The Chrysler 300C is arguably one of the most familiar cars on the road today. Since 2004, it’s been a fixture of the American landscape, the cool-looking big sedan that not only proved Americans can still do four doors as well as anybody, it’s also given Chrysler some much-needed credibility through some of the darkest points in its history. It’s been Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, the North American Car of the Year, the personal ride of Barack Obama, one of the few American luxo-barges to pass muster with Top Gear, and ranks at number 12 on Complex’s list of the 25 most iconic cars in Hip-Hop history. And even now, as the Chrysler lineup is in upheaval yet again, the 300C is still with us as stoic and commanding as ever.
But most importantly, the 300C has a stronger case for Hero status than virtually any other American model introduced in the 21st century. It’s been consistently celebrated, awarded, and respected throughout its two generations, and its familiar lines are still appealing enough to look good to just about everybody, regardless of how much you care about cars. But there’s always a danger in driving your heroes; more often than not, they seem stuck somewhere in the past, or worse, just don’t live up to the hype. Somehow, the 300C has managed to avoid these pitfalls, and in 2016 it feels just as relevant as it did in 2005.
I was able to spend a week in a range-topping 300C Platinum AWD recently, and — just my luck — Mother Nature was willing enough to throw the gamut of weather conditions at me to test it. The Chrysler took on zero degree days as deftly as it did 50 degree ones; it felt as sure-footed in white-out conditions when New York roads had the consistency of cafeteria pudding as it did on dry, salted ones. Simply put, it’s just about everything you’d expect it to be, and that’s an impressive achievement for any car.
At first glance, the 300C looks the same as it always has – that is until you see an older model drive by. Then you begin to pick up on the myriad of subtle updates Chrysler has given the car to keep it fresh. Finished in Black Forest Green (a green that’s almost black when not in direct sunlight), it looks both powerful and elegant. It’s a color that wouldn’t look out of place in any automotive era, but I can’t imagine a more appropriate color for this car.
The 300C got a facelift for 2015, and the “Poor Man’s Bentley” now wears an even more Bentley-esque wire-mesh grille and upright, formal facia. The retro-futurism of first-gen model (below) is already starting to look like it’s from another automotive era, and the recent 2011-’14 car with its rakish front fascia and finned grille looks like a gawky adolescent compared to the current, mature-looking one. Suffice to say, I think the 300C looks better than ever. Out back, the angle of the raised taillights recall the graceful “rear stabilizer” tail fins of the the ’57-’59 300-cars, and they’re connected along the bumper by a bold, honest-to-god chrome strip (standard on the Platinum model) that runs the length of the inner-bumper. Instead of being garish, the result is a near-impossible stylistic coup; a design that’s firmly rooted in automotive history while still feeling contemporary.
It’s what’s in between where the 300C remains closest to its original design, and that’s by no means a bad thing. Americans went gaga over the car a dozen years ago, snapping up over a quarter million of them in its first two model years. Back then, its muscular profile and chopped roofline earned it its “gangster car” stereotype, maybe because “Grandpa’s Imperial Southampton” didn’t sound quite as sexy. Again, this is no dig; there were decades when Chrysler did luxury with the best of them — both Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson both had a fondness for Imperials — and with President Obama’s recent ownership, the 300C proves that there’s nothing illicit about Chrysler doing luxury. It’s the real deal.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Maintains its recognizable lines while still feeling fresh, facelift is a major improvement.
+ Wears its chrome proudly and better than any other sedan on the market today.
+ Black Forest Green has to be one of the best colors offered by any automaker, period.
– Upright greenhouse and chopped roof look great on the outside, hamper visibility inside.
– Big, open slab sides look great, but a lack of door trim make all that sheet metal especially vulnerable to parking lot dings.
– I only wish Chrysler extended this attention to design detail across its entire lineup.
For those old-school American iron junkies, Chrysler offers a 5.7 liter Hemi V8. Cranking out 363 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque, it gives the two-plus ton car some serious pickup. But my test car came with the standard 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, something I was only disappointed by until I fired it up for the first time. Call me crazy, but it almost sounded like Jaguar’s 3.0 liter six. Even in Sport mode, it certainly didn’t perform like a Jag, but it sounded rich and throaty under acceleration, almost completely erasing the memories of the whiny-sounding sixes that came from my dad’s Chrysler company cars 15 or so years ago.
The Pentastar is great for cruising, ably using all of its 292 horses and 264 pound-feet of torque. It never felt slow, and and had plenty of pull at highway speeds. I’m also relieved to say that the ZF-designed eight-speed automatic transmission was a pleasant surprise. I once took a 750 mile road trip in an ’11 Chrysler 200 (don’t ask), and after about 50 miles, the twitchy CVT made me want to tear my hair out. Not so with the 300; it did its job and stayed out of the way, which is all you could ever really ask of a transmission in a premium sedan.
