2011 Chrysler 300C
For most of its history, the American motoring scene has been dominated by the big, rear-wheel drive sedan.
It was always a love-hate relationship. In the early days, there was little else available, and we enjoyed the elegance and comfort of some of the better examples.
But we also hated winters, our shoulders shoved against the heavy body work to get a stuck motorist moving in the snow, along with the sloppy handling under ordinary circumstances. As famed racing entrepreneur Carroll Shelby once described rear-drive muscle cars: “Great motors; couldn’t turn, couldn’t stop.”The big guys mostly are gone now, replaced by smaller front-wheel drive sedans and coupes, as well as crossover utility vehicles in a variety of sizes and shapes. Venerable rear-drive survivors like the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car are on their way out, though still favored by police departments and livery services.
There are scattered other rear-drivers from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, BMW, Cadillac and Infiniti. But only a few are genuinely large cars, and they are expensive luxury models.
Only Chrysler, the smallest of the three American manufacturers, still produces the revered and reviled Big Detroit Iron. They carry two nameplates: Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. And they are, of course, nothing like their clumsy and thirsty ancestors.
Though in profile it looks much like its six-year-old predecessor, the 2011 Chrysler 300 sedan has been redesigned from the pavement up to provide a modern automotive homage to tradition. As German-born Klaus Busse, Chrysler’s head of interior design, puts it: “This car is proud to be an American.”
Anyone who knows cars will testify that front-wheel drive is a good choice for the everyman driver. Because the power always goes in the direction the front wheels are pointed, it provides more confident handling under ordinary circumstances—not to mention more capability in struggling out of snow banks.
On the other hand, when you move into the high-performance end of the equation, with brute force from big engines, the design choice invariably skews to rear-wheel drive and, in some cases, all-wheel drive. The reason is that, other things equal, it provides better power transfer to the pavement, balance and handling.The 2011 Chrysler 300 delivers all of it. There are four versions: the 300 and 300 Limited, with 292-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engines, and the 300C and 300C with all-wheel drive, powered by Chrysler’s 363-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine.
All deliver the power to the pavement through a five-speed automatic transmission with Chrysler’s Auto Stick manual-shift mode, which is the most intuitive of its genre. The shifter moves side-to-side, with downshifts to the left and up-shifts to the right.
Although the five-speed changes gear ratios and handles the power seamlessly, it gives up bragging rights to competitors that now offer six, seven and even eight-speed automatic transmissions. But you’d have to be really picky to fault the Chrysler’s automatic.
For many people, the V6 should suffice. With a starting price of $27,995, the 300 has the heft and feel cherished by big-car aficionados, with enough power for most circumstances, long-distance comfort and relatively decent fuel economy of 18/25 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle.
That places it squarely in the aspiration sights of the vast middle class. But Chrysler also makes a 300 that aspires to more lofty heights as a high-performance luxury car. That would be the tested 300C with all-wheel drive and the 363-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V8.
With a starting price of $41,145 and, in this instance, a tested price of $45,885—entry-level luxury territory—the 300C AWD has all the amenities offered by some European luxury makes that cost twice as much.It includes, as standard equipment, computerized cylinder deactivation, which means it runs on just four cylinders during leisurely freeway cruising. That enables it to score a city/highway EPA fuel economy rating of 15/23 miles to the gallon.
Overall, the 300C AWD has a heftier, more substantial feel than its V6 sibling, emphasized by the stout rim of the steering wheel. The surroundings are, in keeping with Chrysler’s new attention to interior design, understated and classy. On the test car, the trappings included grained wood trim and a panoramic glass sunroof.
The seats are big and comfortable but lack much in the way of lateral support. That could be a shortcoming in trying to drive rapidly on twisting roads. Although the 300C’s sheer bulk discourages such behavior, it can be driven like a sports sedan and the all-wheel drive provides the needed extra grip.
The 300C’s forte is gobbling up miles on the interstates. It is rock-steady at triple-digit speeds—not unlike big German luxury sedans—and there is little intrusion of road, wind or mechanical noise. This fits the time-honored definition of a great road car. For long-distance touring, even the cup holders are heated and/or cooled.
Surprisingly, the outboard back seats are only adequate for average-sized humans. The center-rear position is cramped and impossible, with a massive intrusion from the driveline hump and the center console.