Pros: Available V8 power and all-wheel drive, top-notch interior, big back seat, stellar 8.4-inch touchscreen, distinctive looks.

Cons: Outdated five-speed automatic.

Introduction

What if we told you there was a sedan that offered a Mercedes-influenced suspension, an eight-speed automatic transmission, cutting-edge cabin technology and the rear quarters of a full-size luxury car-all for the price of a well-optioned family sedan? You'd probably want to know which fancy import brand builds it, right? But the car we're talking about is the 2012 Chrysler 300. "Imported from Detroit," as the company tagline has it. How can it be that one of the world's most well-rounded cars, offered at such a reasonable price, continues to fly under the radar for many shoppers?

Maybe it's because critics continue to harp on the 300's Achilles' heel: the other transmission, which is a five-speed automatic. The excellent eight-speed unit is available with the V6, but all V8-powered models are stuck with the five-speed. It's an old transmission that's quite simply not up to the lofty standards of the rest of the car.

But we'll leave it to others to beat that drum, because it's exceedingly rare to find a car that otherwise offers so little to complain about. What if we told you that the best $30,000 sedan in the world wears a Chrysler badge? With the 2012 Chrysler 300, that just might be the case.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Chrysler 300 comes in four main trim levels: the V6-powered base and Limited and the V8-powered C and Luxury Series. The base model starts with 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry/ignition, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, iPod/USB connectivity (Bluetooth is optional on the base model), a six-speaker audio system and an 8.4-inch touchscreen display with voice-command capability and SD-card reader. The Limited upgrades to 18-inch wheels, fog lamps, remote start, a rearview camera, heated front seats, a power front passenger's seat with lumbar, Bluetooth, a six-speaker Alpine audio system and available options like adaptive cruise control and a 900-watt Harman Kardon sound system.

The 300C adds the V8 engine along with niceties like bigger front brakes, leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals and a power tilt-telescopic steering column with a heated steering wheel. The Luxury Series goes all-out with 20-inch wheels, navigation system (optional on all other trims), leather-trimmed dashboard and premium Berber floormats, among other decadent flourishes.

There are also two performance-oriented trims: S and SRT-8. The 300S comes with either the V6 or the V8 and features 20-inch wheels, quicker steering, sport-themed styling cues, piano black interior trim and a 552-watt "Beats by Dr. Dre" audio system. Highlights for the SRT-8 include a ginormous 6.4-liter V8, 20-inch wheels, a two-mode electronically adjustable suspension and sport seats.

The standard cloth-upholstered front seats aren't bad, but they're notably less supportive than the leather-trimmed seats-a discrepancy we've noticed in numerous Chrysler products. The SRT-8's seats are the most supportive of all; pity they're not more widely available. Happily, every 300 is treated to high-quality cabin materials and a refined yet high-tech cockpit, including an outstanding 8.4-inch touchscreen, more on which is below. The leather-wrapped dash in the Luxury Series is a treat, no doubt, but we question its value when the standard layout is so nice.

Rear passengers in the 300 can be forgiven for thinking that they fell asleep and woke up in a full-size luxury car like a Lexus LS. Everything's right about the 300's rear quarters, from the high bottom cushion to the ample legroom. Well, all right, the headroom is limited for tall folks due to the squat rear roofline. Still, this is one of the best back seats you'll find at any price. The trunk is also pretty accommodating, checking in at 16.3 cubic feet.

Technology

Unlike the mechanically identical Dodge Charger, the Chrysler 300 comes standard with the company's outstanding new 8.4-inch touchscreen, which is like a pint-sized iPad in its graphics and ease of use. The optional navigation system is really just cheesy Garmin software, so that's a bit of a letdown, but otherwise, this touchscreen is one of the best of its breed-at any price. The system is not equipped with a hard-drive, so you can't store digital music permanently, but the included SD-card reader teams up with the USB port to ensure that you'll have plenty of musical options in your ride.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The base and Limited trims feature a 3.6-liter V6 that puts out 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard on the base model, while an eight-speed automatic is optional there and standard on the Limited. All we can say is, what a difference a proper transmission makes. The standard five-speed unit shifts clumsily at times, and its ratios are just too widely spaced to take advantage of the V6's strong but somewhat peaky powerband. The eight-speed, on the other hand, has no trouble keeping the V6 in its rewarding sweet spot, and it boosts fuel economy to 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway versus just 18/27 mpg with the five-speed. We like the eight-speed's stubby electronic shift lever, too.

As for the eight-cylinder "Hemi" lineup, the 300C flaunts a 5.7-liter V8 that churns out 363 horsepower and 394 lb-fit of torque, while the SRT-8 really goes to town with a 6.4-liter V8 good for 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. An aging five-speed automatic with the foibles mentioned above is standard either way, and that's too bad, because it's about the only thing wrong with the sexy and sonorous V8 models. But these V8's are so intoxicating-especially the 6.4-liter mill-that you might not care a whit about the transmission after one run through the gears. Hopefully, you won't care about fuel economy, either, as it's a mere 16/25 mpg with the 5.7 and 14/23 with the 6.4.

A few other details: rear-wheel drive is standard on all 300 models, but all-wheel drive can be specified on either the V6/eight-speed duo or the 300C. Fuel economy is a respectable 18/27 mpg for the V6 but just 15/23 mpg for the 300C. Also, the 300S V6 gets the eight-speed automatic, thankfully, while the 300S V8 shares its drivetrain with the 300C.

Safety

The 2012 Chrysler 300 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and seven airbags (front, front-side, driver knee, full-length side-curtain).

In government crash-testing, the 300 was basically perfect, garnering a five-star overall rating marred only by a (perfectly acceptable) four-star rollover rating. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the 300 "Good"-the highest possible rating-in every category.

Driving Impressions

On the highway, the Chrysler 300 is a beast in the best way, steamrolling through the miles like the Mercedes luxury sedans to which its suspension is distantly related. Road noise is barely present on most surfaces, and impacts feel distant and gentle. In corners, the 300 is a tale of two suspensions: the more compliant base setup on V6 models is noticeably softer, while the 300C's firmer underpinnings imbue it with a surprising tenacity. The SRT-8, of course, is the ultimate 300, putting up performance numbers that would shame some sports cars. Just remember that the 300 is a large car, so it won't necessarily be your friend on tight backroads.

Other Cars to Consider

Dodge Charger - The mechanically identical Charger is cheaper and brasher than its uptown sibling. It's less of a luxury car, for sure, but its in-your-face attitude might rub you the right way.

Hyundai Genesis - The Genesis is probably the 300's closest competitor, offering a similar array of V6 and V8 engines along with a similarly premium cabin.

Acura TL - Pricier versions of the 300 can exceed $40,000, and there are many capable rivals at that price. The TL is just one among many, but its reasonable base price means there's a solid amount of overlap with the 300 range.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd have two non-negotiable demands as 300 shoppers: the eight-speed automatic and the superior leather-upholstered seats. That means we'd be looking at a Limited model with optional leather. It's not as cheap as it could be, but we'd be happy campers with this configuration.

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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