Driven: 2011 Chrysler 300C
—San Diego, California
There is little argument to the fact of the last-generation Chrysler 300C being a very well received car during its time on sale in the US (2005-2010). Not only did the 300 record massive sales in those first few years—over 250K units through model year 2007—but it was a critical darling, too. That’s a fact that was far from lost on Chrysler’s PR team as they introduced members of the media to the new car this week, as the assemblage of marketers, executives, and engineers managed to utter some version of the phrase “most awarded car in history” about once every four minutes. We get it, people liked what the 300 was selling.
Only, that’s not the full story. What we didn’t hear was the part about the model’s sales falling off a cliff for the last three years (years that were terrible market-wide, admittedly), and the part about increasing dissatisfaction, from the public and the press, about interiors feeling far less plush than the newer competitive set. For all of its early accolades, the big Chrysler has been feeling outgunned for a few years now.
All of that means that the job of the new 2011 300C was going to be doubly difficult. The car would have to live up to the high standards of the original machine, while still being enough of a leap forward to shake the now dubious associations of “the old” Chrysler.
To help with getting the car just right, Chrysler chose to benchmark vehicles that were high up on the refinement scale: Lexus LS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and BMW 5-Series were mentioned as targets. The resultant product may not, still, have the cachet to draw away buyers from that premium segment, but it has been upgraded in a direction that can be legitimately described as luxurious.
The first noticeable instantiation of this theme is the good work that has been done to refine the 300C’s interior. As we noted and reported on when we drove a group of new Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep products recently, interior quality has gone from a class behind to truly competitive. Dash plastics feel soft and richly grained, and melt seamlessly into full leather bits like the hood over the driver’s gauge cluster. Those gauges themselves are well executed; there are upscale metallic finishes and blue lighting, with bold, clear, and easy-to-read graphics.
The jewel of the center console is the huge, 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system. The system offers access to all HVAC, media player/radio controls, Bluetooth-paired cell phone, navigation controls, and a lot more. We found the system extraordinarily easy to navigate and use, though there were just a few hiccups when it came to functionality with our iPhone. (A really long loading time for the system to read all of the music we had, and the inability to sort by “playlist” were both somewhat frustrating.) Still, with its large dimensions and display clarity, we’d be shocked if this system didn’t help Chrysler dealers seal the deal with a lot of buyers.
From a driving perspective, Chrysler’s biggest update for the interior has to be the fat, full-featured new steering wheel. While we’re not crazy about the top-third being rendered in wood (its just harder to hold onto), the thickness of the wheel definitely sets the tone for a serious driving experience. The seats, meanwhile, feel true to the outgoing car, which is to say that they are thick, comfortable, but a bit under-bolstered for fast driving.
And speed is certainly an option here. Chrysler’s 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is a welcome carryover from the last-gen car, with its 363 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque providing no less of a thrill in this new car. Application of all that power to the rear wheels (AWD is optional for the 300C as well) is sinuous and smooth, and acceleration from almost any double-digit speed is flowing and fast. There’s enough torque on tap from the Hemi that we’re able to credibly turn a blind eye to the outdated five-speed automatic transmission—especially knowing that Chrysler has got an eight-speed replacement in the works for the not-distant future. Enthusiast drivers won’t be rewarded for using the manumatic Auto Stick with its left/right up- and downshifts, but they will enjoy hearing just a touch of menace in the V-8 exhaust note if they let the revs climb.
V-8 growl to the side, the major revision to the 300C package for 2011 has focused on overall refinement. We already discussed the more refined interior, so it makes sense that the engineers have taken the same approach when it comes to NVH tuning and handling. The result is fairly remarkable, even in the context of true luxury models. We encountered very little in the way of unfiltered road noise—on a great variety of road surfaces, and while pushing the car to quite high speeds. Tuning for wind noise is especially impressive. Despite retaining most of the bluff, boxy good looks of the old car, this 300 cuts through the air with just a whisper of wind rush. Tire noise is just a hair louder, but still, overall decibel levels are ridiculously low. Lexus, Cadillac, Mercedes, and BMW would likely all be happy with this kind of NVH performance.
The ride and handling have been tuned with similar refinement, creating a car that really does filter out nearly all of the harshness of the road surface beneath. And, while the car was still quite willing to turn-in and be pushed through the California countryside, the ride never felt a whit jittery or choppy. The downside here, for enthusiast drivers (and the Winding Road Involvement Index), is that the 300 achieves such high levels of refinement by really isolating its pilot from what’s happening outside of the car. The steering, despite having the benefit of that really nice-to-hold wheel, is overly light, disconnected from the feeling of the front wheels, and a bit vague for a few degrees around the center line. Other than at the top end, the sonic profile of the engine/exhaust won’t draw you in, either. And, as discussed earlier, the working of the automatic transmission offers not much in terms of sporting fun. So, the 300C becomes a car that is far better at comforting its occupants while the miles blur by, while not adding much to the enthusiast pantheon. That’s fine.
We’re okay with that verdict, at least for now, for a few reasons:
1. The primary goal of the 300C is to serve as a near-luxury flagship for the brand. That goal has been achieved here.
2. A lot of drivers/car shoppers really value smooth, quiet, and fast cars. They will like this one.
3. We know that the SRT8 version is coming in the near future (probably making a debut at this year’s New York Auto Show). That car will be responsible for carrying the torch of wild fun in a big body from the outgoing 300.
The last Chrysler 300C was so well received by the world for a very good reason; it offered distinctly American styling with performance to back it up, and it did so at a price well below any of the premium cars that could boast similar stats. This 2011 car, while not utterly re-defining the nameplate, proves worthy of one of Chrysler’s most revered badges, and should be an immediate add to the shopping list for anyone considering a full-size sedan.
2011 Chrysler 300C
Engine: V-8, 5.7 liters, 16v
Output: 363 hp/394 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.8 sec (est)
Weight: 4270 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 16/25
Base Price: $38,995
On Sale: February 2011