Our Cars : Richard Kilpatrick’s Chrysler 300C
Since 2005, Chrysler’s big RWD 300 sedan has been synonymous with hip-hop culture, Dub wheels and the last gasps of the true American auto industry. The reality is that it’s as American as Apple Strudel, bar the reassuringly simple Hemi V8s, and is more likely to be found rolling around the yards of middle-class suburbia than the projects.
When it crossed the pond, Richard Kilpatrick naturally wanted one. Five years later, he’s taken a chance on finding out if it really would have been a better choice than the C6…
Grandpa or Gangsta?
Initially it seemed apposite to explore the fallacy that Chrysler’s largest conventional car was, in some way, a ‘prestige’ product. But prestige is in the eye of the beholder. Recent forum discussions have focused on the absence of the ‘dad’ car – that big, plush, but not necessarily upmarket vehicle – from Britain’s roads and driveways, and the Chrysler 300C may be the last stand for a genre that many assumed had gone at the end of the 20th Century. Skoda’s Superb comes close, but with sophisticated underpinnings; think gourmet cheeseburger, rather than the ‘big all-day breakfast’.
Europe’s association with large cars and status ensures the 300C suffers a deeply conflicted presentation. Even alongside General Motors’ sporadic attempts to bring US-market metal to Blighty, it is a poor fit into our aspirational and status-driven demographics.
Leather that feels more like vinyl and plastic door casings that lack ornamentation or even rudimentary padding are strongly at odds with the curious notion that this car is somehow competing for mental space with the delights of the Jaguar XF, BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-class and even Citroën C6. And yet, that is where so many reviews placed it. “Try it before buying a German exec”, “cheaper than an M5″.
Of course, the relative affordability of cheaply-financed prestige metal contributed greatly to the lack of demand behind why we can’t buy a Ford Granada or Vauxhall Omega anymore. Rewind to the 1970s and ’80s, when large cars from mainstream marques coexisted with the burgeoning luxury class of Mercedes-Benz and BMW in particular, few would have considered a Renault 20 as an alternative to a BMW 5-series, or a Ford Granada instead of a Mercedes W123.
The brand values may have been defined, in part, by import duties and clever marketing – but the big saloon car without the upmarket status was a thoroughly agreeable part of the landscape.
The 2012 current 300C – available only with a VM Motori 3.0 CRD V6 diesel in the UK, and in Europe badged as a Lancia with different CRD power options or a 3.8 V6 petrol – costs around £29-32,000 for the ‘entry level’ model, rising to just under £40,000 for the Executive with leather dashboard and door trimmings, real wood, and a substantial glass roof. There’s no denying that the Chrysler 300C is good value – like so many cars now – if you’re not considering the implied status of the badge part of that equation.
Sadly, for many 300Cs in the UK, the owners seem hell-bent on trying to grasp a little upmarket “credibility” and there’s a disturbing market for grilles that ape Bentley or Rolls Royce (alongside some rather beautiful waterfall and other billet/stainless designs from the US custom market) and worse, replacement stick on Bentley logos.
Really? When you can buy a real Bentley Eight or Mulsanne for about the same money?
The 2007 Touring we’re running was built in 2006, another victim of the change in VED bands and a long time spent waiting for a buyer. Even then, it has only covered 15,000 miles in the following 5 years. With an asking price of £11,995, it was at the steep end of 300C Touring prices – typically a Touring of this age would be nearer £8000, though with 60-100.000 miles on the clock. When looking for models with the V8, it’s necessary to consider that in the 4 years or so they were available in the UK only 645 found homes, compared with thousands of CRD models. Of those, 431 appear to be equipped with the 5.7 V8, and of the 5.7s, there may be as few as 75 Touring (estate) models. The remainder are the 6.1 litre SRT-8 model, which is focused on performance.
The RHD 300C with a V8 engine is a rare beast indeed!
