"If there's one thing we want you to know," said the executives launching the 2011 Chrysler 300 sedan, "it's that this is an all-new vehicle." It's not, but it is better.
Disclaimer: Chrysler flew me to San Diego and lodged me in a swanky hotel to test the 300, the Fiat 500 and another vehicle that brings the total number of vehicular names to 1000. I came in too late to catch the night at the burlesque club. Because when you think of glamour, you immediately think of night clubs filled with waddling flocks of auto writers.
When the revived Chrysler 300 sedan came out in 2004, banishing the front-drive imposter to the company's most historic brand, it hit as many sweet spots as "Shampoo"-era Warren Beatty. It wasn't just the rear-wheel-drive, the Hemi V8 or the Mercedes-influenced suspension; it was the styling (rumored to be the last work of former chief designer Tom Gale) — a modern take on a Bentley hot-rod that looked great driving to the opera or mowing down gunmen in Liberty City. Before Jay-Z dropped his jerseys for Armani, the 300 made the elegant tough and gangsters classy.
(Volvo designer Peter Horbury shared a different take at the Detroit Auto Show: The slit windows and high beltline of the original 300 weren't meant to menace people outside the car, but make the passengers inside feel safe, a small measure of security in a post-9/11 world. This is why he's a designer and you're not.)
But after a few great years, the 300 and the rest of Chrysler fell to the dogs of hell — Cerberus Capital. The survivors of Auburn Hills talk about the dark days where no cost was too big to consider cutting. By February 2009, anyone with a modest checkbook could have bought the 300. Not the car — the entire vehicle line: the factory, tooling, brand rights, down to Walter P. Chrysler's autopen. Several companies, including Chinese automakers, kicked the tires and passed, in part because Cerberus had decided that every Chrysler vehicle interior would be shod with rubber from Zippy the Pinhead Retread's President Day's Special.
Now, in the Fiat era, so much of what's new about the 300 comes two years after it should have arrived, but to Chrysler's credit the reworking does go beyond simply turning in late homework. It's still the old platform, but with every part redone, reused or recycled into something different.
There was a stab at weight loss; the hood is now aluminum, and the base model clocks in a few pounds below 4,000. There's new steel underneath, including sound-deadening panels and bolstered safety good enough for the requisite insurance industry "top pick." The bad tires have gone back to China. And then there's the exterior styling, which shares nothing with the previous generation — for better and worse.
It's never easy to follow a truly great car design, and Chrysler's designers bravely attempted more than a nip-n-tuck. The front headlamp of the 300 and other Chryslers is now supposed to resemble the eye of a bald eagle; the grille ditches Bentley for an Audi-esque profile, the sides get sculpted and there's even a vestigial ridge on the trunk harkening back to Virgil Exner's 1957 tail fins. It still looks distinctive, but the chrome accidents add unwelcome bling, and the whole hangs together about as easily as a Fugees reunion.
Inside, the improvements begin at the top. While the windshield gained a degree or two of rake in the redesign, Chrysler also lowered the belt line and raised the top edge of the glass, boosting visibility. The IP has a blue-chrome Tron feel, and the top of the dash merges nicely with the new corporate touchscreen system, which isn't as confusing as the industry average.
Yet below the dash equator, things don't work as well. I suppose the world has decided fake wood is still acceptable, but just because "Matlock" comes on in reruns doesn't mean I'll ever watch it. The seats keep their throne-like comfort at the expense of some bolstering, and rear passengers still have ample room, even if Chrysler isn't bringing back the long-wheelbase version yet or directly targeting the limousine crowd following the imminent demise of the Lincoln Town Car.
The best of the 300 still comes with the 300C and its 5.7-liter Hemi. Chrysler stopped building rockets for NASA in the 1970s, but the 300C does a cheerful impersonation of a Saturn V in a straight line, hitting 60 mph just a few tics after five seconds and extra-legal speeds quickly thereafter. The Hemi has been tweaked up to 363 horsepower and 393 lb-ft of torque; if that's insufficient, we should see an SRT version at the New York Auto Show shortly.
The new engine to the party, the corporate 3.6-liter "Pentastar" V6 rated at 292 hp and 263 lb-ft, makes a strong indictment of whatever committee decided that the previous 2.7-liter base V6 could hustle two tons of automobile. It's by no means in the same thrill category as the V8, and much of its power comes high in the rev band, but for the highway cruiser and rental customer, it's sufficient. Both engines must dance with the 5-speed automatic born when the Macarena was still considered funny; its 8-speed replacement should come online in a few months.
On the twists near the border with the engine's ancestral Mexican homeland, the 300C hustled around curves dutifully, with no drama for the Border Patrol spectators. If it feels perhaps a tick less lightfooted than the all-wheel-drive Taurus, the 300 at least provides some polite idea of road feel, more than could be said for the Hyundai Genesis that Chrysler provided for comparison driving and post-lunch naps.
After several decades in business, Chrysler has garnered more second chances than Charlie Sheen, but the last brush with closure was its most severe. Getting back to business means making every model competitive after years of neglect, and the 2011 300 meets that target and then some. It's not the clear style leader, and without that the 300 suffers from a small identity crisis among other luxury large sedans. But there's now time to think about what's next, and we'd politely offer one idea of a direction: When even NASA can't build its own rockets now, maybe Chrysler can again.