New Car Review: 2005 Chrysler 300C
WITH CAREY RUSS
Quick history lesson: Set the clock back 50 years, to the first Chrysler 300. It got its name from its engine's horsepower output. That engine was the first of the soon to be legendary Hemis (r), named for their efficient, free-breathing hemispherical combustion chambers. Chrysler had recently competed in La Carrera Panamerica, the famed Mexican Road Race, and suspension pieces developed for that were used with little modification. Had the term been in use in those days, the C300 would have been known as a serious sports sedan. It started a dynasty - the now-revered Chrysler 300 ``letter cars'' - that lasted through the mid-1960s. A few years back, Chrysler updated the concept with the 300M, a then-contemporary front-wheel drive, V6-powered car.
Although there are models available with V6 engines, the heart and soul of 2005 300 line is the 300C, for under its hood is the latest Chrysler ``Hemi'' V8 engine. It's not a direct descendent of the Hemi of yore, but it does have hemispherical combustion chambers, two pushrod-operated valves per cylinder, and a cast iron block like its namesake. There the similarities stop. The new engine is considerably smaller, lighter, and more efficient than the old one. Carburetors, whether single or twin four-barrel, or triple twins, have been replaced by electronic fuel injection. And, when maximum power is not needed, sophisticated electronic controls and mechanical parts turn it into a four-cylinder engine for improved fuel economy. Old Hemis were lucky to break into double digits; the new one, in the 300C, can see mid-twenties on the highway - and propel the car to 60 mph in just a touch over six seconds.
The Chrysler 300 and its platform-mate Dodge Magnum are the first cars built on a new rear-wheel drive platform. The transition from the previous full-size front-drive LH platform to this new one is as significant as the transition from the old K platform to the LH over a decade ago. And, as importantly, in this move Chrysler has access to the Mercedes parts bin. About 20 percent of the parts in the 300 are of Mercedes origin, including the suspension and the 300C's five-speed automatic transmission.
But the 300C is All (contemporary)-American in style and character. The early letter cars compared well with the large European sedans of their day, and the 300C can more than hold its own against any comparable European or Japanese sport-luxury sedan built today - most of which are considerably more expensive. Style meets substance in the 300C.
APPEARANCE: Few cars that I've driven have turned as many heads as the 300C. It got positive reactions from an amazingly wide variety of people. While it nods to Chrysler's past with a bold eggcrate grille reminiscent of 1957's 300-C, the new 300 has a look all its own. It is not a small car, but its massive, angular lines make it look considerably larger than it really is. Large 18-inch wheels and tires fill the wheel arches. The ``cab-forward'' look of the LH cars is history, replaced by a classic long hood, short deck design. The low proportions of the passenger cabin look ``chopped'' in custom car parlance, giving an almost menacing look. ``Cool! It looks like a gangster car!'' said my next-door neighbor, approvingly.
COMFORT: Don't let the 300C's low roofline fool you. There is ample room inside for four six-foot adults. And it's just as distinctively-styled inside as out. Wood, woodgrain plastic, and faux carbon fiber are commonplace for interior trim. Chrysler one-ups everyone with tortoise-shell on the steering wheel, interior door handles, and shift knob. It's plastic, so guitar picks, not tortoises, gave their lives for it, and it sets the tone for the interior styling - contemporary with just a touch of retro. The basic design is clean and contemporary, with a two-tone color scheme that adds an airy feeling. Black-on-silver, chrome-bezeled instruments and silvery metal-look plastic trim brighten the instrument panel. The steering wheel adjusts for both tilt and reach. The front seats are wide and moderately firm, with good bolstering and comfort. The rear bench is contoured for two, with modest space in the center position because of the high central tunnel. It folds 60/40 when cargo needs exceed trunk size. Interior storage is good, and the trunk is much larger than it would seem from the car's exterior proportions.
