Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Once Around The Block #4:- Chrysler 300C CRD

I think you'll be pleased to hear that my misadventures in portable telephony have been placed on the back burner, so it's back to cars.

The Chrysler 300C was one of the most imposing vehicles to have come out of America in recent years. It made quite an impression on the UK public, and was a strong seller; stronger than almost any colonially built car to date. It would have been absolutely terrific car, were it not for the facts that A; it was bought by the wrong people; and B; that it wasn't actually really very good. And I really wish this wasn't the case.

To European eyes the 300C seemed to be the embodiment of US Gangster chic, even though the deep thinkers out there might have thought that any self-respecting banger in Compton would choose to roll in something other than a mid-range Chrysler. Nevertheless, that seemed to be immaterial and the car scored highly in the style stakes. Impressionable, RnB loving wannabe gangsters all over the country loved the big, blingy front grille, the high shoulders and shallow side-glass, and the sheer size of the thing compared to “lesser” cars.

And it wasn't just the diamond earrings and Wretch 32 on the Stereo brigade who took to it; the beer-budget but champagne taste set held it close to their hearts, too. To their slightly uneducated and hopelessly optimistic eyes, the 300C represented a cut-price Bentley. All over the land, HGV drivers and pub landlords were prizing off the Chrysler emblems, quietly throwing them in the bin and installing Bentley B's in their place. If that wasn't enough, they were fitting Bentley floor-mats and spelling the word BENTLEY across the boot-lid in adhesive chrome letters that they bought from the shops. There are, out there, 300Cs that say the word BENTLEY on them more times than you'll see on an actual Bentley.

And they're not even doing it out of irony, like sticking a PORSCHE stripe on a Skoda Rapid. Which, come to think of it, is a splendid idea and I'll do it as soon as I get the chance.

And if they weren't putting stupid badges all over them, people would darken the windows, and probably put stupid oversize wheels on. The 300C attracted such enblingment like few others; indeed, it ironically takes a body-kitted Bentley Continental to out-bling your typical 300. Note the car in these pictures.

Yes, the car you see before you is one of the many that has been “improved” by the installation of wheels that could give good service if ever the London Eye gets worn out. Never mind the fact that the cars suspension hasn't been modified to suit the greater rolling radius and the car now does a passable impression of a monster truck. Never mind the fact that the car now has the same turning circle as the International Space Station; partly because the 300C is a lumbering beast, but partly because the ridiculous wheels knock off about 15 degrees of steering lock. They're just too big. Manoeuvring the car around our compound was a slow and pointless endeavour and we couldn't wait to see the back of it when the car was dragged to the auction. Here it'll no doubt wow the easily-impressed with its undeniable presence and trailer-park mafia credentials.

Moving on; the second issue up for discussion is more frustrating than the image thing. After all, Chrysler can't help that the world is full of idiots. What I find so annoying about the 300C is that it could so easily have been a bit of a world beater. And wasn't.

The basic ingredients were there. You had, under the skin, a whole load of ex Mercedes bits, in the shape of leftovers from the W210 shape E-Class, and even a few choice morsels from the W220 S-Class. These bits, mainly suspension, transmission and a few sub-structural elements were nowhere near cutting edge, but were reliable, proven and high quality. 

You also had a selection of very good engines. I'm not qualified to discuss the V6 petrol units and the 5.7 Hemi was obviously muscular and effective, but the diesel steals the show. It's the Mercedes-Benz V6 unit, the current OM642 that motivates so many of the C, E, S and CLS class models patrolling Europes' streets. It actually suits the character of the 300C rather well; exhibiting some of the overflowing torquey laziness that the V8s are imbued with. It's one of the high-points of the package.

As is the styling. Yeah, I know I've just finished a tirade on how it became rather tacky, but it's still an extremely imposing car and has certainly had the more impact on the general public than any of the LH platform Chryslers that went before it. To prove that point; how many stretched Chrysler Concorde Limousines do you see around? Nope, me neither.

The actual package itself, in fact, was theoretically great. It was a stylish, well engineered, well priced car with a spacious interior, a good turn of speed, an enormous, multiple-cadaver sized boot and loads of extra equipment. But, unfortunately, the low pricing seems to have come at the cost of genuine competence. A shame, but inevitable if you want to pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap.

Sitting behind the wheel in the acceptably leathered drivers seat and you're surrounded by a sea of compromise. It's not an unattractive interior, a little cheesy perhaps, but it's in keeping with the exterior. It's also not physically repulsive to the touch, either. I was pleased; I had fear that I'd be transported to a world I'd tried to forget, the tupperware wet-dream that was the Dodge Caliber. Thankfully, no; the interior of the 300C isn't anywhere near that shit. But it left me wanting more.

It seems a shame, almost defeatist that Chrysler should have set their quality bar so unambitiously. I mean, it was inevitable, sure, but it would have been nice for the car to have had a chance of competing with the Europeans on fair terms. If Chrysler had only strived to bring the cabin feel up to, say, Ford levels, that would have been great. Would actually have been an improvement if they had used the old E-Class dashboard in modified form, just like they did with the SLK based Crossfire “sports car”. 

And that goes for the driving feel, too. Granted, this particular car has idiotic Euclid-size wheels, but despite this the ride is very good. On cars with the standard issue not-so-low-profile tyres it would be even more pliant and supple. The handling basics were there, too. It was rear wheel drive, of course, and while most owners probably wouldn't have a clue that that was the case, enthusiastic driving reveals those pleasant RWD foibles.

What surprises me, though, is how different it feels to that W210 it shares springs with. The Chrysler feels like it carries more weight than the Mercedes and feels more ponderous through the steering, which in turn feels less direct than the E-class. In actual fact the inertia you feel through the controls is quite satisfying, the irony being that you get a similar sensation at the helm of an old Bentley. 

Honesty time: I've actually always had a sneaking admiration for the 300C, based mainly on the concept that Chrysler had the confidence to do things a little differently. It doesn't always work out well when they do that; the PT Cruiser rapidly became an old joke and the Crossfire was nothing iif not a stylistic blind alley. But the 300C was genuinely refreshing when it came out.

I just wish the overwhelming impression wasn't simply that it isn't terrible. The ride is very good, but apart from that there really isn't a lot that shines particularly brightly, apart from the that perceived image, which is a bit dubious anyway. 

It's a perfectly nice car. It's just a shame it isn't better.