2011 Chrysler 200: First Drive

The one vehicle in Chrysler's shrinking lineup in most need of a makeover is the Sebring midsize sedan. From day one of its last redesign in 2007, it never seriously challenged the class leaders. For 2011, the car has been overhauled and gets a new name: 200. But it’s not as “all-new” as it should be. The 200 arrives at dealerships in December.

The changes move the car in the right direction and make it competitive in certain areas for the first time. The car's platform, however, remains a limiting factor, preventing some of the changes this car still needs — especially on the inside.

Perhaps the biggest change for the better is the 200's retuned suspension, which yields vastly improved handling. The Sebring had always done ride comfort well — it offered some of the softest suspension tuning in the segment — but it wallowed around like a boat on the open sea whenever the road became winding. Not anymore. Body motions are well-controlled when cornering, and the car doesn't bob up and down when you hit dips in the road.

The suspension changes move the 200 closer to the midsize norm by making the ride a little firmer overall. Think Chevrolet Malibu.

A 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder remains the base engine, but the optional V-6 is Chrysler's new 283-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, which pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Of all the cars I've driven that have been powered by this new engine, like the Dodge Charger sedan and Durango SUV, it's not surprising that it feels the most potent in — and best suited for — the 200, which weighs 3,559 pounds. That’s considerably less than the Dodge models. The car moves out well from a stop, and the transmission executes quick kickdowns when needed.

The Sebring was the poster child for Chrysler's recent disregard for cabin quality, but the 200’s interior has been revamped with a new dashboard that uses richer materials and features greater attention to detail in items such as the air vents and door trim inserts. The end result is cabin quality that should be reasonably competitive today, but it likely won’t hold up until a fully redesigned replacement arrives in 2013.

What's holding this car back? For one, the positioning of the front seats in relation to the rest of the cabin isn't great for taller people (I'm 6-foot-1). The seats themselves are pretty small, and I wasn't able to find a driving position I'd be happy with for a long interstate cruise.

Backseat space for adults is also underwhelming. The 200's backseat dimensions are smaller than the outgoing Sebring's, which didn't have a particularly roomy backseat in the first place. My knees were at the back of the front seat, and the cabin felt close in general.

The Sebring wasn't what you'd call a gracefully styled sedan, but Chrysler designers have revised the 200's exterior to make it a little more like one. The design is sleeker, and it introduces a new Chrysler wing badge that's more abstract than the current one. The 200's headlights resemble those from the 200C concept car of a little while ago, and they incorporate LED lightpipes that give them a high-tech look when it's dark.

There's still the stubby trunklid at the rear, along with the familiar arcing C-pillars, but the 200's revised tail loses much of the chunkiness its predecessor had thanks to new taillights and trim pieces. It's reminiscent of the Jaguar XF's rear, which isn't a bad thing at all.

While the changes are significant, they're somewhat exaggerated because the Sebring was so far behind the competition. Here's hoping Chrysler's next-generation midsize sedan addresses the issues that remain with the 200.

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