SAFETY: The ``occupant classification system'' regulates the deployment of the 300C's front airbags depending on occupant weight. The 300C also features an energy-absorbing body structure, auto-reverse windows, all-speed traction control, antilock four-wheel disc brakes, the ``ESP'' stability control system and more safety equipment as standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: With the LH cars, Chrysler helped make front-wheel drive the standard for large cars. So why rear-wheel drive after all these years? Front-wheel drive provide good traction in steady-state conditions or under low rates of acceleration. Weight transfer off the front wheels under high rates of acceleration limits the power that can be efficiently put to the ground through the front wheels. While is is possible to transmit 300 horsepower through a front-drive system, it is not always pleasant. With modern electronic traction and stability control systems, standard on the 300C, a rear-drive car can be as capable as a front-drive one in inclement conditions. And, most 300 models are available with all-wheel drive. With either drive setup, the suspension is fully-independent, with short-and-long arms in front and a multilink design at the rear. It's tuned like a European luxury car, softer than a sport setting but capable of very good handling response. It's stable at speed on the highway, and feels better as speed increases. It is also great fun on secondary roads, and feels smaller and lighter than it is.
PERFORMANCE: The new ``Hemi'' is a clean-sheet design. The namesake hemispherical combustion chambers allow efficient breathing for good power output with good fuel economy and low emissions. With 340 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, it's the most powerful engine in a Chrysler car since the demise of the old Hemi in the early 1970s. It is quiet and refined, with just the right amount of V8 rumble under hard acceleration. And while it is capable of great acceleration, fuel economy is commendable thanks to the Multiple Displacement System (MDS). Using special valve lifters that essentially decouple the valves from the camshafts, and electronic controls that shut down fuel to the deactivated cylinders, the 90-degree V8 is transformed into a 180-degree V4 when peak power is not demanded. It really is seamless - even while it was demonstrated to me by a Chrysler engineer, I could not feel any change in the engine. The resulting mid-20s highway gas mileage is impressive for a two-ton high-performance car. The five-speed automatic transmission is the same as used by the Mercedes half of DaimlerChrysler, and shifts quickly and efficiently. It can be easily shifted manually in ``AutoStick'' mode for performance driving, but given the Hemi's 390 lb-ft of torque, shifting is strictly optional.
CONCLUSIONS: The 2005 300C is a landmark for Chrysler and the American auto industry.
2005 Chrysler 300C
Base Price $ 32,370 Price As Tested $ 33,530 Engine Type pushrod overhead valve 16-valve V8 Engine Size 5.7 liters / 345 cu. in. Horsepower 340 @ 5000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 390 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 120 in. / 196.8 in. Curb Weight 4046 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 11.9 Fuel Capacity 19 gal. Fuel Requirement 89 octane unleaded mid-grade gasoline recommended, 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline acceptable Tires P225/60HR18 Continental Touring Contact Brakes, front/rear 4-wheel antilock vented disc. Traction and stability control and brake assist standard Suspension, front/rear independent short-and-long arm / independent 5-link Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 25 / 23 0 to 60 mph 6.3 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Sound group II - includes: AM/FM radio with 6-CD MP3-capable changer, Boston Acoustics speakers, subwoofer, 380-watt digital amplifier $ 535 Destination charge $ 625
Chrysler HEMI(r) Engine Facts
Everything old is new again. Hemispherical combustion chambers date to the early years of internal combustion, and provide excellent thermal efficiency and power production, especially in a relatively long-stroke, low-revving engine. They also work well with supercharging. The combustion chamber is that space between the piston and the cylinder head in which combustion takes place. Most early racing engines were, by today's standards, long-stroke and low-revving, and many were supercharged. Hemispherical combustion chambers were commonly used in racing engines built up to the mid-1960s, when the success of the Ford-Cosworth DFV Formula One engine led to a resurgence of four-valve-per-cylinder designs with narrow valve angles incompatible with hemispherical combustion chambers. By then, too, successful racing engines revved up to 10,000 rpm and the large chamber volume of a hemispherical chamber would have caused serious gas-flow and hence power production problems. (Parenthetically, four-valve heads were nothing new, either - the seminal 1913 Peugeot Grand Prix racers had engines with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. This was arguably the most influential engine, ever.)
