Monday, December 7, 2015

Rental Review: 2014 Chrysler 300

Rental Review: 2014 Chrysler 300

Oft forgotten yet totally adequate, the second generation Chrysler 300 is a fine cruiser that feels not dissimilar to what one would expect two-thirds of a late model Lexus LS to be. Though the styling is not nearly distinctive as it was in its first iteration, the 300 still stands out in its price range as one of the few remaining rear-wheel-drive, American-minded land yachts that focuses on reasonably priced luxury and comfort and not much else.

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Outside, things are relatively good. Subtle but identifiable, the design makes for a mature and reserved appearance, moving upscale from the previous model's look-at-me Rolls-Royce mockery. Especially in the current era of out-do the next outrageous styling, there's a lot to say for clean lines and grown-up good looks. But yet, the 300 blends in with most other sedans. It's an unoffensive design, but it's not striking either. That's not to say it isn't good looking, but the competition has caught up to the car that once essentially had the public's undivided attention in the looks department.

Interior styling as a whole is decent, and understandably somewhat bland as this is a base model living the rough fleet life. The highlight of the interior for me is the gauges which have a cool, crisp Chrysler sort of feel to them, if that's a thing. They're backed by a soothing blue glow that's clean, nice to look at, and easy to read. If not second only to cruising ride quality, a luxury car's seats are of utmost importance, and though the 300's thrones have an almost entirely flat profile and zero bolstering whatsoever, they're still plenty good. Though not the couch-like, total comfort that is found in a Lexus, the seats do easily meet cross-country road trip levels of comfort. A quick gripe about the interior: in an age when premium cars are loaded with exceedingly futuristic tech, the analog clock that sits atop the 300's dash seems entirely out of place and a step backwards in design. I get that it's a hat tip to models of yore and that the super-luxury, upmarket companies include this as well, but you don't build class-leading cars by looking to the past. It might just be time to move on from the analog clock.

Unsurprisingly mostly option-free, my rental 300 did have the always-great UConnect system sitting dead-center. Strangely though, the screen is angled forward making operation fairly awkward; it's verges on counter-intuitive and contradicts the great placement of the identical screen in other FCA products. Additionally, the interface itself seems to be “dulled down” from its application in other vehicles, with bigger fonts, simpler and less cluttered icons, and greater contrast with most of the colors being fairly basic and easy to pick out. UConnect is honestly a worse looking piece of equipment here in its seemingly more basic design, but maybe they just know their target market...

The 300 is a big, big car and as such it battles a few drawbacks. Larger feeling even than its LX platform-mates the Charger and Challenger, the 300's substantial size and girth are only made less apparent by a floaty, cloud-like ride and artificially light steering. Lighter colors do manage to hide the car's heft reasonably well, with the gray of my rental disguising its yacht-like side planes admirably. There's no mistaking it though, this is a big car. Side-by-side it might seem nearly the same size as its Challenger cousin, but whereas 18” wheels look just a little small on the Dodge, the same diameter on the 300 looks absolutely tiny. The car's size also translates to the interior in that that there's no conceivable way a normal-sized human can rest his/her arm on the window sill unless you lean noticeably and uncomfortably leftward towards the door itself (I tried; felt & looked like a fool). Here it differs from the Challenger as well, but in increasing the width and broadening the shoulder room it does help the car feel more open and airy, and there no doubting American consumers are known to associate size with luxury; bigger is better, right? Good thing the 300 is huge.

As I mentioned before, the most crucial element a car in this class has to succeed at is unquestionably cruising comfort. The 300 accomplishes this goal handily, and that it feels every bit of its weight certainly helps the big luxo-cruiser create a feeling that is substantial, planted, confident, and stately. Ride quality is quite good and while you won't be mistaking it for a Lexus, it is very comfortable. The chassis isn't terribly upset by any big bumps, and it makes small work of uneven surfaces that others transmit directly to the spine. It drives exactly as you'd expect: smoothly, quietly, and solidly.

Forward visibility is great, and the 300 is perfectly comfortable sitting at 65-70 MPH where it hums at a low 1700 RPM and returns over 30 miles per gallon. Pentastar's ever-good V6 is mated to a ZF 8-speed transmission which works nicely and suits the car's laid-back charisma well. Unfortunately the lack of paddle shifters means that finding the proper gear can be tricky, for example trying to make a pass on an uphill section of highway; there's a noticeable delay upon pressing the accelerator after which it drops down a bunch of gears all at once and makes a bit of a racket doing so. Otherwise the car's powertrain is adequate, with its sweet spot right around the highway speed limit and going any faster giving you the sense it could use thirty extra horsepower or so to offset its mass and prevent it from dropping down into seventh when you demand a bit more of the six-cylinder mill. The V8 model is definitely a good choice if you don't have the patience for a semi-lethargic gearbox trying to eek every ounce out of an engine better suited to lighter cars. The 300's Eco mode is indicated by a light inset on the gauge pod that turns on and off when it's activated, but for the life of me I could not figure out what dictates it being in Eco mode or not (I've settled on theorizing that it's load-dependent). Regardless, whatever it is that Eco mode does certainly helps seeing as I averaged an indicated 29.2 MPG and still had 260 miles worth of range at half-tank, making it an easy 500+ mile highway cruiser on a single fill, further contributing to its road-trip credentials and also proving to be surprisingly efficient. Hustle it through a turn, however, and you start to feel every single pound of it in the body roll and understeer (rental car tires don't help this). The steering can be artificially light at times and would benefit from a little extra weight to it to comply with the car's otherwise buttoned-down, solid and heavy feel, but the average 300 buyer probably cares very, very little about steering feel, and if they did they would probably have been looking at the Charger rather than the 300 in the first place.

Overall I wasn't blown away by the 300 but it didn't fail to provide comfortable, efficient, and pleasant means of travel while my car was in for service. Especially at the roughly $34,000 I figured my rental would sticker at (based on build-&-price on Chrysler's website), the 300 presents a good value proposition for a buyer looking for a big, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan. Everything about it felt like two-thirds of a recent Lexus LS, which is flattering on some levels but when you consider that the current LS dates back to 2006 it can be a bit of an insult. Rather though, I like to look at it in that a middle-class American sedan is on par with the ever-great top-of-the-line Japanese dynasty that is the Lexus LS model, even if the current generation of that car has been out for quite a while. It may be that the 300's styling no longer stands out is a metaphor for how we're becoming used to the fact that American cars are now generally recognized as good, and seeing one that's good out in the real world no longer demands your attention because we're simply used to it. What was once a breakout star, a car that was a sight to behold and a return to the old-style American way of building sedans, the Chrysler 300 has now become a regular, almost undistinguished vehicle that soldiers on alongside the steroid-fed, attention-demanding Charger. The 300 was at the forefront of a revolution for American cars, but now it's become a dulled-down, oft-forgotten option in the wide world of sedans. I almost wish this second-gen. 300 were more extreme, a little more like its predecessor; a little energy could go a long way in reviving what's a really solid yet fairly bland car, and one that absolutely deserves a look if your priorities are equal parts luxury and budget. If it wants to hit big sales again it needs to move forward, and maybe FCA's new-found energy can give it the attention it needs to make a statement once again as it did upon introduction over ten years ago.

-Ross, 12/7/15

All photos taken by myself on a Samsung Galaxy S6 and are unedited.

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