by Mitch McCullough
Think of this as a big sports sedan.
Base Price $29,085
As Tested $30,180
Chrysler's advertising campaign recalls the legendary "letter cars" the company sold from 1955 to 1965. But the Chrysler 300M provides a much better driving experience than those cars could ever hope to offer. The 300M is a joy to drive. Handling is exceptional for a full-size front-wheel-drive sedan.
Perhaps you've seen the creative commercials that use actual sales and service training footage from the 1950s and 1960s. Chrysler's new ad campaign was created to appeal to driving enthusiasts and build on the heritage of the letter cars. Counting through the alphabet from the 1956 300B to the 1965 300L (there was no 300I), they were fitted with high-performance V8 engines and, for a time, ruled the great horsepower race. They introduced the latest innovations: Cross Ram dual quads, new suspensions, limited-slips, swiveling bucket seats, center consoles, tachometers, pushbutton automatics. Chrysler's 1955 300 won 23 of 45 NASCAR races. The 1956 300B came with a 354-cubic-inch Hemi engine and won five straight NASCAR races. Other models competed at Le Mans and ran events such as the Carrera Panamerica, a mad cross-country rally through Mexico.
Believe the retro ads. Designed as an American sports sedan, the Chrysler 300M is a contemporary interpretation of those historic letter cars. It was designed to appeal to people who have a passion for driving and offers much of the handling and performance benefits we appreciate in European sedans. Chrysler's 300M competes with the Cadillac Catera, Lexus ES 300, Infiniti I30, and the Lincoln LS.
One model is available. Retailing for $29,085, the 300M comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and AutoStick transmission. Options are limited to a few items Chrysler knew some 300M customers would want, others would not want: a $795 moonroof, $600 chrome wheels with full-size spare, premium audio systems, and the $500 handling package.
The 300M shares the doors and roof with the LHS, but you'd never know to look at it. Designed to appeal to different buyers, they look completely different. Short overhangs, a high rear deck and big taillamps make 300M more appealing to a European eye. An aggressive front end says, "get out of my way" when seen in a rearview mirror.
The 300M is shorter than the LHS. Part of the reason for this is that Chrysler plans to export it to 30 international markets, including Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Brazil. Keeping the length under 5 meters makes it more attractive to the European countries, allowing it to fit into garages and parking spaces.
Unique to 300M and LHS is a 3.5-liter high-output aluminum V6 that delivers 253 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque. Designed to emulate torque characteristics of classic American V8s, it features 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.
300M comes standard with Chrysler's AutoStick transmission, which gives the driver a choice of conventional automatic operation or a more performance-oriented manual control.
The suspension is shared with Chrysler's LHS, but the 300M is tuned more aggressively. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard. A new brake system provides better pedal feel, improved stopping performance with less noise and vibration from the ABS. Electronic traction control is also standard for improved control when accelerating on slippery surfaces. 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.
An optional $500 handling package (standard on European-market 300M models) includes firmer strut damping, taller rear jounce bumpers, a firmer feeling steering gear, 225/60VR16 Michelin XGTV4 all-season V-rated performance tires, high-performance brake linings, stiffer front brake calipers and externally vented brake rotors. The suspension tuning is designed for a more controlled ride, sharper steering response, improved stability in transient maneuvers and increased cornering grip. The Michelins should provide better cornering traction on dry and wet roads, but may not perform quite as well on snow and ice. The brakes are designed to increase stopping ability, enhance pedal feel and resist brake fade in hard use.
300M's interior was designed to be functional, yet inviting, with the purposeful look of a performance sedan. Simple flowing shapes grace the interior. The dash is sleeker, more organic, and less cluttered than a Cadillac Catera. The 300M interior shares most elements with the LHS, but some of the details, such as the shifter surround, are more elegant in the 300M. 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 a thin chrome bezel, use electroluminescent lighting. Stylish typefaces give them a classic look and an attractive analog clock in the center of the dash carries the theme through. Major controls use large twist dials.
Leather-trimmed seating and heated front seats with personalized memory controls on the driver's side are standard. 300M offers a bit more rear headroom than LHS, but LHS has the edge in legroom. The trunk hinges were designed to not intrude into the cargo space when the trunk lid is closed. Details like that make life seem just a bit more luxurious.
In addition to ABS and traction control, safety features on the 300M include next-generation front air bags and child-protection rear door locks. The doors lock automatically once underway (though they can be programmed not to do this). Child seat-top tether anchors have been added to the rear shelf panel. An anti-theft system comes standard.
Cup holders were added for the rear seats in the center armrest of 2000 models. A four-disc CD changer mounted in the instrument panel was added to the Infinity II audio system for 2000. Power window and power door lock switches are now chrome colored; and the power mirror switches have been color keyed.
This is a full-size sports sedan. The 300M feels very stable at high speeds. The steering is direct and precise. The ride quality is smooth, yet the car feels connected to the road-it doesn't isolate the driver from what's going on. We felt confident on a wet, winding road through Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest in spite of vertical drops on the outsides of the turns.
Plenty of power is on tap for accelerating off the line, climbing mountain roads and passing other cars. The engine is smooth and quiet, but growls when provoked. A broad torque curve means it's ready to provide instant throttle response at any speed. Chrysler's AutoStick is entertaining on the daily commute and gives the driver better control on winding roads. Usually, though, we found normal automatic operation the best way to go. It's an efficient transmission that selects the appropriate gears and does not hunt excessively.
The standard suspension works extremely well and offers a bit more control than the setup on the LHS. Steering response is also slightly quicker than the LHS. 300M noise and vibration are not quite at Lexus levels; a small amount of wind noise can be heard and a bit of road vibration comes through. But, overall, the 300M feels like a refined luxury sports touring sedan. By comparison, the Cadillac Catera's suspension feels a bit firmer, but transmits more road vibration through to the occupants.
We drove 300M models with and without the optional handling package in back-to-back runs up and down a gnarly mountain road and found the performance benefit barely perceptible. The one equipped with the handling package seemed to transmit slightly more vibration into the seats and steering wheel. Hard bumps felt just a bit sharper. And there was slightly more road noise, presumably generated by the performance tires. Still, the handling package offers a lot of high-performance hardware for a minimum price increase, and the Michelins alone are worth that much.
Chrysler has produced a full-size car for people who like to drive. The 300M is a sports sedan with performance and handling that belies its size. An exciting exterior design and an elegant interior with all the creature comforts add to its appeal. Best of all, it's available for a price that makes it even more attractive.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.