The base powertrain is really everything most buyers would want from the 300C. The SRT model is dead (at least in the U.S.), and while the 300S is likely to provide enough fun for people who have to get the fastest model, you’d be kidding yourself to think the 300C is a hot rod. I’m glad it has Sport settings, but if you really want to go big, skip the six and go straight for the Hemi. If you’re really looking for a track rat, skip the 300C altogether and get a Dodge Charger Hellcat. This is a luxury car, after all.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Sounds great, and honestly, that’s half the reason we like engines, isn’t it?
+ Pentastar and eight-speed automatic do wonders in atoning for Chrysler’s past powertrain sins.
+ Power comes on smooth and consistently; a true boulevard cruiser.
– I still wish there was a little more power to go with the Pentastar’s convincing grunt.
– Sport mode has a great checkered flag icon on the MID; didn’t make much difference performance-wise.
– Chrysler was right to axe the SRT, it really didn’t make sense anymore. And yet, I still miss it for its sheer lunacy.
For the new Continental, Lincoln has been pushing the concept of “Quiet Luxury” — a premium car that eschews performance pretensions for pure, contemporary luxury. It makes a lot of sense too; there are plenty of BMW owners who could care less about zero to 60 times, Sport modes, or the pedigree attached to The Ultimate Driving Machine. Most people just want the badge. And while Lincoln may have back-formulated the term, the truth is was been beaten to the punch by Chrysler by about a dozen years. Because if there’s any full-size sedan on the market today that embodies quiet luxury, it’s the 300C.
Chrysler has done a great job updating its interior in the most important areas: namely, places that are in plain sight. The dash cap has nice stitching and is soft to the touch, the switch gear is solid and purposeful, the open-pore wood trim in the Limited is de rigueur and absolutely beautiful, and it’s incredibly refreshing to find real aluminum accents in a mass-market car, not painted plastic. Topped off with Chrysler’s trademark analog clock atop the center stack, the dash is upright and imposing, mirroring the front fascia. The center console and bolstered bucket seats may try to make things sporty, but this dash reminds me of past luxury greats like the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and the Cadillac Fleetwood. Plain and simple, it looks and feels like the dashboard of a luxury car.
The seats on the Platinum are firm and comfortable too, the rich leather thrones wouldn’t feel out of place on a car twice its price. Front and rear seats are heated, which came in incredibly handy on days when the temperature hovered around zero. The front seats are ventilated too, which would’ve been great to try out if it were, say, 80 degrees warmer — ditto the gorgeous dual-pane panoramic sunroof. But with Northeastern temperatures stuck in the single digits, they’ll have to wait for another road test. Combined with the leather-wrapped heated steering wheel however, the 300C warms you up on a cold day faster than it can warm itself up — truly the mark of a great winter car.
But my biggest gripes with the car were also found inside, because really, the interior is great except for where it isn’t. Below the armrests on the door cards, and from the airbags down, the 300C is clad in the hard, shiny black plastic that made interiors from 10 years ago feel so cheap. And while I loved the blue glow of the turbine-like analog instruments at night (they reminded me of the Starship Enterprise’s navigational deflector. Yep, that nerdy), they also reminded me of props from a movie set; impressive under the right kind of lighting, cheap looking under the wrong kind. These are no more than minor issues, but I couldn’t help but think that they probably wouldn’t happen in a comparably-priced Mercedes or Lexus.
Interior pros and cons
+ Fantastic design details carry on inside.
+ Heated and cooled leather seats punch well above their weight. Heated leather steering wheel is great in the winter too.
+ Everything’s fantastic when you’re looking forward…
– …But don’t look down. There’s a noticeable amount of cheap, hard plastic on the door cards, the under dash, and transmission tunnel.
– Instruments are beautifully designed, but direct light isn’t their friend.
– Small misses add up to take away from an overall fantastic cabin.
Tech and safety
The 300C hits all the right tech and safety points you’d expect a premium sedan to. Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system is simple, fast, and intuitive — I swear it gets better every year. The 8.4-inch color touch screen is responsive and clear, and could detect inputs even while I had gloves on. But there’s also a refreshing button to screen ratio on the dash, ensuring that you can quickly control the important stuff without taking your eyes off the road.
My Premium model came standard with the $2,995 SafetyTec Plus package, which included the ParkSense front and rear park assist system, blind spot monitoring, Rear Cross Path Detection, exterior mirrors with supplemental turn signals, an auto-dimming driver side exterior mirror and courtesy lamps, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, active braking, LaneSense lane departure warning, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. It may sound like a lot of coin, but you get a laundry list of safety features, and in just a week of mostly city driving, many came in handy.
Sometimes though, they came in too handy. ParkSense and blind spot monitoring was great for squeezing into tight city parking spaces, with a diagram of the car and its distance from objects taking up the MID. Unfortunately, the sensors are easily tricked. They emit a sonar-like beep that turns into a screech once something gets too close, and more often than not parking in a tight space is done enduring several seconds of the car’s digital howling – a godawful sound you aren’t likely to forget any time soon. You can easily turn the functions off thanks to big, centrally-located buttons on the dash, but once you do that, the MID display goes away too. There’s probably a way to tone down the ear-splitting feedback, but I didn’t bother to dig through the manual or infotainment settings for it. Chances are, most owners probably wouldn’t either.
