First Drive: 2015 Chrysler 200 [Review]

A rental fleet darling no more, the 2015 200 is new and improved in every way.

As anyone that's ever visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa can tell you, a good foundation is very important. Unfortunately for Chrysler's last-generation 200 sedan, introduced in 2011, its Sebring-sourced underpinnings were just as soft as the soil in Tuscany.

But Chrysler is hoping to erase all memories of that ill-fated 200 with an all-new model based on a much more solid Italian foundation - the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Sounds like a good starting point to us, but is it enough to transform the 200 from rental grade to a legitimate contender if the fiercely contested mid-size sedan segment? Come with us as we find out.

Looking the partAppearance is key to a good first impression, and the 2015 200 delivers on all fronts. Although not the most striking design that has ever graced a sedan, the 200 arrives with stylish sheet metal and a much improved interior.

The front end of the 200 is a bit bland to our eyes, but it's something we'll have to get used to - Chrysler says the 200's nose styling will be used as the "face” of the brand moving forward. We do at least like Chrysler's use of chrome accents (or dark chrome in the case of the 200S) and optional LED lighting elements.

The view starts to improve as you move to the side of the 200, revealing sculpted bodywork and a fast-sloping roofline. We even like the 200's thin side-view mirrors, which have a show car quality to them.

The rear three-quarters is probably the 200's best angle, showing off its wide haunches and ducktail spoiler. LED taillights and available integrated dual exhaust outlets help give the 200 a more up-scale look.

The 200's flowing lines continue inside where a newly designed center stack takes center stage. Infotainment duties are handled by a high-mounted 5-inch touch screen in base cars, while upper-end trim levels receive an 8.4-inch touchscreen running Chrysler Uconnect. We're big fans of Uconnect's seamless operation and ease of control, and the unit in the 200 did nothing to dissuade us from that stance.

The 200's curved center stack includes radio and HVAC controls that are within an easy arm's reach. The 200's rotary gear shifter may seem a little gimmicky, but actually works quite well in practice. Moreover, by ditching a traditional lever, Chrysler was able to open up the area under the console for additional storage. If you manage to fill up that space, there is plenty more under the center armrest.

The 200 uses a thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel with plenty of buttons to control the vehicle's various functions. Behind resides a dual-pod gauge cluster with a TFT screen in-between - a five-incher is standard but a 7-inch screen can be ordered. A constant blue glow adds some intrigue to the 200's instruments.

The 200 can be had with a number of different trim accents, but our money is on the matte wood.

The 200's front buckets proved to be comfortable and supportive during our day-long drive along the roads outside of Louisville, Kentucky, but we found the seating position a bit odd. Even at its lowest position, the driver's seat seemed to be sitting up too high.

Getting into the back of 200 doesn't requite the same limbo act as entering the Acura ZDX, but you will have to mind your head on that sloping roofline. Individuals six-feet and under should be just fine in the back of the 200, but those over that mark should call dibs on the front seat.

Road mannersThe 200 comes in four different flavors for 2015 -- LX, Limited, S and C. All 200 models come standard with a 184 horsepower 2.4L four-cylinder engine, nine-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.

Chrysler expects about 70 percent of all 200s to leave the factory with the four-cylinder, but our day in Kentucky was spent exclusively with the mid-sizer's optional 295 horsepower "Pentastar" 3.6-liter V6. We sampled both front- and all-wheel drive models.

The V6 offers plenty of punch off the line, particularly with the optional AWD system that can send as much as 60 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels. The nine-speed automatic shifts smoothly through the gears, but downshifts aren't handled as well. Due to the sheer volume of the gears on tap, we found that a quick stab of the gas pedal could result in the transmission "hunting” through two or even three gears before finding the right one. You can take the computer's decision making out of the equation by springing for the 200's optional steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Steering is quick and direct, but the 200's tiller is a bit on the numb side, particularity on-center. The 200 suspension doesn't mind being tossed through the corners, but it's best suited to soaking up road imperfections. Overall, we'd call the 200 athletic, but we're not quite sure it's ready for the "sports sedan” tag.

The detailsAs previously mentioned, the 2015 200 is available in four trim levels that span the gamut in terms of pricing and features.

The base model LX carries a base price of $21,700 ($95 less than last year's model) but, outside of a nine-speed transmission and push-button start, is pretty sparsely outfitted. Chrysler doesn't expect more than five percent of buyers to chose the 200 LX.

The Limited will be the sweet spot of the 200 lineup, offering a few more goodies and a reasonable $23,255 starting price.

The sport-minded 200S, which includes upgrades like black accents, dual exhaust, sport seats and paddle shifters, will carry an MSRP of $24,495.

Upgrading to the $25,995 200C brings standard leather, remote start, heated seats and a rear-view camera.

All-wheel drive can be added to any model for $2,200; the V6 tacks on another $1,950.

Although reasonably priced in base forms, the price of the 200 can rise rather quickly when the options are ticked. Our 200C AWD tester rang the register at a steep $35,670 and it didn't even include things like an optional $1,495 panoramic sunroof.

Leftlane's bottom lineA has-been no more, the 2015 Chrysler 200 is ready to run with the big names of the mid-size sedan segment.

Although probably not enough to topple cars like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, the 2015 200 puts Chrysler back on solid ground.

2015 Chrysler 200 base price range, $21,700 to $25,995.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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