Elegance and panache at any speed.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $28,995
As Tested $30,390

Surely this car influenced the folks at Mercedes-Benz before closing the recent Daimler-Chrysler mega-merger. The 1999 Chrysler LHS is a beautiful car. Its big egg-crate grille, sculptured headlamps and fluted hood show once again Chrysler isn't afraid to step out of the box. Its designers have forged ahead, leaving the rest of Detroit and much of the world back in the 1990s. The LHS fills out Chrysler's line of expressive leading-edge designs.

Fortunately, the distinctive design is backed up by the driving experience. Totally new for 1999, the LHS is a joy to drive. It rides smoothly and handles remarkably well for a full-size front-wheel-drive sedan.

Walkaround

With its graceful, fluid lines, Chrysler LHS emulates the craftsmanship of classic automobiles. It is a classic, yet contemporary design penned by 37-year-old Mark Hall, who designed the Chrysler Concorde. The new LHS looks less formal than the previous-generation LHS, yet more graceful, more elegant. Like the Concorde, LHS was designed with the look of a coupe to make the four-door sedan look sleeker than other cars in its class.

The most noticeable design element is that grille, edged in chrome and adorned with a big winged Chrysler medallion. Like its less-adorned cousin, the Chrysler Concorde, the front fascia on the LHS has been engineered to meet impact requirements without the need for an external bumper. Sculptured headlamp bezels surround compact projector beams with integrated fog lamps and turn signals. The shape they describe flows seamlessly into the fluted aluminum hood. Augmenting the headlamps are driving lights molded into the lower fascia.

Viewed from the side, the lower sill ties the unique front and rear fascias together. It reduces aerodynamic drag and complements the larger wheels and tires used on the LHS. The rear roofline, or C-pillar, describes a faster arc than previous-generation LHS for a more contemporary rear rake. A winged Chrysler medallion adorns the deck lid, while wrap-around taillamps have a red/amber split to delineate the stop and turn functions. Oversized reverse lamps, molded into the lower part of the fascia, are brighter and highly functional, an improvement over the previous model. A pair of stainless steel oval exhaust tips indicates the added power and performance of the new V-6 engine.

The new all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-6 is unique to LHS and 300M delivers 253 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque. Designed to deliver power across a broad torque range, it emulates the power characteristics of classic American V-8s. With 24 valves and single overhead cams, it delivers an 18-percent increase in power over the cast-iron engine it replaces. Mid-grade 89-octane gasoline delivers the best performance, but it will run fine on 87 octane. A host of new features, such as six-bolt main bearing caps, help reduce vibration. A highly refined four-speed electronically controlled transmission is standard.

The LHS uses the same suspension architecture as the new 300M, but the LHS strut valves were tuned with longer ride motions than on the 300M for a more luxurious ride quality. That's not to say the LHS is sloppy; it provides excellent handling response and agility for a car of its size. It does not feel like a traditional American luxobarge.

The front suspension and powertrain are mounted on a new system of four hydroformed steel tubes that are lighter, stiffer and dimensionally more accurate than the previous setup. Hydroforming involves forcing water into a tube at extremely high pressures to form the subframe, resulting in a structure that is far more rigid than welded parts. This system improves handling and ride quality, while reducing noise, vibration and harshness. The rear suspension uses multiple links and a Chapman strut at each wheel. The geometry has been revised slightly over the previous model. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard; ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control during hard braking. The LHS comes with a new brake system that provides better pedal feel, improved stopping performance with less noise and vibration from the ABS. Electronic traction control is also standard; it provides improved control when accelerating on slippery surfaces by limiting wheel spin. All-season Goodyear Eagle LS touring tires, size P225/55R17, are standard and provide good handling characteristics on wet or dry roads with low tread noise and good snow traction.

The LHS was designed to compete with Buick Park Avenue, Oldsmobile Aurora and Lincoln Continental. The LHS retails for $28,995 and comes standard with everything: ABS and traction control, leather seats with heaters, memory presets for the driver's seat and exterior mirrors. Options are limited to items Chrysler knew some customers would not want: a $795 moonroof, a $600 set of chrome wheels that come with a full-size spare, and a 320-watt Infinity audio system.

The Inside Story

Elegant, flowing shapes grace the interior. Surfaces are soft to the touch for a luxurious feel. No seams are visible where the passenger airbag resides. Elegant white-faced analog gauges, surrounded by thin chrome bezels, use electroluminescent lighting. Stylish typefaces give them a classic look. A beautiful white-faced clock that features watch-like detail is mounted in the center of the dash. Flanked by the Chrysler wings, it complements the design theme. Major controls use large twist dials. Few manufacturers get radios right and the LHS features slider tone controls that are challenging to operate when driving. Overall, the wood trim is attractive, but the oval piece of wood surrounding the shifter seems unnecessary and diminishes the positive effect of the rest of the trim. Leather seating and heated front seats with personalized memory controls on the driver's side are standard. The LHS offers a bit more front and rear legroom than the 300M. Overall, it's a brilliant interior. Light colors, such as the Camel on ours, give it an elegant look. Compared with the Lincoln Continental, the LHS offers an interior design that is sleeker and more contemporary.

The LHS comes with a larger trunk than the 300M and it holds plenty of luggage for long trips. Details, such as gas struts for the trunk hinges, make life seem just a bit more luxurious.

Ride & Drive

The LHS delivers a smooth ride quality, filtering out unwanted vibration without isolating the driver from the road. Noise and vibration, though not at Lexus levels, are low. Though LHS is tuned a bit more in the direction of luxurious ride quality, it feels extremely stable at high speeds. Steering is direct and precise and it offers the best handling in its class.

Quiet when cruising, the engine serves notice with an aggressive growl when provoked. Plenty of power is on tap for accelerating away from intersections, onto freeways and passing cars. A broad torque curve means it's ready to provide instant throttle response at any speed. The revised automatic transmission selects the appropriate gears and does not hunt excessively. The brakes have been refined and provide good stopping power and pedal feel.

We checked out some of the competition on an undulating, wet, winding road through Georgia's Chattahoochie National Forest. Compared with the LHS, the tires on the Lincoln Continental lacked grip and the brakes felt mushy. The LHS offered much better suspension control in hard corners and through dips, and its transmission was more responsive. The recently re-engineered Buick Park Avenue is a worthy competitor with a responsive engine and a confidence-inspiring suspension.

Final Word

Chrysler's 1999 LHS represents a big improvement over its predecessor. An elegant interior, solid acceleration performance and excellent handling complement eye-catching styling. With its roomy back seats and generous legroom, it can haul four people in comfortable, luxurious surroundings. Supremely smooth and stable at highway speeds, we could spend many miles in one of these, riding behind that big egg-crate grille.

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© Copyright 1998-1999 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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