Pros: Value-priced, respectable interior quality, ample technology offerings, strong optional V6, available convertible with hard or soft top.

Cons: Sedan's back seat and trunk are smaller than average, crude base four-speed automatic, lackluster 4-cylinder fuel economy.

Introduction

The 2012 Chrysler 200 has improved so much that we've almost forgotten about the Chrysler Sebring. Not quite, though, because to understand the 200, you have to remember that it's essentially a rejuvenated 2010 Sebring.

Here's the backstory.

When Chrysler was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy a few years ago, it launched a number of products that were, to put it kindly, not the company's best efforts. But then the bailout happened, and FIAT acquired Chrysler. Suddenly, Chrysler was in a position to spruce up those subpar products, the Sebring sedan and convertible among them. So the Sebring team went back to the drawing board for 2011 and added a retuned suspension, sleeker styling, a hearty 3.6-liter V6 and a new interior with vastly improved materials. Oh, and they gave the car a new name-the Chrysler 200.

Now that we've had a year to reflect on Chrysler's reinvented midsizer, we're more aware of its humble roots. There's no hiding its smaller-than-average dimensions, for example. The underlying platform is shared with compacts like the Dodge Caliber and Mitsubishi Lancer, so cargo and rear-passenger space suffer accordingly. Also, the base four-speed automatic transmission-one of the only four-speeds left among midsize cars-is unchanged from Sebring duty.

But should this affect your decision-making? Probably not. What really matters is how this Chrysler stacks up against the competition, and given the 200's aggressive pricing, satisfying optional V6, and newly appealing cabin, we'd say it stacks up pretty well. Small wonder, then, that the Sebring has quickly become a distant memory.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Chrysler 200 sedan comes in one of four trim levels: LX, Touring, Limited and S. The basic LX includes 17-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, a height-adjustable driver seat with manual lumbar support, power accessories, cruise control and a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input jack (but not a USB input). The Touring adds niceties like 17-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat, six speakers for the stereo and automatic climate control. The Limited boasts 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, leather upholstery, USB and Bluetooth connectivity (optional on lower trims) and a 6.5-inch touch-screen infotainment display with 28 gigabytes of digital music storage (optional on Touring). The S model gets the Limited's standard features plus 18-inch polished alloy wheels, various sport-themed styling cues, unique front seats with suede-like inserts and Boston Acoustics speakers. A navigation system can be added to the 6.5-inch infotainment suite.

As for the 200 convertible, there are three trim levels-Touring, Limited, and S-which roughly correspond to the sedan's equipment distribution. A soft top is standard on all convertibles, but a retractable hardtop can be substituted on either the Limited or the S.

The 200's standard cloth-trimmed seats are nondescript, but the Limited's leather-upholstered front seats-and the similar chairs in the S model-are a different story, delivering pleasantly firm support. Happily, every 200 comes with the same premium dashboard materials, including a supple primary covering that wouldn't be out of place in a luxury car. We also like the look of the gauges, and the analog clock is a distinctive Chrysler touch. The improvement here relative to the Sebring's interior cannot be overstated.

For rear passengers, it's a somewhat different story, as the 200 sedan's relatively compact dimensions give the back seat an economy-grade vibe. At least the rear bench is rather high, which helps alleviate the legroom shortage. The convertible's back seat, on the other hand, is quite spacious compared to, say, the Mustang's. It's quite possible for four adults to enjoy a top-down cruise without feeling cramped.

The 200 sedan's trunk, like its back seat, is small by class standards, measuring just 13.6 cubic feet against a norm of 15 cubes or more. Conversely, the convertible's 13.3 top-up cubic feet are impressive, though that dwindles considerably with the top down.

Technology

We'd like to see the base LX come standard with USB and Bluetooth connectivity, but you can still add those features if you want. What you can't do, unfortunately, is get Chrysler's new 8.4-inch touchscreen. The 200 only offers an older, 6.5-inch touchscreen. On the bright side, it comes with nearly 30 gigabytes of digital music storage on its built-in hard drive, while the 8.4-inch system doesn't even have a hard drive. However, the 200's smaller screen lacks the crisp graphics and intuitive interfaces of newer systems. But we have to admit that it's packed with functionality. If you want this kind of feature set in any other midsize sedan, chances are it'll cost you a lot more than what Chrysler's charging.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The base 200 LX sedan offers a four-speed automatic transmission and a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. The four-speed shifts crudely, but it surprisingly doesn't hurt fuel economy, which checks in at 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway versus a basically identical 20/31 mpg with the six-speed automatic. You'll have to upgrade to at least the Touring to get the six-speed, so it'll cost you, but we think it's worth it for the improvements in shift quality and, to a lesser extent, acceleration. Speaking of which, the inline-4 gets the 200 up to speed well enough, but it doesn't sound very happy about it.

Optional on Touring and Limited, and standard on the 200 S, is a 3.6-liter V6 that's good for 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission here. What a night-and-day difference from the inline-4. The V6 turns the 200 into a downright quick car, and it barely affects fuel economy, which registers 19/29 mpg. A V6-powered 200 is a genuine performance bargain.

Notably, the convertible doesn't have to deal with the four-speed automatic, as its base trim level, the Touring,comes standard with the six-speed transmission. In fact, the Touring convertible is the only one with the inline-4; the Limited and S convertibles both get the V6 as standard. With the convertible, four-cylinder fuel economy drops to 18/29 mpg, but remarkably, V6 fuel economy stays the same, so it's actually a notch better than the inline-4 at 19/29 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Chrysler 200 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front head restraints and six airbags in the sedan (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain) compared to four (front, front-side) in the convertible.

In government crash-testing, the 200 sedan received an overall rating of four stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts and just three stars for side impacts. The convertible was not tested. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 200 sedan and convertible its top rating of "Good" in every category, except the convertible wasn't tested for roof strength.

Driving Impressions

The 200's revitalization runs deep. Chrysler reworked the suspension tuning, and the result is a surprisingly playful drive. Don't worry: the familiar soft, quiet ride is still there. It's just that handling composure is no longer a foreign concept. Easily the most memorable aspect of the driving experience, though, is the hearty thrust from the V6, which transforms the 200 into a pretty swift car. There's a disconcerting squatting effect when you really mash the throttle, accompanied by some lightness in the steering, but you get used to it.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Optima - The daringly styled Optima has superior fuel economy and a bigger backseat, yet it's still aggressively priced, even with the optional turbocharged inline-4.

Toyota Camry - The redesigned Camry has great fuel economy, plenty of space all around and few notable flaws. The Camry SE is even fun to drive this time around, easily giving the 200 a run for its money.

Ford Mustang - If you're looking for a reasonably priced convertible with a back seat, the Mustang's one of the few others you'll find. Relative to the 200, it's tighter in back, but there's a lot more power under the hood.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd go with the Limited-the leather-trimmed seats really are more comfortable-and add the V6, since you get a bunch more power with barely any loss in efficiency.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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