“The minute I got into this car,” Danger Girl said, “my knees started hurting.” She didn’t have to explain why; thanks to sexual dimorphism, my 5’9″ wife and my 6’2″ self are both possessed of thirty-two-inch inseams, so we sit in a car the same way. And my knees were bent and splayed like I was trying to do an X-up on a BMX bike. The ridiculously short thigh bolsters in the Chrysler 200 might as well not exist. You’re fundamentally sitting on the floor, the way you would in a compact car. No surprise there, because the Chrysler 200 is a lengthened version of the compact Dodge Dart.
At an MSRP of $22,115, the LX (base) variant of the 200 competes heads-up against the Sonata I reviewed yesterday. But it’s not really that simple. To begin with, incentives on the Chrysler are omnipresent and remarkably strong; it’s entirely possible to get these cars for eighteen grand or even less. At that price point, the 200 isn’t competing with the Sonata; it’s competing with the Accent.
As we’ll see in a moment, the now-canceled barely-a-midsizer Chrysler has plenty of compelling virtues. It’s just that most of them aren’t present in this particular version of the car.
In rental-car spec, the 200 that I drove back from Camp Woodward to Ohio is slightly better-equipped than the Sonata that I drove from Ohio to Camp Woodward. You get automatic headlights, a backup camera, and a color center screen. You also get a completely different sense of space utilization. Both the Sonata and the Accord at which it is aimed provide a sense of spaciousness in the cabin, aided and abetted by a low, narrow center console. The 200, on the other hand, has a massive, high-mounted console that makes driver feel just a touch cramped. There’s a payoff, however; as with the latest generation of Volvos and most minivans, the temperature controls and other low-mounted controls are in a flying buttress of sorts that arcs from the dash to the cupholders with an empty storage area below.
Those cupholders, which are larger and better-situated than those in the Sonata, can slide to reveal a few liters’ worth of storage underneath them. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the touch points in the 200 are generally superior to those of the Sonata, particularly the leather-wrapped steering wheel which compares very favorably to the squishy-plastic poverty special in the Hyundai. Both manufacturers punish your purchase of a base model with the imposition of a dumbed-down climate control system, but at least the Sonata follows Baruth’s Law: Never use buttons where you can use a knob. The 200 requires that you press blue and red buttons to adjust a vague slider that pops up on the infotainment display. It’s just plain stupid.
On a fast, twisty road, it’s possible to get a vague sense of the Alfa Romeo roots underpinning the Chrysler; it’s relatively eager to turn in and the controls have a bias for action, as they say in corporate-speak. It’s no smaller than the Sonata according to the measurements, but it sure feels tidier and less ponderous on the move. The engine, as well, is more alert and alive, handicapped somewhat by a transmission that often chooses to rev the engine to 4,000 or above on steep grades, at which point it sounds like something’s falling apart under the hood.
There’s no paddle-shifting in this base model, so you have to select “L” and hope for the best if you need something besides the default program. Part of the drive to Camp Woodward is a relatively treacherous climb and descent on a two-lane road that wraps around what I’d call a mountain but which my born-in-the-shadow-of-the-Sandias wife calls a “hill”. The Sonata makes it easy; just slide the transmission lever to the left and engage manual control. The Chrysler can’t do anything similar. The transmission is almost bad enough to ruin the car completely.
Rear seat room in the 200 is more than adequate. My son actually preferred the rakish roofline, small rear windows, and charcoal trim of his seating area to the plain-grey Korean-taxi back bench of the Sonata, and he was a little confused as to why we were griping about having to swap out the Hyundai for the Chrysler. Truthfully, if you were to take the badges off almost everybody would prefer the sleek look of 200 to the anonymous bulk of the Sonata.
I want to like the Chrysler. It’s a handsome Italian-influenced sedan that definitely marches to the beat of an entirely different drummer. In four-cylinder LX trim, however, it’s a disappointment. The good news is that you can get it as an all-wheel-drive, Pentastar-powered, leather-lined psuedo-entry-luxury sedan for about the same out-the-door price as a 2.4-liter Sonata Limited. Equipped that way, it’s a hell of a car and a hell of a deal.
Maybe the best way to look at the two cars I rented last weekend would be this: The Sonata’s best self is as a dirt-cheap big box for a family that values trunk space over valet cachet. The 200 only really shines when you tick all the option boxes. The problem both of these cars face, of course, is the Accord. In LX or Sport trim, the Honda is tremendous value and hugely competent; with the six-cylinder and all the trimmings, it’s within striking distance of entry-luxury sedans.
I can’t think of a scenario where I’d pick either of these cars over an Accord or Camry. The general public seems to agree; added together, the 2015-model-year sales of these cars only about matched Accord or Camry volume. As before, I will continue to recommend the Ford Fusion to people who feel oppressed by the Camcord Axis Of Evil. It’s stylish, it’s chock-full of fun features, and it seems to hold its value reasonably well.
As a slightly-used car, on the other hand, the 200 makes a strong case for itself. I’m seeing V6-powered 2015-model-year “S” models with under 15,000 miles for $15,000. That’s a tremendous amount of car for the money, and I don’t see how you could go wrong buying one. As a showroom-fresh four-cylinder LX, though, the Chrysler 200 is a swing and a miss.