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Thursday, April 24, 2003


By Paul Lienert / Autos Insider


NEW YORK -- Chrysler's 300C concept was easily the most exciting new vehicle on display at the 2003 New York Auto Show.

It was also the most significant because it firmly establishes a new styling direction for Chrysler -- one that should help reposition the brand as a premium domestic marque.

The bold new shape of the 300C sedan, which goes into production in early 2004, is a radical departure for Chrysler.

I say "new" when, in fact, the proportions are really classic, recalling American and British sedans of the Fifties and Sixties.

The look, with its long hood, slab sides, blunt nose. and upright windshield, is certainly a giant step away from the raked windshields and "cab forward" styling espoused by former design boss Tom Gale that marked Chrysler products through much of the Nineties.

"It's the best thing I've seen from Chrysler since Gale retired," said one design vice-

president from a rival automaker.

How influential will the 300C be on automotive design in general? I noticed executives from General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Renault and Volvo all stopping for a good, long look at this imposing rear-wheel-drive four-door.

Under current design chief Trevor Creed, the Chrysler brand has been inching away from cab-forward in its production vehicles, most recently with the Crossfire coupe and the Pacifica wagon.

The Airflite, a full-size five-door concept displayed last month at the Geneva show, continued the styling evolution. Now the 300C appears to represent the full embodiment of Creed's vision.

At the New York show, Creed described the 300C as "the reinvention of the classic American automobile," referring to its "noble proportions."

While the British-born Creed cited the influence of Rover, other observers compared the new look favorably with Rolls-Royce and Bentley -- lofty competitors indeed.

With the 300C, one could argue that Creed and his team of designers have been far more successful in elevating the Chrysler brand than their counterparts in Stuttgart, whose bland and derivative Maybach ultraluxury sedan looks like little more than a stretched S-Class Mercedes.

Creed says he wants to build Chrysler vehicles into truly aspirational products while putting some distance between the brand and its domestic rivals at GM and Ford. "We're trying to get out of the Big Three," he says with a hint of a smile and only a trace of irony.

Creed wants to take Chrysler in one direction and Dodge in another, as evidenced in the Magnum and Avenger concepts that were unveiled in January at the Detroit show.

Future Dodge products, including replacements for the Intrepid, the Stratus, and the Neon, will get edgier as the Dodge brand moves away from traditional three-box shapes toward five-door silhouettes. Chrysler, meanwhile, will hew to a more traditional and conservative path.

When the company replaces its full-size LH models early next year with the new rear-

drive LX cars, only Chrysler will get a sedan -- a production version of the 300C -- while Dodge will get only a wagon -- a production version of the Magnum -- although eventually a Dodge sedan will join the series, probably in early 2005.

The production 300C will be influential in more ways than one. Powered by a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, the big sedan will combine Detroit-style performance with European-style ride and handling, thanks in no small part to the collaborative engineering effort between Auburn Hills and Stuttgart.

Adaptation of various Mercedes-Benz chassis and driveline components, including a five-

speed automatic transmission, certainly won't hurt the increasingly upscale image of the Chrysler brand. Nor will such premium details as the twenty-

inch wheels and tires and stunning tortoise shell accents from the show car.

It remains to be seen whether Chrysler vehicles can command premium prices from American consumers who have grown used to the brand as a white-collar sibling to Plymouth and Dodge, without much substance to justify a higher sticker.

If Chrysler had shoehorned a larger, more powerful engine into the Crossfire, that $35,000 base price might not seem so steep. Likewise, the Pacifica seems like a really glitzy alternative to a minivan, but not quite worthy of a $32,000-plus sticker.

But a 300C sedan with Bentley-like styling and presence, a big-bore V-8, loads of room, fine leather seats and a tortoise shell steering wheel for $40,000?

Dr. Zetsche, where do I send the check?

You can reach Paul Lienert at [email protected]ahoo.com.
 
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