Warren Brown
Warren Brown
Columnist

2012 Chrysler 200: Detroit plays a good game of catch-up

(Courtesy of Chrysler)

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My column of June 26 upset a lot of people. I criticized what, in my opinion, are the pedestrian looks of the 2012 Honda Civic HF. That brought forth retorts that I did not write about the Civic’s many virtues, which I did. I wrote that it was reliable, durable, well constructed and safe. I said it was an excellent driver — especially in urban settings, where it proves to be highly maneuverable and easy to park.

But none of that was the point of my missive.

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The point was, and remains, that the world has changed. Despite their marketing claims to the contrary, neither Honda nor Toyota, nor any of their famous rivals in Germany, now dominates the global automobile market in terms of overall quality, reliability, safety or value.

Every global car manufacturer offers all, or certainly a significant number, of those attributes, which constitute the basic price of admission in today’s automotive market. Thus, the battle today in the car business is not so much for consumers’ minds as it is for their hearts.

The hearts battle is being fought the way it’s been fought for ages in love and business: with good looks and value, the latter being the art of exceeding customer expectations, giving people more car than they expect for the price paid.

Consider, for example, the 2012 Chrysler 200 Touring convertible, the subject of this week’s review. It is a front-wheel-drive mid-size family sedan, the structural and mechanical progeny of the once-reviled and largely ignored Chrysler Sebring.

Yet, despite its less-than-stellar heritage, the Chrysler 200 Touring convertible drew lustful glances everywhere I drove and parked it. Spectators speculated that its asking price was $20,000 to $30,000 higher than its actual base tag of $26,445. They liked it at what they thought was $46,000, or even $56,000. They absolutely fell in love with it at $26,000.

How did a recently bankrupt Chrysler pull this off?

The answer is in exterior and interior design. Someone at the reorganized Chrysler, now the Chrysler Group, decided to let the company’s designers do what they do best — make stunningly beautiful cars, but this time with better materials.

The old Chrysler was stingy with money spent on materials for automotive interiors. That meanness showed in the cheap vinyl, tacky cloth and, when offered as optional equipment, third-rate leather used in previous Chrysler automobiles — much of it put together as poorly as it looked. As evidenced by the 200 Touring convertible, the new Chrysler has jettisoned those bad practices.

Interior materials are now among best in class for a mid-size family sedan. They are put together beautifully. They look and feel richer than they are, an illusion helped by creative interior design featuring judiciously placed brightwork, including a jewel-like analog clock atop the center console.

There is comfort. With 88.4 cubic feet of passenger space, the 200 Touring convertible has pleasant seating for four adults. Unlike many convertibles, the 200 Touring also has truly usable trunk space — 13.1 cubic feet.

The Sebring predecessor to the Chrysler 200 was not ugly. But it was not nearly as attractive as the 200, a bit of magic made possible by a modest but smart reshaping of exterior metal front and rear, giving the car a sleeker, sportier, richer look. The cosmetic surgery is helped by the use of light-emitting diodes in the perimeters of the head and tail lamps.

Here’s betting that the Chrysler 200, both the convertible and the hardtop sedan, will attract buyers who would not have considered their Sebring predecessors. Every buyer won by the Chrysler 200 theoretically takes one away from a rival Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, just as every buyer won by a comparable Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu or Nissan Altima takes market share from someone else.

That’s the point. War is raging in the markets for small and mid-size cars. It is a conflict made more fierce by the demonstrable reality that all combatants have reached parity in reliability, durability, safety and performance. To put it another way, companies once thought incapable of competing, or unwilling to compete, in the markets for small and mid-size cars have now committed brains and resources to the fight.

Three major developments have shifted momentum to the rivals of Toyota and Honda, once the undisputed leaders of automotive quality.

First, product quality, assisted by remarkable advances in computer engineering and design, has improved for everyone, including for those once easily maligned “Detroit” car manufacturers.

Second, Korean automakers have figured out how to bring forth that quality at prices considerably below those of many rivals, upsetting traditional notions of luxury and value.

Third, climate concerns have rendered as silly the traditional, myopic “car guy” affection for horsepower and speed for the sake of speed.

Thus, the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (173 horsepower, 166 foot-pounds of torque) used in the Chrysler Sebring and now the Chrysler 200 gets more respect today than it did in its predecessor iteration. It still has critics. But nowadays they are complaining about fuel economy instead of “lack of power.” Chrysler’s four-cylinder engine, running on regular gasoline, averages 18 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. Critics say it should get more. I agree.

But Chrysler has developed a flexible-fuel V-6 engine that runs on regular unleaded gasoline, 85 percent ethanol fuel or any combination of the two. It offers zoom (283 horsepower, 260 foot-pounds of torque) along with mileage practically identical to that of the 200 Touring’s four-cylinder engine. Credit computer technology and advanced engine design. The V-6 is offered as an option in the 200 Touring and as standard equipment in the 200 Limited and 200 S. That extra “fun-to-drive” will cost you $1,800 more in the 200 Touring convertible.

None of this is to imply that Honda and Toyota have slipped from their quality perches, although Toyota has had its share of quality problems lately. It is just to state, emphatically, that their formerly lackluster rivals are gaining, and gaining quickly. Anyone doubting that should check out the 2012 Chrysler 200 Touring convertible. Proof enough.

 
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