First Drive: 2011 Chrysler 300 [Review]

More than just a nip-and-tuck, Chrysler's flagship sedan gets a new engine and a myriad of major and minor updates for the new year.

Remaking an icon is no easy task. Just ask Volkswagen, which is beginning its third Beetle re-interpretation, or MINI, which keeps maximizing its theme with new iterations.

Unlike those reborn icons, the Chrysler 300 became a legend in its own time almost overnight when it was introduced back in 2005. A few years on, Chrysler's rock star flagship was becoming something of a relic - and not in a good way - so the newly reinvigorated Pentastar brand pumped some serious effort into version 2.0.

Although its basic platform can trace its roots back to a mid-'90s Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Chrysler calls the 300 an all-new design for 2011. Underneath its reshaped body, it features a heavily revised suspension that sits lower to the ground and pushes the wheels out even further. Inside, however, is where it makes perhaps its biggest gains thanks to a level of quality that eclipses its built-to-a-price predecessor.

A little background
A simplified lineup sees just two engines motivating the rear or all-wheel-drive (V8 only) 300. Base models, which no longer live up to their entry-level status, feature a 292-horsepower version of Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, while the 300C returns with its 363-pony 5.7-liter Hemi V8.

A fleet-spec trim level is no longer offered, meaning even the cheapest ($27,995) 300 comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and go, Bluetooth, LED running lamps and a trick 8.4-inch touchscreen in the dashboard. Add four grand to get heated leather seats, a fancy stereo, a rear camera and more. Spend $38,995 and you'll gain the letter C, which adds the Hemi and enough goodies to scare BMW and Mercedes-Benz, let alone the Hyundai Genesis.

What's more, no 300 looks like a stripped out model any longer. The 300's short roof, high beltline appearance remains, but flared fenders and hard edges softly transition into a fluid appearance. From every angle, the 2011 is clearly a Chrysler 300 - albeit one on growth hormones.

Park the new car next to a 2010 and the differences become more obvious. The 2011's taller greenhouse gives it less of a chopped and channeled custom car appearance, while its new brand-centric grille no longer evokes Bentley (yes, a Bentley-like grille is still available through the accessory catalog). Especially nice touches round out the rear, which begins with lightly finned fender tops and culminates in jewelry-like tail lamps. Chrysler says it channeled vintage 300s from the '50s, and while we don't see obvious cues, we get the overall impression of elegance.

If anything, Chrysler's effort to make V6 models look and feel like pricey cars leaves us wondering why the 300C doesn't gain more than a modicum of small detail upgrades. A unique grille and more aggressive bodykit would make the 300C feel even more special, but we guess that will be where the upcoming 300C SRT8 comes into play.

Class act
Climb aboard and that exterior familiarity fades away. Not even the awkwardly long dash and short roof proportions of the 2010 remain. Instead, a waterfall-style dashboard flows into a nicely-arranged center console and easy chair-like cloth or leather seats envelope their occupants.

Unlike its Dodge Charger platform mate, the 300's inner trappings are not canted toward the driver. The mood instead aims for plusher luxury cars like the Lexus LS 460. For well under half the price of that icon of its own, the 300 offers few compromises.

Its 8.4-inch touchscreen system doesn't offer all of the functionality of Ford's Sync or even Toyota's upcoming Entune, but it counters by being intuitive and user-friendly while still offering the weather, sports score and gas station updates provided by Sirius Travel Link. Models equipped with navigation feature familiar Garmin-developed software.

Back seat passengers enjoy plenty of legroom and the availability of heated rear seats and a power-retracting rear sunshade that can be controlled by either the front or second row.

Materials throughout set the standard for the class and make the Ford Taurus and even the Hyundai Genesis feel like they were built down to a price point.

Driving force
We sampled all three 300 variants, beginning at the bottom of the pile with the V6 and moving up through rear and all-wheel-drive V8-powered 300Cs (V6s are powered by the rear wheels only). A fire-breathing 6.4-liter 300C SRT8 will come later this year.

Slip behind the wheel of the base 300 - even one with no options - and it becomes obvious that this is no longer a rental fleet special. Aside from the upgraded inner trappings, the 300's 292-horsepower V6 gives it performance surprisingly close to the V8. Unlike the outgoing 300, which once made due with a 190 pony 2.7-liter V6, the new engine delivers solid pace and even more impressive refinement. As in other Chrysler products we have sampled, it idles smoothly and builds power in a linear manner.

Adding the C to the rear deck brings the HEMI 5.7-liter unit, which puts out 363 ponies and 394 lb-ft. of torque. Power is never lacking, although we noticed a slight drop off in perceived thrust behind the wheel of the 250 lbs. portlier all-wheel-drive model. If you're counting, a V6 300 checks in at just under 4,000 lbs., while an all-wheel-drive 300C weighs 4,500 lbs.

All 300s feature a five-speed automatic with a side-to-side manumatic system that serves up smooth but still perceptible shifts, even on hard acceleration.

Likewise, all 300s also make due with a modestly retuned suspension mated to a new steering gear system. The difference is truly night-and-day, with the new model tracking confidently through corners and offering a significant improvement in steering feel. A BMW M3 it is not, but the 300 is noticeably more tossable in the twisties while being more stable in sweeping corners.

Ride quality is dramatically improved, too. A stout structure combines with comfortable damping to deliver a ride that stays on the soft side, although we didn't detect undue body lean.

Compared to its Charger sibling, the 300 is marginally plusher and considerably quieter. Think of it as the Mercedes-Benz compared to the Charger's BMW - only for about half the price.

You get what you pay for, but the 300 has us wondering if the high-profile brands are really worth the extra coin any more.

Leftlane's bottom line
Chrysler kept the old 300's swagger, but it tossed out everything else we knew about its flagship sedan. An upgraded interior combines with a vastly improved driving experience to make any 300 feel genuinely world class.

The 300 is once again at the top of its game and it finally has more than just the style to take on far pricier luxury grade sedans.

2011 Chrysler 300 base price range, $27,995 to $38,995.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.