It is not, however, deservedly so. The rarity of the Touring models protects them from the worst ravages of depreciation, and by this age and typical mileage they’re competing with much older Mercedes and BMW estates, few of which have V8 power. The body is well engineered, more sophisticated than Chrysler’s 1990s designs such as the Neon, and carries the same feeling of solidity as the Mercedes it’s often claimed the car was based on. The load area is practical, with a false floor providing a strong, flat load area and cubbyholes to either side in tough plastic.
As an estate car the sloping roof robs it of that ultimate carrying capacity, yet that trend blights everything in this shrinking market segment and it still rivals the best with a 1,600 litre maximum cargo capacity (amusingly, similar to an A-class LWB, but better than a Saab 9-5 or Audi A6 Avant). The tailgate extends into the roof, resembling a gullwing door, and this makes loading extremely easy.
Rear legroom is good, though rear visibility with the typical dark tinted windows (not a standard feature, but a very common treatment) is poor and rear passengers will feel like they have less room than the measurements and reality suggest. The prominent transmission tunnel is like sitting in the back of an SD1 and renders the car a four seater for adults. Unlike most European marques, features like flip-out baby seats are absent – the comfortable but crude bench offers split folding without the faff of removing headrests and only offers the barest mandatory nod to sprog-transportation with ISOFix points.
Up front, the 300C’s crudity may spoil the showroom appeal, but it’s far from unpleasant to live with. The steering wheel position feels very much like that of the E-class, though it would be disingenuous to point at the foot-operated parking brake and claim this was a link to the German, as such features are commonplace in the USA.
Little effort is made to disguise the car’s width, which is revealed in the centre console and distance from the passenger. Forward visibility is acceptable, rather like a large MINI with the letterbox view of the world, and the flat bonnet with sculpted centre line provides a visual reference for the scale and positioning of the car. Nevertheless, later models have forward parking sensors as well as rear ones. Substantial mirrors compensate for the limited rearward visibility imposed by thick B-pillars and the rising waistline.
Targeting SUV buyers in America, the Chrysler’s seating position is high by comparison with the W211 and E60. That made it appealing for me, looking for a car suitable for slightly restricted movement, but counts against it in the UK where buyers really want every excuse possible to buy the 4×4-esque thing, and if they’re looking at a conventional car generally favour a lower, sportier attitude. Any buyers obsessed with status are already going to be discouraged by the dashboard, a relentless expanse of graphite plastic alleviated only by a monolithic rectangle of lightweight silver which carries curiously dated but easy to use rotary heater controls and in our case, the positively antiquated REJ satellite navigation/audio solution. CRD buyers in 2007 were on the cusp of getting better electronics including HD-based navigation and a touch screen, but it’s safe to assume my car’s first owner obtained a healthy discount from the £34,500 list price.
For context, that’s £5000 less than the list price of my previous 2008 C6, built at the same time that this car was sold, for a car with considerably more power and practicality.
The American options list carried some premium features, such as adaptive cruise control, but it feels very much like the UK were given a set menu, a monochromatic colour choice and “good” or “better” kit with few options. This means that the 300C Hemi at least benefits from cruise control and a tilt-slide moonroof, and electric memory seats. All things found on a Ford Scorpio a decade earlier, and on even entry level cars in the 21st Century.
Behind the wheel, firing up the 5.7 V8 is not the dramatic experience Hollywood – or more realistically, thousands of YouTube videos of cutout and ‘Dub’ equipped pimped 300s stateside – may lead you to expect. The OHV iron-block unit uses 2 valves per cylinder, relying on clever engine management, gearing and of course, the ample 390lb/ft of torque to propel the 1,800kg (roughly) 300C. Unmodified, it’s incredibly quiet, rivalling the classic Rolls Royce 6.75 V8 for smoothness yet adding twinspark and variable displacement to the mix.
The 300C’s width and slab sides can make traversing Britain’s crowded residential streets a lesson in patience. Getting out of town allows the big car to settle into a generally comfortable ride, with good suspension travel marred by poor damping on rippled surfaces. On the motorway, it’s an improvement on the C6′s computerised attempts to flatten the rippled state of the M42 though it lacks the ability of the oleopneumatic system to absorb irregular, mangled A and B roads at low speeds.
