There’s an oft-used illustration showing the progression of an ape walking on all fours, gradually standing upright, and finally morphing into a man walking.
Chrysler has made such an evolutionary change in its midsized sedan that a somewhat snide reviewer can make the same comparison.
The company’s discontinued—and largely forgettable—Sebring has been transformed into the 200. The first edition of the 200, which was introduced in 2010, showed some improvement, but the latest iteration, the redesigned-for-2015 200, finally has a chance to become a stand-on-its-own-two-feet player in the midsized market.
This all-new 200 comes to market just as Chrysler Group chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne has outlined the future course of Chrysler and Dodge: Going forward, Chrysler is to be the mainstream brand and Dodge the performance-oriented nameplate.
Overall, things have been looking up at Chrysler. In May, the group celebrated 50 consecutive months of increased sales over the same month in the previous year.
Much of the current sales credit goes to the Jeep brand, which has been setting sales records, but very little of it to the Chrysler 200, the mid-sized sedan that was in the process of phasing out its leftover 2014 models and waiting for the 2015 edition, which just now is arriving in showrooms.
Part of the 200’s low sales stems from a double marketing misconception: 1. That the 200 isn’t quite a mid-sized sedan and 2. That the 300 is. In fact, the 200 is a mid-size and the 300 is a full-size.
Another factor is that the outgoing 200 just hadn’t caught up to the “contemporary standards” of the segment and wasn’t as refined as the competition.
Chrysler visited the New England Motor Press in June with a quartet of the new 200s.
Brand manager J.T. Delcamp, Kathy Graham of Chrysler communications, and East Coast PR manager Lisa Barrow were on hand with the message that Chrysler is determined to become a serious player in the midsized segment.
NEMPA members had a chance to grab quick test drives of the sporty 200S model and upscale 200C. First impressions seemed unanimous that the 200 has come a long way.
Steering and suspension systems were much tighter and responsive in the new model. The powerplants are either a 2.4-liter (184 horsepower) Tigershark I-4 or the 3.6-liter (295 HP) Pentastar V-6. Both are mated to a smooth nine-speed automatic transmission. The four-banger is rated at 36 mpg on the highway and the V-6 at 32 mpg.
The new 200 shares its basic platform with Alfa Romeo Giulietta with modular cradles for the engine and rear suspension. New mounting bushings give the rear suspension a more refined feel.
Some good news for New Englanders is that an all-wheel-drive version is available with the V-6 on the higher trim levels—the 200C and 200S.
However, it’s the entry-level LX and second-level Limited that are projected to be the volume sales leaders. Also, 85 percent of 200 sales are expected to be powered by the four-cylinder.
The AWD system has a unique to the midsized segment feature in that the rear axle disconnects when not in use. “That reduces power and economy loss,” says Delcamp. “Driving events reconnect AWD, among them turning on the windshield wipers, hitting an 11 percent grade, or encountering temperatures below 37 degrees. Normally the AWD transmits 40 percent of the drive power to the rear wheels.
However, when you turn the electronic transmission selector to S-for-Sport mode on the 200S, it sends 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels. “It gives the driver the feel of a rear-wheel drive car,” says Delcamp of the performance-oriented version. The 200S announces its sportier aspirations with gloss black trim where other versions have bright accents.
The circular transmission selector knob also opens up the center console for some design changes. The design team came up with a sliding cupholder on top [Warning: don’t slide it with an open drink in place or you’ll face a spill]. It opens to reveal a deep lower storage area with USB and 110-volt power sources. That storage also can be accessed by rear-seat passengers via a clever rear hatch opening.
The front grille design and elongated Chrysler logo represent what the company is calling “The new face of Chrysler” with a signature light pipe around the headlights and LED fog lights and taillights.
Available technology raises the new 200 to contemporary standards with Adaptive Cruise Control-plus (ACC-plus) that can bring the car to a full stop under certain circumstances, and Forward Collision Warning-plus that provides autonomous braking at speeds up to 20 mph, and both parallel and perpendicular parking assists.
A smart parking brake automatically locks the brakes if the driver opens a door and unbuckles the seatbelt with the car in gear.
Chrysler showed it was serious about the new 200, giving the company’s Sterling Heights, MI, assembly plant a $1billion makeover to build the model using the latest in robotic body assembly and paint processes. The result seems to be more precise body panel assembly and better (and greener) painting results. Any residue from the new powder coating primer paint coatings is 97 percent recoverable for re-use.
The evening was a promising opening act for the 200 in a tough segment.
“The industry sells 2.3 million midsized sedans every year,” says Graham. “That’s roughly one in every six vehicles sold in this country. And there isn’t a bad car in the segment.”
And that now includes the 200.Bill Griffith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.