I also noticed that rain, snow, and even dirt were enough to fool the sensors. There were maybe a dozen times where a puddle or burst of snow would trigger the park assist system. And then there was the time on 495 when I changed lanes on an empty stretch and the MID turned red and flashed “BRAKE!” at me. First it was startling, then confusing. In the end, I was glad to know it was looking out, just in case I really would’ve needed it.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ I wish all infotainment systems were as easy to use as Chrysler’s UConnect.
+ Sensors and clear backup camera makes parking this big car easy anywhere.
+ SafetyTec Plus package is expensive, but completely worth it.
– That said, its disco whistle/screeching falcon soundtrack gets old fast.
– Oh God, I’m gonna have nightmares about that sound…
– FM and satellite radio reception proved to be vulnerable in places with tall buildings, namely all of New York City.
You walk up to the 300C at night, and the courtesy lamps light the spots in front of the door. Get in and press the starter button, and the six growls to life while the heated steering wheel and seats automatically power up; just the thing you wanted now that the temperature is hovering around zero. Flick the rotary gear selector to drive, and go. Power comes on quick but strong. You won’t win any drag races, but it never feels underpowered, either.
It was the little moments like these that made me like the 300C so much. Its personality really is a huge part of it, and it makes you feel connected to it almost immediately. It’s a car that makes you smile when you’re walking up to it, and look back at when you’re walking away. It looks elegant, and it drives that way too. It looks important, so you feel important driving it. It’s one of the few attainable cars on the road where its presence really is intoxicating. That’s lightning in a bottle, and most automakers would kill to be able to formulate a feeling like that.
The suspension is firm but shields you from the worst imperfections on the road, the aforementioned eight-speed transmission silently works away, and the Pentastar six isn’t a brute, but doesn’t seem weak either. It does everything you ask it to, and it all works together without any real faults. My fuel economy returns were slightly lower than the 18 city/27 highway EPA rating, but those are the breaks when it comes to driving a car primarily in New York City.
Wrap up and review
In the weeks leading up to my time with the 300C, I couldn’t help but think of how ground-breaking it seemed back in 2004. At a time where Detroit seemed to have throughly lost the plot, it and the all-new Mustang were the two stylish dream machines that seemed to give the everyman something homegrown to aspire to again. They were two of the most effective early statements that American cars hadn’t become a total joke after decades of losing ground to imports. But while the Mustang has continued to evolve, the 300C largely occupies the same space it did a dozen years ago, only now it quietly basks in its “Modern Classic” status.
So I was skeptical. Could the 300C still be competitive, or was it just coasting, a newer, more stylish alternative to the Mercury Grand Marquis for the over 65 set? I’m happy to say that the car still feels current and vital, even to this twenty-something. It does everything well, and most of my gripes would probably go completely unnoticed by the majority of 300C buyers. All things considered, it’s very good at being a very good car. Mission accomplished, Chrysler. Job well done.
But I still can’t help thinking it could be better, because my first impression of the car hasn’t completely gone away even after a week of driving it. Walking up to it, seeing all that chrome (a real weakness of mine), then climbing in and seeing the first-rate materials alongside the cheapo ones made me think “Wow, this is such an American car.” On the one hand, it’s big, bold and uncompromising. It’s also that rare understated, elegant car that also telegraphs to the world that its owner has made it. It looks at home in front of a night club as it does pulling up to the country club. It hits all the right luxury notes in 2016 as it would’ve in 1986 or 1966 or 1936.
But today’s world is a lot different than the eras the 300C evokes. Chrysler has sold over 900,000 300C’s in the U.S. during its production run; it’s done very well for the brand. But I can’t help but feel it would do even better in an alternate universe where imports never caught on, and the average American couldn’t tell the difference between a BMW and a Fiat. Because the range-topping Platinum starts at $45,065; with all-wheel drive and all the bells and whistles, my test car came in at $51,050. That puts it in the same category as the Mercedes E-Class, the BMW 5 Series, and the Lexus GS, and none of those cars have the amount of small issues and contradictions that pop up in the 300C. They might not matter much to the average buyer, but frankly, they keep the Chrysler from living up to its full potential. They’re the difference between the 300C being a “Great American Car,” and a “World-Class Car,” and that’s too bad.
Still, for those who make it a point to buy American, who want a healthy serving of timeless American luxury, or who just want to break out from the monotony of German luxury, I’d absolutely recommend the 300C. In fact, even knowing that there are “better” cars out there at the same price point, I probably wouldn’t be upset if I had to live with one. Because at the end of the day, for all its strengths and weaknesses, its stubbornness and charm, the 300C has what 90% of other cars out there don’t: Charisma. And to me, that’s priceless.