Loaner Review: 2016 Chrysler 200S AWD

DSC_0509 “I’ll borrow the Viper for a few days!” The puppy-dog lips and eyes I had just thrown on had no chance of changing the inevitable response, but at least it took a slightly different form: “you’re the third person to ask that today.” I laughed and mumbled something to the effect of the joke having run its course, but shockingly the very kind lady at the service desk that I’d been dealing with said that she actually found it funny and that it was acceptable *just* one more time. Joke was on me though: instead of the orange beast I was drooling over, my time sans Challenger would be in a loaner car that initially induced thoughts of pure sadness but proved to be unwarranted. And yet, it took everything in me not to roll my eyes when the lady at the service counter said my loaner would be a white Chrysler 200 (unfortunately not a white Chrysler LeBaron). Oh, and that Viper? Sitting dormant and very light in the front end, waiting for a new motor larger than most Manhattan apartments. Upon rounding the corner to find the vehicle I’d be spending a fair amount of time in, one thing tipped me off that this wasn’t a base 200: black chrome wheels. Not that this is even remotely akin to seeing a fender badge indicative of a performance model, or even the wheels that usually adorn such cars, but black chrome wheels on a 200 indicate the S variant, which is at least better than the base version. Chrysler claims S indicates the “sportier” version of an otherwise mundane and, honestly, boring car, so what differentiates an “S” from a regular 200 as per Chrysler’s website? “AWD Sport Suspension” (whatever that means), Cloth with Leather-Trimmed Sport Seats, wheels, and that’s it. Dig deeper and we find that…well, that really is it. DSC_0468 It’s not ugly, but the 200 is pretty bland in non-S guise. Attractive, but bland. Black chrome wheels go a long way to improving its appearance, especially for the class it’s in. However, the white on my loaner wasn’t doing it any favors. Other than the wheels and “S” badge there’s no telltale sign this is a “sport” version, which is maybe representative of the car as a whole in that it’s a weak attempt at a sporty sedan. Perhaps Chrysler was working within their budget and creative constraints rather than going all-out and actually making it look any different, but it wouldn’t hurt if it looked a bit more aggressive, and it needs to be said that the wheel gap is near-offensive for a car with an “S” on it. 20160303_162344 As a whole the designers did a good job with the 200 and it really is a nice car to look at. However, at the expense of style the mirrors are almost tiny to the point of uselessness. Same goes for the back seat: the roofline looks good from the outside but, its toll is evident once you sit in the back (and I’m only five-foot-nine). Compromises at the expense of “style” seem to be the running theme here. DSC_0434 The 200’s interior is well-designed and nicely appointed overall. The gauge pod is very fresh and the cool blue backlight, which goes a long way to giving off a comfortable vibe, is equally successful in lighting and aiding legibility. The seats themselves are pretty great as well, composed of a two-tone, two-material makeup, and they provide solid comfort even on longer stints. The amount of bolstering they have much is surprising, but the seats remain supportive and easy to spend time in even though they may be a bit tight for larger-framed people. I was shocked to find seat heaters in this loaner, and even more surprised when I found out that the “High” setting should actually be marked “Ass on Fire.” Use with caution.

