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Chrysler's new designs represent an about-face

May 07, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Get ready for the next-generation of domestic family haulers from Daimler/Chrysler. Be warned, these radically reengineered cars will take some getting used to.

Due out this spring, the 2005 Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon are a clear departure from the company's current front-wheel-drive Chrysler Concorde, Chrysler 300M and Dodge Intrepid sedans. They also represent an about-face in family-car design philosophy. Bigger is touted as better and rear-wheel drive/V-8 performance is what, at least in Daimler-Chrysler's eyes, many buyers really want. (All-wheel drive is an option).

In one bold stroke, the company has completely distanced itself from the competition - as well as its current crop of "Cab Forward" machinery - and has returned to its full-size 1970s-era roots.

Compared to the outgoing full-size cars, the 300 and Magnum are actually about 10 inches shorter in total length, while the wheelbase has been stretched by a half-foot. As well, they're more than 2.5 inches taller. The result is a much larger - perhaps even a bit sinister - stance, especially when you factor in the bulging fenders, extra tall doors and "chopped" roofline.

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The reasons for embarking on such drastic changes are clear. The domestic-sedan market has been losing considerable ground to Japanese-based competitors, with cars such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, in particular, leading the charge. As well, their luxury offshoots (Acura and Lexus models, respectively) are encroaching on the up-level end of the business.

The new Chrysler/Dodge duo is poised to counter this trend by offering buyers a traditional North American big car with plenty of power turning the rear wheels.

The Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum RT, as the top-line models are called, will be equipped with the corporation's 340-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 connected to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection capability.

According to Daimler-Chrysler, this particular drivetrain combo is good for hitting 60 mph in a scant 6.3 seconds, not bad numbers for a pair of two-ton "family" cars.

To keep fuel consumption in check, four of the eight cylinders shut down when the load is light. This innovative system activates so quickly that drivers are never supposed to notice the transition. The projected city/highway fuel reduction isn't huge - around 10 percent compared to a Hemi V-8 without the system - but every little bit of savings is welcome, especially on models carrying the extra weight of all-wheel drive.

For anyone not obsessed by the Hemi's torque-twisting shenanigans, the mid-level 300 Touring and Limited, as well as the Magnum SXT, come with a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter SOHC V-6, while the base 300 sedan and Magnum SE wagon make do with a 2.7-liter DOHC V-6. Each six-cylinder engine is matched to four-speed automatic transmissions.

All models will arrive with a strong dose of standard equipment, however you'll have to pay up to get traction and stability control (a good idea for rear-drive units), anti-lock brakes; side-curtain air bags and rear-backup assist.

Very interesting, but one issue remains. For years, manufacturers have conditioned us to believe that front-wheel-drive cars are better (especially in terms of traction, overall weight and interior room) and that small-displacement, fuel-sipping engines are where it's at. How willing, then, will we accept an alternate philosophy and re-embrace rear-wheel-drive cars and muscular V-8 power?

There's no doubt a market for full-size performance-oriented rear- and all-wheel-drive sedans and wagons. After all, premium manufacturers, including DaimlerChrysler's senior partner, Mercedes-Benz, has been proving it for years.

If that approach can be extended to more affordable Dodge and Chrysler products, thereby injecting new life and more performance into the full-size domestic market, the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum will hit the road and never look back.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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