb-ft of torque it outputs simply isn’t enough to push the 3,404 lb. sedan forward with much authority. It sounds like the engine is working hard to do…everything. Even the tiniest touch of the accelerator results in an immediate downshift or two, and groaning and grunting from the engine. It will get to 60 MPH from a standing stop in 8 seconds, which is OK, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to like it.

The motor seems like it’s straining itself when you ask it to do anything but cruise along at a sedate 60 MPH, and even getting to 60 MPH seems inconveniently difficult. The 6-speed automatic transmission saves the fuel economy in the Touring model from being abysmal, but the 4-speed gearbox in the LX model simply kills the gas mileage. The 6-speed automatic, by the way, is manually shiftable. Not that you’ll ever feel the urge to do it.

Seriously, you only want the 3.6L Pentastar V-6 in this car. It’s worth every penny of the extra $1,750 for the additional 100 HP. The 2.4L motor is The Little Engine That Couldn’t.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s good the Chrysler 200 has so much trouble getting up to speed with the 4-cylinder power plant, considering how bad the braking is. The brakes have a great initial bite, and seem strong initially. But they heat up fast. You’ve got three or four good hard stomps before the rotors get too heated, and braking results in a lot of shuddering and fade, and an obvious need for some cooling time.

You will not be strafing the canyons in the Chrysler 200 with these brakes. Not with clean underwear, anyway. Which will embarrass your mother when they drag your body out of the wreckage. Assuming there is a recognizable body in what’s strewn across the canyon floor, of course.

Steering on the Chrysler 200 is the poster child for numb, electrically-assisted steering. Steering resistance is not progressive at speed. There is a noticeable neutral dead spot and play in the wheel at highway speeds. Having said that, the steering is relatively responsive once you dial in enough movement.

The bright spot in the 200 is the ride, with a well-sorted chassis and suspension. The 200 is composed and stable. Though the lack of seat bolstering restrains your enthusiasm, the 200 hits the corners with a noticeable but acceptable amount of body roll. It certainly works well for highway cruising.

What doesn’t work well, though, is the noise-proofing. Wind noise isn’t too bad, but the road noise from the tires creates a constant, irritating drone. It’s always there. Always.

The Chrysler 200 comes standard with traction control. With the V-6 motor, you’ll be happy to have it, but it’s not entirely necessary with the I-4 power plant. With the I-4 motor, the traction control isn’t intrusive at all, and even lets you get some wheel squeal here and there as you explore the limits. It never nannies you, though it can save you from your own exuberance.

What’s good about it

The Chrysler 200 has good suspension, and decent ride. With the 3.6L Pentastar engine, it’s peppy any and fun. It’s comfortable for front-seat passengers, and has an attractive interior. Visibility is good. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is pleasantly chunky, with convenient thumb and finger controls for the stereo and cruise control. The climate control is governed by a thermostat, and provides a comfy temperature without requiring you to fiddle with it. Just set the desired temperature and forget it. The stereo is decent.

What’s bad about it

The cabin is a bit cramped for rear-seat passengers. The 4-cylinder motor is anemic. The cabin electronics are outdated, and it’s missing pretty much all of the modern technology that you’ll want. Road noise in the cabin is intrusive. The brakes fade pretty quickly, and the electric steering is numb. Frankly, it costs too much for what you get in terms of standard equipment, and options make it even more expensive.

Conclusion

The Chrysler 200’s price should put it in the upper tier of small sedans, but the experience it provides is strictly average. Perhaps a little below average. This is, in my experience, true of Chrysler across the board. There’s nothing about the Chrysler 200 or 300 that’s significantly better than the Dodge Avenger or Charger. Certainly nothing that justifies the higher price.

Given a choice, I would buy the Dodge version of these cars every time, despite the gang-banger exterior styling. Actually, that’s not true. I wouldn’t buy the Avenger at all, if I was looking at the 200 Touring. I’d go straight to the Dodge Dart GT with the 184 HP Tigershark engine. It’s a lot more car for the money, and roomier inside, to boot.

Or, maybe, I’d wait a while for the Dodge Dart SRT. Yes. That seems much more likely.

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