Chrysler is not out of the woods yet, but its vehicle sales, market share and financials are improving and it is looking a lot healthier than it did a year ago.
The smallest of the three Detroit-based carmakers has been hard at work revamping its model line, and one of the first results of that effort is today's subject: the 200 sedan, formerly known as the Sebring, which was a critical also-ran to midsize stalwarts like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
Although it's not a ground-up redesign, the new 200 corrects one of the most serious shortcomings of the Sebring - and certain other of Chrysler's products: a cheap-looking interior. In the 200, the seams are straight, the materials have some texture and the controls are soft to the touch, properly damped, self-explanatory and well-located. The seats have more padding. Just one flaw inside: Reflections can obscure the gauges.
On sale since late last year, the 200 shares basics with the also-updated Dodge Avenger and eventually will be offered in four progressively more-expensive variations: LX, Touring, Limited and "S," for sport, starting at $19,995 with freight. I sampled a Limited, which starts at $24,495. All come standard with automatic transmission - a four-speed in the cheapest model, a six-speed in the others.
The standard 173-hp. four-cylinder engine is this car's only serious shortcoming - for its noise and harshness on acceleration and even at cruise. Its performance, though, is more than adequate - all you need unless you regularly carry full loads or plan to tow a trailer. I averaged about 26 miles per gallon, just as the government forecasts. The transmission's top gear is extra tall to keep the engine noise down and improve fuel economy, and it is a little slow to downshift when more torque is needed. A new 283-hp. 3.6-liter V-6 is available as a $1,795 option.
Suspension changes, including a one-inch wider track, make for a firm ride and capable handling. Chrysler says it improved the steering feel and precision, and that's evident, too. The 200 is an inch longer and wider than the Sebring. Rear seat legroom is unchanged, falling between the roomier Camry's and the tighter Accord's.
As with any heavily changed model, reliability is an unknown. The predecessor Sebring was much worse than average, Consumer Reports said. We have no safety ratings yet from the federal government for the 200, but the 2010 Sebring did very well in government testing. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, however, calls the 200, the Avenger, Fusion, Malibu and the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima cousins "top safety picks" - an accolade neither the Camry nor the Accord can claim. They're merely "good."
2011 Chrysler 200
Engine: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, 173 hp.
Place of assembly: Sterling Heights, Mich.
Trunk: 13.6 cu. ft.
EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 mpg city, 31 highway
Price as driven: $26,030 including freight
Bottom line: Improved - and so is its manufacturer.