Chicago 2014: The One "Imported from Detroit"

Forget what you know about the Chrysler 200.

Forget its roots – the Chrysler Sebring upgraded by mandate of Fiat Auto to save the Pentastar from oblivion. Forget that Eminem drove it around Detroit only to make a declaration on stage at the Fox Theatre in 2011. Forget how fun it was to drive last year in its Touring "S" guise with the pre-Tigershark 2.4liter under the hood.

The Chrysler 200 you know from rental fleets, rebounding retail sales and everything else it evokes is dust. It was time to do something different – if not better.

One of the reasons I attend the Chicago Auto Show is to catch up on debuts I witnessed from my laptop screen. The buzz was heavy on the 2015 Chrysler 200. The overall design package and the promises it packs caught the imagination of even the most cynical of my colleagues. Yet, I wanted to hold judgment until I was able to scrutinize it in person – albeit in pre-production/prototype form.

There is a lot riding on the new 200. It will be thrusted into the same mid-sized family sedan segment that has been owned by the likes of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and the Ford Fusion. It also has to play bumper cars with the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Chevrolet Malibu – not exactly also-rans in this class.

On a personal level, it not only needs to be accommodating as the leaders in the class, it has to be a driver's sedan. A sedan I would not be afraid to chuck around a corner or feel comfortable enough to manage longer journeys – to Sioux Falls or Madison, for example. Currently, only one car meets my criteria for superb driving manners and space utilization – the Mazda6.

The Mazda6 is not the only measuring stick here. The 200 also plays the role of being a premium grade car. Its lower price may speak otherwise, but the Limited and the "full" S offers up higher level of materials that you’d expect from a Chrysler brand automobile. If one car exists in its class that would offer a challenge against premium and sporty versions of the 200 – consider the Buick Regal as game for Chrysler.

With expectations on those levels – the 2015 Chrysler 200 better be damn good.

The new 200 is based on a Fiat Auto platform that began life as the Dodge Dart. It has been stretched to include the new Jeep Cherokee. It seemed natural to stretch it for the purpose of a mid-sized family sedan. Doing so would enable a stronger shell and chassis components that would accommodate a large four-cylinder and two Pentastar V6s.

The look may appear to be derivative, but there is plenty to love about the 200's appearance. It goes against the grain of the brand giving it a more global look, while exuding luxury and class. At first glance, I could tell that they matured the Dart’s design into this global image. Attractive is just scratching the surface. From what my colleagues have stated, I agree with the superlatives given when feasting eyes upon the new 200.

2015 Chrysler 200

In terms of mid-sized sedans, my main focus is interior space. I want to be comfortable behind the wheel, while accommodating four adults. The compromise would be to allow for a more touring sedan set-up where back seat passengers are not required to ride along. The new 200 certainly leans towards the latter. The driver's space is sporting, luxurious and spacious. The instrument binnacle now offers a smaller version of the switchable screen for trip, fuel economy and vehicle functions. The steering wheel is all-new with better switches for audio, cruise and screen functions. It is smaller, but grippier.

Perhaps the one feature that will trump the Mazda6 is the UConnect Touch 8.4-inch screen. The major complaint on the Mazda is the infotainment interface – it is slow, buggy and rather semi-intuitive. UConnect Touch is faster and more intuitive. My experience with this screen has been mostly positive, which alone makes the potential driving experience of the new 200 more pleasurable.

Something different for Chrysler is the front console area is the placement of the HVAC controls. Normally, they would "hang" off the bottom of the UConnect screen. Now, you can control your climate off of the new aft console, which may be a challenge for some. Also, do not expect the traditional gear lever or the t-bar toggle found on some Chrysler Group models. There is a knob – one used on the Dodge Durango and Ram 1500 – that follows the tradition PRND pattern for automatic transmissions. This section of the interior is designed for one thing – creating an "auto pilot" atmosphere for the daily driver.

Seating is wide and comfortable up front. I immediately found a "home" behind the 200's wheel. In the back is a slightly different story. Though I have headroom in the rear – a plus considering most of the competition in this class – legroom is a bit taxed if I sat behind me. Yet, it would be easy to comfortably accommodate four adults inside of the new 200.

Power starts from the new Tigershark 2.4liter four-cylinder engine. The 200 will get 184 out of the reconstituted former "World Engine," now with Fiat's MultiAir II induction system. Consider at horsepower rating for a moment – that is the average for the class amongst naturally-aspirated four cylinders.

The one thing that will carry over from the old 200 is the one engine all mid-sizers should fear – the 3.6liter Pentastar V6. Why should they fear it? One number: 295 horsepower. This is not just about performance, but rather the efficient use of it. The Pentastar V6 will claim high 20s to 31MPG, depending on model.

Either engine will be connected to ZF's brand-new nine-speed automatic for front-drive applications. Already installed on the new Jeep Cherokee, the nine-speeder presents the promise for fuel efficiency. Driving power is sent to the front wheels, however choosing the V6 will get you all-wheel drive standard. You cloud also get all-wheel drive with the four-cylinder, with a big surprise. Chrysler states that this is the first AWD system with a rear axle disconnect system that is designed for even better fuel efficiency. This is actually the same AWD system found on some Jeep Cherokees.

2015 Chrysler 200

The 2015 Chrysler 200 sounds fantastic. But, how does it stack up to the "go-to" mid-sizer of the moment and the 2011 Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year? Without driving the new 200, it would be difficult to speculate whether Chrysler created either a car as road worthy as the Mazda6 or the Buick Regal. What the 200 offered so far is a bridge between these two competitors with the ante upped in terms of exterior and interior design, cabin space and the availability of the V6 and an advanced drivetrain.

The next logical step is to drive one. We may have to wait quite a while for that to happen. For now, enjoy the views.

All photos by Randy Stern

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