Chrysler knew it had a hit on its hands when rapper/actor Snoop Dogg called to order a 2005 Chrysler 300C.
Six months later, the gangsta-looking sedan was in the hands of 82,000 owners. And Motor Trend was crowning it "Car of the Year."
Even today, I can assure you this moderately priced car turns heads as few other vehicles do. Its design most resembles a Bentley, but in fact it has no counterpart.
To young folks, the 300 is "bling," meaning it stands out from the automotive crowd of melted-soap designs with its blunt front, long hood and short deck. The roof is so low to the body that it appears to be a chopped design from the 50s. It's radically showy.
And maybe that's the secret of its appeal to everyone from street thugs to grandmothers trading in a Benz. The 300 is the New Bad.
For DaimlerChrysler, the 300's success rewards risk taking. Chrysler has been willing to break away from the they-all-look-alike automakers. Payoff began with the PT Cruiser and continues with the 300.
The 300, available in four models from $23,595 to $32,995, is the reincarnation of an equally radical experiment begun in 1955. That was the year of the first Chrysler 300, the vision of a designer named Robert MacGregor Rodger. He convinced Chrysler to develop a car around its Hemi engine, a 1951 engine design with hemispherical combustion chambers that was finding favor in dragsters.
Rodger said he thought he could develop the first production car with an unheard of 300 horsepower. He did, and the car became the 1955 Chrysler 300 (which really was a New Yorker with an Imperial nose and a powerful V8 under the hood).
The car immediately started winning NASCAR races and set in motion a lineage that went from proud to disgraced over 10 generations of cars that departed wildly from Rodger's concept. But I'm happy to report the 2005 300C recaptures the spirit Rodger gave the original car. It is once again a powerful, good handling, comfortable, distinctive-looking large car.
No production 300 can run with this new one and its 340-horsepower V8 and five-speed automatic transmission. It rips zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds. None can corner with this one, riding on a suspension system similar to a Mercedes-Benz E car. None brake this well. None are as safe, since this 300C can be ordered with side air bags and head curtains. None are as convenient, with available ultrasonic parking assist and navigation system.
None look as good inside, either.
The black-on-white instruments here are retro looking, but quickly readable at a glance day or night. The seats are comfortable and the pedals adjust to suit any size driver. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes. In fact, the only problem with the 300 is limited rear visibility. The rear window is awfully small and the C pillar back there awfully large. The windowsills are high also, inhibiting the casual elbow-on-the-sill driving position.
Chrysler sent both the Hemi-powered 300C and a base V6 model for testing. Auto writers, a notorious group of speed freaks, will obviously gush over the Hemi's awesome power. But in truth, if it's just "bling" looks you covet, the base 300 will do and turn as many heads.
If, however, you covet performance to back up your Mean-Business looks, then you'll need to avoid the 190-horsepower V6 base engine. It's no thrill, to put it mildly.
It's not just speed that made me prefer the costlier 300C with the Hemi engine. Everything about that model is better. The acceleration is brisk, but like a rocket, not a bullet. The shifts are almost undetectable. Cornering can be done at any sane speed but there is body roll.
And the big V8 has a special feature that allows it to use only four cylinders under certain low-load conditions, thus improving its fuel efficiency. This 4,140-pound big boy rates 17 mpg in city driving and 25 on the highway in EPA tests.
For real drivers, it's worth a loud hurrah that rear-wheel drive has returned to the 300. Front-wheel drive, which Chrysler embraced for years, doesn't lend itself to spirited driving. Exhibit A: No race cars use front-wheel drive. By the time you read this, an all-wheel drive option might be available.
In the 2005 lineup-the 50th anniversary of the original 300-there are only four sedans. Word is that in 2006, Chrysler will add both a coupe and a convertible. Plans for a two-seat version have been dropped.
But here's a caveat: The older 300s suffered from substandard build quality, a problem that has plagued the Chrysler minivans as well. Frankly, simply closing a door or the trunk of the 300 does not impress a driver with the solidity of construction. And parts of the interior do seem plasticky. This is not, in the end, a luxury car.