As Kelsey Mays detailed in an earlier review, Chrysler redesigned its 300 full-size sedan for the 2011 model year, bringing the car up to date in all ways except one: Its automatic transmission continued as a five-speed. Now for 2012, the V-6-powered 300 offers a new eight-speed automatic. I'll devote this review to our impressions of the new transmission and the line's new top trim level, called S, and to clarifying the baffling combination of available drivetrains and trim levels.
The 2012 Chrysler 300S V6 with rear-wheel drive impressed us with its responsive new transmission, high mileage and luxury appeal.
For 2012, the new S trim level becomes the 300's top version, joining the base and Limited trims. Previously, V-8 engines were available only on the 300C and the performance-oriented SRT8, covered separately. Now, complicating matters, the 300S version comes with a choice of V-6 or V-8 engines.
Eight Speeds, No Waiting
The 300's eight-speed proves that a transmission with an abundance of gears needn't be sluggish when kicking down to a lower gear for a burst of speed. There's never been any excuse for this kind of behavior, but as transmissions have added more and more gears, it's seemed automakers have often taken their eyes off the basics. In the 300, the transmission upshifts smoothly and almost imperceptibly, with the goal of climbing to higher gears as promptly as possible to maximize gas mileage. For this strategy to work, the transmission has to be quick to downshift so you have power when you need it. The 300's does, especially if you switch from Drive to the automatic Sport mode by rocking the shift knob back once. This keeps the transmission in lower gears and makes the accelerator more responsive, though it's certain to make the car less fuel efficient.
With the new transmission, the 3.6-liter V-6 engine and rear-wheel drive, the 300 nets an EPA-estimated 19/31 mpg city/highway on regular gas, which is exceptionally efficient for the highway and acceptable for the city in this car class. The comparable Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon are rated 18/28 and 19/28 mpg, respectively, in their base versions.
An all-wheel-drive option has returned for the 2012 model year after a one-year hiatus, adding $2,350 to the cost of Limited and S rear-drive models. With all-wheel drive, the 300's rating is 18/27 mpg.
The Black Sheep
We now interrupt this review to explain that there's a black sheep among V-6-powered 2012 Chrysler 300s: Though the new eight-speed transmission is the norm, early in the 2012 model year Chrysler built some base 300 V6 models with the carryover five-speed automatic transmission, so it's possible you'll come across one at a dealership. As of publication, this version sets the base list price of $27,670, excluding the $925 destination charge. The eight-speed adds $1,000 to the price. Limited and S trim levels have gotten only the eight-speed since the 2012 model year began, so their base prices are as reported throughout Cars.com. The straggler five-speed 300 is rated 18/27 mpg with rear-wheel drive.
A tip to distinguish the five-speed from the eight: The five-speed has a more conventional gear selector that slides through a serpentine gate on the center console. The eight-speed has a short, wide electronic knob that you rock forward and back. Incidentally, I'm not wild about the new shifter, but once you learn to operate it, it's not the worst of the electronic controls that are taking over the market. The eight-speed also comes with manual-shift paddles on the steering wheel.
What Makes an S
The S trim level is mostly about exterior and interior attributes and standard features, but there are some mechanical differences, too. The S exterior has body-colored trim where some other versions have chrome, such as under the headlights and on the side mirrors. The headlight clusters incorporate black bezels. The grille is black chrome. If you don't like it, however, Chrysler's Mopar division offers a bunch of different grille designs and finishes.
The S trim also comes with 20-inch bright aluminum wheels accented with gloss-black pockets. Seventeen- through 19- inch rims are also available across the lineup. Even with these large wheels, our 300S test car rode very nicely — not soft, but not so firm as to be out of character for the car. However, this car comes with a touring suspension; if you choose the V-8 version of the 300S, you'll get a performance-tuned suspension, which is sure to ride more firmly. The V-8 version also includes larger brakes, a quicker steering ratio and heavier feel than any other 300 except the SRT8. I think the steering and braking feel has improved over the 300's previous generation, but there's still room for improvement.
The 300S' exclusive interior design is nicely done. In place of wood and other more conventional materials, there are piano black surfaces and patterned metallic-looking trim. The color theme is black, including the ceiling headliner. Heated cloth seats are standard, while our test car had leather, which brings with it power front seats. They bear an "S" logo and white contrast stitching that one of our editors deemed "not very subtle." If that's so, I'm not sure how to describe the optional Radar Red leather interior. Beautiful bright gauges flanking a high-resolution color display spearhead the car's luxury impression.
The 300 also includes the Uconnect Touch system, which relies on an 8.4-inch touch-screen for multifunction control. I'm always happy to see a touch-screen rather than a controller knob, but I have the usual gripe about the navigation system: There aren't enough street labels. Also, one of our editors pointed out that the navigation's maps and menus are lower in resolution than the Uconnect Touch system as a whole. One time, the map froze up and wouldn't return until I stopped and restarted the car. At least Ford's notoriously buggy MyFord Touch system reboots itself without requiring you to restart the engine.
Though it's priced $1,000 above the Limited, all the 300S V6 adds in the way of standard equipment, apart from the features already mentioned, is a Beats premium stereo.
However, the V-8 version of the 300S adds many features available only in option packages with the smaller engine: a backup camera, adjustable pedals, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming driver-side mirror, footwell lighting, satin-chrome doorsills, HomeLink, heated rear seats, a heated, powered tilt/telescoping steering wheel, premium carpet, a powered rear-window shade, automatic-high-beam headlights, and heated and cooled cupholders. See the trim levels compared.
Loaded with these features, our test car hit $40,700 including a $925 destination charge. With rear-wheel drive, the 300S V8 starts at $40,595, and with every possible option — including an extensive Mopar package — the price tops out at $52,780.
With top scores in front, side and rear crash tests, as well as a top roof-strength score, the 300 is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It also earned five out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Standard features include a full complement of front and side airbags, active head restraints and the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Click here for a full list.
The 300 Limited and V-8-powered S include a backup camera; it comes in an option package on the 300S V6. An optional safety package available on all but the base 300 includes adaptive headlights that swivel a few degrees in the direction of a turn, a blind spot warning system, and adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning.
Like most vehicles, including considerably larger ones, the 300 accommodates two rather than three child-safety seats in the backseat. See the full Car Seat Check.
300 in the Market
Several years ago, following a period of dreadful reliability from which it hadn't exactly extricated itself, Chrysler announced that it was taking the brand into luxury territory. I thought their execs must be taking very powerful drugs, because to me the right way to raise a brand's quality and prestige is slowly and visibly, not by decree — something Volkswagen accomplished over decades. Since then, Chrysler has been making steady improvements, and the 300 is indeed luxurious — the most luxurious Chrysler in history, or at least of the modern era.