Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Unforgiveably adequate: The Chrysler 300C CRD

The Chrysler 300C was one of the most imposing vehicles to have come out of America in recent decades. Its no-holds barred swagger made quite an impression on the UK public, and it was a strong seller – stronger than almost any colonially branded car to date. It could have been something of a world-beater, were it not for the facts that A; it tended to be bought by the wrong people; and B; it wasn't actually very good.

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 Compton banger would choose to roll in something other than a mid-range Chrysler. Nevertheless, that fact seemed to be immaterial. Impressionable wannabe ballers all over the UK loved its big, blingy front grille, high shoulders and shallow side-glass, and the sheer size of the thing compared to European whips.

And it wasn't only the Straight-out-of-Romford, ersatz Biggie Smalls brigade who took to it; the beer-budget / champagne taste set held it close to their hearts, too. To their slightly naive and hopelessly optimistic eyes, the 300C represented a Tesco Value Bentley. All over the land, pub landlords were prizing off the Chrysler emblems, quietly throwing them in the bin and installing Bentley Flying 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 inexpensive adhesive chrome letters, usually without any evidence of measurement or forward planning beforehand. 

There are, out there, 300Cs with BENTLEY emblazoned far more emphatically than it is on any genuine Crewe cruiser. Such fraud would be entirely acceptable if it was committed with ironic intent, but no. This was the work of people who genuinely didn't understand class, breeding or pedigree. The kind of folk who don't understand the difference between Maxwell House and actual coffee.

Thus, darkened glass was de riguer, as were aftermarket wheels big enough serve as a stand-in for when the London Eye gets worn out. The 300C attracted enblingment on a scale that few other cars could match; indeed, ironically, it takes a wildly bodykitted Bentley Continental to beat a typical 300 for ostentatiousness.

And here we come to the car in these pictures.

Yes, the car you see before you is one of the many that has been “improved” by a determined yet wrong-headed owner. Never mind the fact that the car's suspension hasn't been modified to suit the greater rolling radius of its vast alloy hoops and the car now does a passable impression of a monster truck. Never mind the fact that it also has the same turning circle as the International Space Station; partly because the 300C is a lumbering beast at the best of times, but mostly because said wheels neuter about 15 degrees of steering lock. 

They're just too big, and manoeuvring the 300 around our compound was a slow and frustrating task. Frankly,  when it was finally dragged to the auctions, we were delighted to see the back of it. As fate would have it, it actually attracted a veritable frenzy of bidding, doubtless wowing the easily impressed with its undeniable presence and trailer-park mafia credentials. 

So this particular example wasn't exactly a glowing ambassador for the breed, but what if it had been one of the half-dozen or so that escaped utter bastardisation? After all, Chrysler probably couldn't have predicted that its big European import would appeal so strongly to halfwits. Alas, the truth is that, while the 300 had the price, the looks and the mechanical package to have been a bit of a world-beater... it wasn't.

The basic ingredients were absolutely sound. Better than that, actually; that matinee-idol body concealed a whole load of ex Mercedes bits that were tasty leftovers from the W210 shape E-Class, and even a few choice morsels from the posh W220 S-Class. Consisting mainly of suspension, transmission and sub-structural elements, they were nowhere near cutting edge, but reliable, proven and of generally high quality. 

It also offered a selection of very appealing engines. I've not experienced the V6 petrols, but the 5.7 Hemi was muscular, effective and lairier than a sink-estate pub on a Friday night, but the 3.0-litre diesel probably stole the show. It was the same Mercedes OM642 V6 as motivated so many of the C, E, S and CLS class models that blitz European highways every day. Its overflowing torquey laziness suited the character of the 300C rather well; exhibiting some of the effortless shove that came with the Hemis, but without the oilwell-emptying thirst.

So, on the assets side of the 300's balance sheet, It was a stylish (assuming you didn't nail aftermarket tat all over it), well engineered, well priced car with a spacious interior, a good turn of speed, an enormous, multiple-cadaver sized boot and loads of 'luxury' equipment. Its undoing, though, comes in the compromises inevitable in the USA's traditional pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap marketing philosophy.

Sitting behind the wheel in the acceptably leathered drivers seat is to helplessly tread water in an ocean of   you're surrounded by a sea of malaise. It's not a woundingly unattractive interior; a little cheesy perhaps, but its brash looks are generally in keeping with the exterior. It's also not physically repulsive to the touch, either. I was pleased; I feared being transported to a MOPAR dimension that I'd tried to forget – the Tupperware nightmare that was the Dodge Caliber. Thankfully, the interior of the 300C wasn't anywhere near that shit. But it left me wanting more.

What hurt, though, was the defeatist way that Chrysler set its quality bar so unambitiously. Surely it wouldn't have taken an insurmountable effort to have given a car with this much potential a chance of competing with the Europeans on something approaching fair terms. If Chrysler had only strived to bring the cabin feel up to, say, Ford levels, it would have been great. In fact, it would actually have been better off using the old E-Class dashboard in modified form, just like they used the R170 SLK's in the Crossfire.

Worse, though, was that the same complacency surfaces in how it feels to drive, too. The good news first; granted, this particular car has idiotic wheels stolen from the one of those 200-tonne dump trucks that roam American coalfields, but it still rides serenely and cars with the standard not-so-low-profile tyres would be still more pliant and supple. The handling basics are 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 betrays all the most agreeable RWD traits.

What surprises me, though, is how different it feels to that W210 it shares springs with. The Chrysler carries more weight than the Mercedes and its more heavily assisted steering is far more ponderous as a result. The kindest, most diplomatic of sops would insist that the sense of inertia that's tangible through the controls is quite satisfying, promising that you get a similar sensation at the helm of an old Bentley. The counter-argument, of course, is that it would have to be knackered as well as merely aged.

Truth is I've actually always had a sneaking admiration for the 300C, based mainly on the chutzpah that Chrysler exhibited by launching it in an America where people couldn't get enough sensible, efficient Accords and Camrys. It doesn't always work out well when a company embarks on a brave design tangent; the PT Cruiser rapidly became an old joke the Crossfire was ultimately a blind alley and the Prowler is tackier, more cheesy and stereotypical than a line of Harleys outside a line-dancing convention. Being rather more soberly conceived, the 300C was genuinely refreshing when it came out.

And there we have it. Putting aside the slightly dubious image that its largely knuckle-dragging audience has tarred it with, It's a perfectly nice car. It's just unforgivably frustrating that it isn't better.