2011 Chrysler 200

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The 2010 Chrysler Sebring was such a disaster, we named it one of the worst cars of the 2000s. More than a new name, what it needed was a complete redesign.

Instead, for 2011 the Sebring got the name "200," some updated sheet metal, a new interior and a reworked chassis, but it remains at least one step behind the market's best-selling family sedans.

The Sebring comes as a five-seat sedan or a four-seat convertible. Both layouts offer a four-cylinder or a V-6. Compare them here, or stack the 200 against the Sebring here. The related Dodge Avenger, which comes only as a sedan, boasts similar platform updates. I drove a four-cylinder 200 sedan and a V-6 200 convertible.

Nicer, Not Bigger

Redesigned extensively, the 200's interior ranks among its strengths. Chrysler needs to banish a few Sebring relics — including the clunky window controls and flimsy turn-signal and wiper stalks — but cabin materials are impressive for this class. Problem is, the Sebring's small dimensions live on. Cabin volume in the 200 sedan is a modest 100.3 cubic feet — 2.2 cubic feet less than the Sebring and on the small side for this class. It shows: The front seats feel nine-tenths the size they ought to be. The seat cushions are too short for proper thigh support, and at 5-foot-11, I could have used another inch or so of driver-seat travel.

The backseat has adult-friendly headroom, but legroom trails its class, in some cases by more than an inch. Adults will find their shins digging into the front seatbacks, and the low backseat will leave their knees too elevated. Other editors agreed: For many families, the 200 will be a tight fit.

Trunk volume in the 200 sedan matches the Sebring's underwhelming 13.6 cubic feet. That's the size of many compact-car trunks. Competing family sedans generally offer more; the Ford Fusion beats the 200 by more than 20 percent.

Get the V-6

I'm at a loss to explain why a car so small on the inside weighs more than nearly every major competitor. I can only describe the consequences: Chrysler's aging 2.4-liter World Engine is tasked with pulling the heavy 200 up to speed, and it emits a harsh, grainy sound as it does so. It gets the car there eventually, but the experience is neither quick nor refined. The also-heavy four-cylinder Chevy Malibu is similarly sluggish; others are both quicker and more fuel-efficient.

With 283 horsepower — 110 hp more than the four-cylinder — the optional 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is well worth the upgrade. Fellow editor Mike Hanley drove the V-6 sedan last fall, and he says it's a potent engine, moving the 200 with a vigor similar to the V-6 Honda Accord. If absolute power is your thing, though, the 200 can't outmuscle the V-6 Malibu or V-6 Toyota Camry, which are so quick you may not want to hand the keys to your teen driver.

All 200s but the LX sedan get a six-speed automatic. It upshifts smoothly and quickly around town, which is more than I could say for the 2010 Sebring's lurch-prone automatic. Still, the 200's auto can be indecisive in interstate passing lanes (that should be the left one, California), hunting for gears when you need it to kick down and pick one already. I didn't drive the base LX, which gets a four-speed automatic.

Regardless of the transmission, the four-cylinder 200 sedan gets 24 mpg in the EPA's combined city/highway rating. That's subpar, given that many four-cylinder family cars get 26 or 27 mpg. Chrysler says a dual-clutch automatic is coming for the four-cylinder, which should improve mileage.

The 3.6-liter 200 is rated 22 mpg, which isn't bad for a V-6. One complaint: Chrysler recommends midgrade (89-octane) gasoline for maximum performance. Most competing V-6s achieve full performance on regular.

Ride, Handling & Braking

The Sebring rode softly, but had a tendency to bounce like a pogo stick after manhole covers and potholes. The 200's suspension has been overhauled, Chrysler says; indeed, the pogo-stick effect is mostly gone, but there are still moments of floaty turbulence over broken pavement. The car does still have a soft ride, thankfully. The suspension isolates bumps with refinement similar to the Malibu and most Camrys, and the cabin keeps road and wind noise low.

Though better than the Sebring, the 200 is still not a driver's car. The well-assisted steering is vague on winding roads. The power assist never really abates, so the wheel feels too loose on the highway. In sweeping corners, the 200's nose pushes gradually, but the body leans too much, even for a family car. My only praise goes to the brakes, which offer admirably linear pedal feel.

200 convertible

The 200 convertible weighs about 425 pounds more than the sedan — no small amount — and it shows. Our test car's V-6, which Chrysler expects to power some 90 percent of convertibles, pulled well from a stop, but with two occupants it needed its full reserves to climb mountain roads. This is no V-6 Mustang.

The 200 convertible fares better as a straight-line cruiser. The body flexes a bit over bumps, but it feels as composed as a comfort-oriented $30,000 convertible should. One caveat: I drove only the soft-top 200 convertible. The Limited has an optional folding hardtop, which, in the outgoing hardtop Sebring convertible, proved a creaky bedfellow.

Against a backdrop of other affordable convertibles, backseat legroom and headroom in the droptop 200 are entirely acceptable. Unlike the sedan, it has more than enough seat travel up front. Trunk volume is 13.1 cubic feet with the top up, which is good: The Mustang and Camaro convertibles have less than 11 cubic feet.

Safety, Features & Pricing

In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the 200 sedan earned the top score, Good, across all categories. Accordingly, the car is an IIHS Top Safety Pick — a distinction several competitors share. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not yet tested the car. Standard features include the usual complement of front, side and curtain airbags, as well as active head restraints, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list.

With a starting price of just $19,245, the base 200 LX packs impressive value. It's one of just three family cars you can get with an automatic for under $20,000 — the others being the Nissan Altima and the 200's Avenger sibling. Remote entry, cruise control, air conditioning and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack and steering-wheel audio controls are also standard.

Move up to the 200's Touring and Limited trims and you can get a power driver's seat, an iPod-compatible Boston Acoustics stereo, a navigation system, heated leather upholstery and a moonroof.  A V-6 Limited sedan tops out around $27,000. That's less than optioned-out competitors, but the 200 sedan doesn't offer things like dual-zone climate control or a power passenger seat, which most of them do.

As of this writing, there are few details and no pricing information yet on the forthcoming 200 S, which will slot above the Limited. The 200 convertible, meanwhile, comes in Touring and Limited trims. Prices range from $26,445 for the soft-top four-cylinder Touring to around $35,000 for a loaded hardtop V-6 Limited.

200 in the Market

Chrysler drained a lot of bathwater, but this is an instance where the baby needed to go. CEO Sergio Marchionne told us last January that the company was working to give the 200 upgrades that reflect its "fully updated technology, powertrain and architecture." New transmissions could signal major improvements in gas mileage, but fixing certain inherent characteristics — the smallish cabin and trunk, for example — will take much more than engineering updates. What's more, Chrysler will need to prove that this car is reliable; the Sebring was decidedly not.

As it stands, the 200 still brings impressive value to a segment where value is important. But to stand side by side with the Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, Chrysler needs more than just that.

Snapshot:

Starting MSRP $19,245 – $31,740

EPA Fuel Economy:

City: 18 – 21

Highway: 29 – 31

Available Engines:

173-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)

283-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 (flexible; E85)

Available Transmissions:

4-speed automatic w/OD

6-speed multi-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable

• New for 2011

• Related to outgoing Sebring

• Four-cylinder or V-6

• Sedan or convertible

• Standard automatic transmission

What We Like

• V-6 acceleration and fuel efficiency (sedan)

• Richer interior materials

• Overall value

 
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