LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Louisville is home to Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the famed Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Though it's a coincidence, there's certain symmetry to Louisville also being the venue for the launch of the new second-generation 200 sedan, because Chrysler is trying to hit one out of the park.
It was a swing and a miss for Sebring as a mid-sized sedan that could go toe to toe with the well-established Japanese competition, not to mention the four-door family sedans from the other two members of the Detroit Big Three. And its refreshed and renamed first-generation 200 successor -- out in 2010 -- was a single at best.
With Fiat firmly in the driver's seat and more money made available for proper development -- not to mention the use of the Alfa Romeo-based chassis that also underpins the slightly smaller Dart -- Chrysler is aiming for the fences. The 2015 200, says the automaker, "charts a new course" as it attempts to carve out a place among the top-ranked family sedans.
The car brings with it a fresher, upscale European-inspired look inside and out as well as state-of-the-art features. These include a nine-speed automatic transmission with available sport mode and paddle shifters, a choice of two engines and standard front-wheel drive, along with an optional all-wheel-drive system.
The 200 is being offered in four trim levels -- LX, Limited, S and topline C. The standard engine across the lineup is Chrysler's 2.4-litre MultiAir Tigershark four-cylinder, which also sees duty in the Dart.
The Tigershark produces 184 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque, competitive among the base engines found among the 200's competition -- Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, et al.
Just as important, at least for the purposes of establishing the 200's bona fides, is the four-cylinder delivers fuel economy improvements of 19 per cent (Chrysler estimates highway fuel economy at 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres), horsepower improvements of six per cent and torque improvements of 10 per cent compared with the outgoing four-cylinder.
Performance is quite acceptable from the engine. It's quiet at a steady speed, getting growly only when quick acceleration is called for.
But it is the 3.6L Pentastar V6 -- with what Chrysler says is a class-leading 295 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque -- in combination with the available (on the S and C models) AWD system that imbue the 200 with a sporty quasi-Euro-sedan vibe. As well, the AWD system gives the Chrysler a leg up on most of its Asian rivals -- save Subaru's Legacy -- and puts it on a more equitable footing with the Fusion (21 per cent of Fusions sold in Canada are AWD).
The system features a fully disconnecting rear axle that improves fuel economy by operating in front-wheel drive when AWD isn't needed. The one-speed power transfer unit automatically disconnects and reconnects the rear axle as needed and at any speed.
Once behind the wheel of a V6-powered 200S AWD, our drive route started in downtown Louisville and took in a short freeway portion before heading off to the rolling, twisting roads of northern Kentucky's horse country. It's a stretch to say the 200 is an alternative to the Audi A4, but the Chrysler car could definitely handle the country roads. The level of grip offered by the AWD system will definitely prove its worth in our more northern climes.
The rest of the car's handling and performance dynamics are skewed more toward family sedan fare. On the hillier sections, the transmission kept hunting for the right gear. And while the engine responded to a firm right foot with suitable acceleration, it was a little slow to pick up the pace with lighter applications of throttle.
In sport mode, the electro-mechanical steering transitioned from lighter than ideal to firmer but artificially heavy. All in all, despite Chrysler's contention the chassis is engineered to deliver sporty European handling dynamics and steering precision with ride and comfort characteristics tuned for North American roads, my take is this: While the 200 is sporty for a family sedan, as a sport sedan it needs some sorting out.
Notably, the 200S is differentiated from the rest of the model range with gloss black trim and accent pieces rather than the standard bright trim. The area surrounding the side windows is gloss black. Integrated dual exhausts are standard and the available 19-inch Hyper Black aluminum wheels complete the look.
As for the cabin environment -- Chrysler's interior designers have created a comfy, upscale layout with soft-touch materials, shiny trim bits and some interesting touches, notably a novel rotary e-shift dial that replaces the traditional console shift lever. This frees up space for more usable storage in the centre console.
The available seven-inch customizable in-cluster display centre is easy to read and allows drivers to receive information and feedback in the format they prefer, similar to an iPhone. The available screens show real-time fuel economy, turn-by-turn navigation, compass, outside temperature, speed, time and other useful information.
Also offered is the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen multimedia command centre. Voice-activated navigation, hands-free voice commands and voice-to-text allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
Up front, there is plenty of room for those on the plus side of six feet, with good head and legroom. If the front seat is all the way back in its tracks, though, taller rear-seat occupants will find their knees firmly in the cushion. They will also find their heads brushing the roof pad, thanks to the car's coupe-like profile. Compounding the situation, the rear-door opening is not as large as found in some competitive sedans, meaning more contortions are needed to slide into the back.
The new 200 is a marked improvement over the previous model. More importantly, it is now a competitive product against its main rivals, with looks, powertrain options, drivability, features and pricing all working in its favour. Is it the home run Chrysler hopes it to be? No. But the car now hits with power and will cash in the runs needed to keep the automaker in the game.
The 2015 200 has a starting price of $22,495 and tops out at $38,995 for a fully loaded 200C V6 AWD. Cars will be at the dealerships later this spring.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014