US News and Rankings
Source: U.S. News & World Report
U.S. News and Rankings
Source: U.S. News & World Report
Something else of note is how much interior storage space the 200 has. It doesn’t directly translate to the cabin feeling open and airy, since the rising tunnel detracts from how much room there visually appears to be, but there’s storage everywhere. The center console itself has multiple functions with sliding compartments and a deep bin with outlets and ports in easy reach. Underneath the tunnel is an open section which makes for great additional space, but inside it there’s a pad bearing the silhouette of Detroit. This Jeep-esque Easter Egg may be a bit much in a car without much of a storied past. Maybe once the quirks are worked out that can be a proud moment, but for an imperfect car it seems to mimic itself in the outline of an imperfect city. Also on the storage front: the glovebox is cavernous and reaches almost to the firewall, making it easily the biggest I’ve ever seen. Storage aside, one weird ergonomic tidbit is that the dead pedal is placed so close to the driver’s seat that it forces you to have your leg bent at an unnecessarily sharp angle for where a normal-sized-person’s seating position would be. Nothing major, but it’s indicative of a car mostly well thought-out. I’ll be honest: I hate the knob-style drive selector. Despise it, even. It’s great in concept but the execution here fails pretty miserably, to me at least. Perhaps if it were positioned a bit better, maybe up a bit on the center stack, it would work more naturally, but in this application it felt awkward and forced. Multiple times I raised or lowered the volume rather than changing gear since my hand naturally fell to the volume knob rather than to the gear selector itself. Not a critical failure, but it’s one that requires a bit more re-training of your brain than a critical function like gear selection should otherwise have to. Maybe it’s just this individual unit, but the whole knob-style thing just feels insubstantial; turning a dial rather than pulling a lever or moving a physical shifter into place just didn’t give the reassuring “I’m in a gear now, ready to move a vehicle” confidence that a traditional gear selector does. Bottom line for me was that in two weeks of using the knob selector I still couldn’t get used to it and regularly wished for even a column shifter. As for the transmission itself, its behavior perplexed and frustrated, but it did help deliver great gas mileage. The 200’s engine is a little louder than you’d expect and with a tranny that is regularly lethargic to upshift you get a bit too much of exhaust note whenever the revs just hang there, waiting for the next gear to engage when it already should have. Having paddles helped, especially in sport mode. I seriously wish the 9-speed transmission would go away though. At 75 MPH in 9th gear the 200S is barely turning 1300 RPM, rendering itself so incapable of accelerating or climbing a hill that it regularly forced a double-downshift to gain any bit of speed. Is there really a sizable gas mileage benefit from having the extra cog, or could money and development costs could have been better spent elsewhere? Or is it just a “we need to have the most number of forward gears” situation? Regardless, the transmission was fine most of the time, but no more than that. I would have much preferred a 7-speed or even eight; nine is just too many. DSC_0440 Surprisingly, the 200s offered no Eco mode. The Chrysler 300 loaner I had recently with the same Pentastar underhood had an Eco mode, so I’ll chalk it up to the 200S being a “sport” model. Still, on a vehicle that they’re likely trying to move in big numbers this struck me as odd, especially considering how little else they did to make the thing sporty. Even so, the motor felt strong and was easily capable of knocking off nonstop mid-six-second 0-60 runs, aided by the AWD system, manual use of the paddles, and a sport mode that tightens up throttle response (or so it felt). The Pentastar is strong but I’m still undecided on the probably-louder-than-necessary exhaust note, being that it’s not super pleasant on the ears. All of that aside, the car managed a can’t-complain-about-it indicated ~29 MPG over the time it was in my hands. It wavered a bit in daily use, bouncing from 32 MPG down to around 26 in several occasions, but somehow managed near-30 overall including a road trip to Portland (Maine) and back. For a car of this weight, with four driven wheels, at the hands of somebody who isn’t exactly a professional hypermiler, 29 is pretty darn good even if you factor in that the on-board computer might be generous by 1-2 MPG. DSC_0506 How is the 200S dynamically? Connect the dots: it’s marginally sportier than a base model would be, but certainly not sporty in the traditional sense. The ride quality is good but in order to not detract from it there’s a lot of body roll (no McLaren wizardry here). Turn-in is decent but there’s zero road feel or feedback whatsoever, and you have no idea what the front tires are doing unless you’re pointed straight. Chrysler’s AWD system seemed just fine but you can absolutely feel the FWD-bias; hit the gas hard amid any bit of turning and you can feel it trying to unwind the steering wheel. Hammer the gas mid-corner and it stays planted but, as you’d expect on economy tires and in a not-so-sporting car, there’s understeer galore. The bottom line is that it might hold its own against a normal 200, but with a high ride height, crappy tires, and a drivetrain that wants to cruise rather than boogie, it’s not all that much fun. I’d love to see a 200 SRT; two turbos and a good suspension setup would make it a ton of fun as long as the 9-speed wasn’t a part of it. DSC_0497 All in all the 200S is a decent car that displays no commitment to being sporty. With the special seats, attractive black wheels, good power, and more style than many others in its class, the 200S is a car desperate for more attention from its parent company. This likely won’t happen as apparently FCA is giving up on small cars altogether (and especially since a report of 200 sales continuing to plummet came out), but this car would be a phenomenal fun daily driver for non die-hard car people who want something sporty—if it was actually sporty.  If Chrysler wanted to do a sport model they should have just gone for it. I don’t think it even qualifies as half-assed; it’s more like a one-tenth-assed attempt. At ~$31k the model I had was priced well, maybe a bit lower than I expected, and well equipped—especially with AWD, which is hard(ish) to find in the segment. The Chrysler 200S is a good car with a misleading letter following its model designation, but I do have to admit that it was comfortable enough and easy enough to live with that it was the first loaner car I’ve ever actually liked throughout the course of its stay, and while I wasn’t sad to see it go I’ll certainly respect them more when I see them around. DSC_0471

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