Chrysler first built an engine with hemispherical combustion chambers in the World War II era, for fighter aircraft. In 1951, Chrysler joined the postwar horsepower race with its first ``hemi'' V8 engine, and the design became associated with to the company, at least in the public eye. The Chrysler Hemis were expensive to build, and to buy, and low sales led to discontinuation after 1959. (Note here that ``hemi,'' lower-case is generic, ``HEMI'' all uppercase is a Chrysler trademark and applies to the current engine).
But performance made a comeback in the 1960s, and Chrysler needed an edge on the competition in stock car racing. And so the now-legendary 426 cubic-inch Hemi was born. It won its first race, the 1964 Daytona 500, convincingly - Richard Petty lapped the entire field. But it wasn't quite a real production engine, and so was banned - until 1966, when it became available in street form to anyone with the extra cash to buy one. And it took plenty - the Hemi was a $600 to $800 option in cars that cost $2,500 to $4,000. In the late 1960s, Hemis were nearly invincible in stock car and drag racing. But after 1971, the Hemi was finished, at least as a street engine, the victim of emissions requirements that were far beyond its design specification. It lived on in drag racing, where it and its derivatives dominated the top classes to the present day. As mentioned, hemispherical combustion chambers are amenable to supercharging - and Top Fuel drag-race engines are supercharged to enormous pressure, enough to make something like 5,000 horsepower from 500 cubic inches. (Note that they don't do this for very long!)
Chrysler brought the HEMI(r) back in 2003, with the debut of the newest generation of Ram pickups. Now it's in the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum, and soon will be found in the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Like its illustrious predecessors, the new HEMI's two valves per cylinder are operated by pushrods. As in previous Hemis, intake and exhaust valves for each bank of cylinders are at an angle in the head and have their own rockers. In this era, when dual overhead cams and four-valve heads are found in economy cars, why did Chrysler go for such a seemingly atavistic design? All things considered, even though it's more complex than a typical pushrod engine with its two valves per cylinder in line with the crankshaft and using one set of rockers, it's simpler and more cost-effective than an overhead-cam engine. It produces equivalent power to an overhead cam engine, but costs less to build. Each cylinder in a 5.7-liter V8 is large enough and the revs are low enough that the two-valve hemi design works very well. Hemis can run well on lower octane fuel than some other designs, and Chrysler's newest is happy with less-expensive mid-range gasoline. And undoubtedly tradition played some part in the renaissance of the HEMI.
Don't think that the new HEMI is lacking in contemporary technology. It's the first variable-displacement engine to make it to production. The ``Multi-Displacement System'' (MDS) is standard on all HEMIs in 2005 Chrysler 300Cs, Dodge Magnums, and Jeep Grand Cherokees. Put most simply, the MDS works by deactivating the lifters in four cylinders, keeping their valves closed. No fuel is injected at that time, increasing fuel economy, and no air is pumped, decreasing energy and therefore power that would be lost pumping air. Use of electronic throttle control, electronic fuel injection, sophisticated electronically-controlled hydraulic lifters, and control algorithms makes it all work quickly and seamlessly.
It takes only 40 milliseconds (0.040 seconds) to switch between four-cylinder and eight-cylinder modes, and the process can't be felt. Serendipitously, during the week in which I had a Chrysler 300C as a test car, I attended a demonstration of the MDS system. I drove a 300C in which Chrysler engineers had attached instrumentation on a short test loop that included city streets and freeway driving, with full-throttle acceleration needed for freeway merging. I never noticed any change in the engine's response or power - there was never any lack of power - and was surprised when I saw the graph of operation after the data was downloaded to a laptop. The HEMI switched between modes constantly, not just occasionally. Chrysler estimates at ten to twenty percent increase in fuel economy, and indeed, I found the 300C to be most efficient for a car of its size and power.
And if 340 horsepower isn't enough, Chrysler has just announced the 300C SRT-8, to be available sometime next spring. Its HEMI has been enlarged to 6.1 liters and compression increased, to make 425 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. A sport-tuned suspension and Brembo(r) four-piston brake calipers will be hidden under slightly-modified bodywork. With a 0-60 time in the low 5-second range and a quarter-mile time in the high 13s, this looks to be the hottest HEMI since the glory days of the muscle car era, and a far more refined car.