Hustled along, it lacks poise and handles very much like an older E-class. Steering response is considered, easy to judge, but not to be hurried, and the rear is incredibly well behaved, tamed by the inevitable barrage of electronic interventions. Understeer will inevitably be overcome by the V8′s power if needed or in very poor conditions.
If you’re looking for a large RWD estate generally, the CRD will provide safe, balanced progress. Some effort is needed when braking, and you’re very much aware of the car’s weight when stopping, though a firm prod on the pedal reveals ample capability to halt progress when needed.
Even with the low mileage it’s important to consider that this car has six-year old components, and back to back comparison with a 2010 CRD SRT Design proves unhelpful, as the 20″ rims fitted to that model tramline excessively despite an otherwise impressive setup. For my own taste, the 18″ wheels with 225/60/18 tyres are likely to be the best option. Visually it’s easy to understand why fitments up to 24″ are commonplace in the tuning and styling scenes. Somehow wheels that approach caricature suit a car which looks like it was designed by Alan Moore (designer Ralph Gilles is certainly of an age where Generation X and comic book design could be influences).
The 5-speed gearbox shares the weakness of the Mercedes 722.6, the leaking connector plug, and fortunately mine has had this attended to. It is simply there, neither impressing through features like manual override, not upsetting through poor shift quality, just adequate. Kickdown performs as one would expect, with the stability control system working overtime on wet roads if you want to be silly. It’s best just to let the car find that steady pace, and enjoy surfing an immense wave of torque, letting the gearbox shift around the engine’s happy 1500 rpm until you need to exceed 55mph. If your self-esteem is sufficiently knocked by a fellow driver’s eagerness to leave the lights, the 300C Hemi will quite happily dig its tyres into the planet and spin it a little faster, apparently reaching 60mph in 6.4 seconds. The usual limits apply to the top speed and a 155mph outhouse is nothing unusual these days. Subtle detailing undoubtedly results in a Cd much lower than the square profile suggests.
Where the car does feature technology, it works. The variable displacement system, far from the misfire (literally, in many cases) that was GM’s attempt with the 1981 8-6-4, is a robust, genuinely useful setup. Using oil pressure to shut off four cylinders of the V8, it can be felt a little like the change in an automatic gearbox with torque convertor lockup, and returns real advantages when using the car on long, steady runs. Whether you pace up and down the motorway, where it will return the claimed 30mpg at 80mph if you can avoid excessive acceleration, or simply exist in the world of 40mph bypasses, the benefits are sufficient to make the fuel costs comparable to much smaller cars. In real world terms, it’s better than my previous 3.3 Voyagers, and compares well with a 1.6 MX5 asked to do the aforementioned motorway runs. The throttle heavy, brutal world of school runs and short commutes will render it, as they should any car, ruinous to use, but used appropriately it’s surprisingly affordable.
So what Chrysler has produced is, to me, the spiritual successor of vehicles like the Ford Granada, the Vauxhall Omega (in fact, it reminds me a lot of the FE-series Ventora, blending US modern-retro styling with European chassis engineering and a brutish powerplant) and far from a competitor for the rarified status of the BMW or Mercedes. After all, that exclusive club of leather door wrappings and 20 types of veneer is looking a little crowded these days. Perhaps controversially, it also feels as though the 300C V8 offers a taste of the driving experience – rather than the lifestyle aspirations – to be had from a 1980s or ’90s Rolls Royce. Not quite as technically advanced as a W140 S-class or those that followed, it creates an ambience of “adequate” power and ability simply through solidity.
Crucially, it feels like a car which is built to last and will succeed at doing so. Sharing an appetite for balljoints with its Mercedes siblings, the enthusiast forums are reassuringly free of ‘typical’ problems with the V8 models, though the CRD reveals the usual modern diesel recipe of emissions-control horrors and demanding servicing, with an added dash of failing alternators. Simple trim is also robust, simple equipment is easily maintained, and simple electronics are not much missed when rendered obsolete. The loss of V8 models to the European market may have been inevitable, but it’s a real shame; no other car combines rational functional trim and the refinement of a V8 in quite the same way.