2012 Chrysler 300S sedan

  The premium sedan, American style
Why we’d buy it: World-class cruiser, superb sound system.
Why we wouldn’t: quirky shifter; difficult doors
Mileage: 19 city, 31 highway. Review by Bill Cawthon.

I spent most of my public school years in Detroit. My Dad worked for Chrysler. Every summer, we took a vacation in a Chrysler vehicle, usually a Dodge or Plymouth station wagon. Never took a train, never took a plane; we were a Chrysler family.

Our last trip as a Chrysler family took place in 1962, the year Dad left the auto industry. We traveled in a white 1962 Plymouth Fury.

As we prepared for a family trip, I realized 2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of that last Chrysler trip. To commemorate the occasion, it seemed appropriate to make the trip in a Chrysler vehicle. Plymouth and full-size station wagons are long gone, so we traveled in a 2012 Chrysler 300S.

Dad would occasionally treat himself to a 300. This was back when all 300s had a letter, two doors, a powerful V8 engine, and a reputation for being one of the hottest production cars on the road. The Chrysler 300S in the driveway, in contrast, has four doors and a six-cylinder engine.

Fortunately, there’s still some continuity; 1962 was the first year the “300” became a trim level. It was also the first year for a four-door sedan. If we take the current Chrysler 300C SRT8 as the descendent of the Chrysler 300H from 1962, the 300S comes from the more mainstream, no-letter 300s.

Compared to those cars, the 2012 Chrysler 300S is 16.3 inches shorter, 4.5 inches narrower and 3.6 inches taller and rides on a 1.8-inch shorter wheelbase. It’s also 132 pounds heavier. It does have two fewer cylinders, but it makes up for that deficit with five more forward gears.

The latest Chrysler had a styling refresh that toned down some of the polarizing design language of the first-generation cars. The high beltline/low greenhouse was cool, but I have always wondered if it might have been just a bit too cool for some who would normally be in Chrysler’s target demographic.

One thing remains the same: the car is still a joy to drive, with a feeling of well-controlled power that comes directly from those big cars of yesteryear.

2012 Chrysler 300C reviewChrysler’s Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 is hands-down one of the best small engines the company has ever built. It’s right up there with the legendary 225 Slant-Six. It produces 292 horsepower at 6,350 rpm and 260 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Compared to the 340 horsepower and 470 pounds-feet of torque put out by the 1962 300’s 6.8-liter V-8, the Pentastar’s output may not look impressive, but it gives the new, heavier 300S a 0-60 time of 6.6 seconds, just three-tenths of a second slower than the earlier car. Quarter-mile times were 15.2 seconds for both cars.

Chrysler limits the 300S’ top speed to 114 mph, 15 mph slower than the estimated top speed of the 1962 300, but the Pentastar always feels like there is more power available for the asking.

The ZF eight-speed transmission is nice match for the Pentastar: the car always seems to be in the right gear and downshifts are both smooth and quick. In a passing situation, the engine and transmission seem to be almost like an electric motor: acceleration just keeps on coming.

You have the option of leaving the car in “Drive” and letting the transmission shift for itself, or selecting manual mode and using the paddle shifters mounted just behind the steering wheel. The shifts are hesitation-free; not quite as good as a true manual transmission but the ZF has the advantage of not letting you make a bad shift, such as dropping it into first at 60 mph.

As wonderful as the transmission is, it has an Achilles’ heel: the electronic shifter. Once everything’s selected, the system works beautifully; the problem is getting into the right mode. The detents between gears need to be more positive. It’s far too easy to wind up in the wrong gear and it doesn’t seem to get better with time. This was a complaint we both had about the car.

Once the shifter is properly engaged, complaints seem to disappear. The 300S performs well in city traffic and its lag-free response and strong brakes are welcome in the bumper-to-bumper jams that are a constant in Houston.

interior of Chrysler 300SIt’s on the highway where the 300S really shines. Like the Chryslers of the 1960s, the 300S devours the miles whether one opts for the adaptive cruise control or lets the right foot manage the speed.

With two different drivers and some use of the cruise control, we averaged 28.5 miles per gallon on the highway and 21.5 in city driving. The EPA says 19 City/31 Highway, but we were traveling in a fully-loaded car, with the air-conditioner going continuously, at speeds generally between 70 and 75, depending on the speed limit.

In Sarasota, the 300S had to deal with low speed limits, lots of crowds, lots of stop-and-go and a fair amount of just stop. All things considered, we agreed that the 300S turned in respectable numbers.

Even at highway speeds, the car is cool, calm and collected. The low-profile tires on Chrysler’s first standard-equipment “dubs” made some noise, but not enough to interfere with the 300S’ killer sound system. With the sound system turned off, I didn’t hear any wind noise, even while the car briefly hit 80 while passing a line of slow-moving trucks (the speed limit was 75).

Handling was very good and the tires maintained grip even when we encountered a tropical downpour in northern Florida.

The Chrysler 300S, which was equipped with the optional Customer Preferred Package and Luxury Group Package, can hold its own with almost any premium car, when it comes to appointments. Adaptive Bi-Xenon HID headlights with automatic leveling, a rear-view camera and side mirrors that shifted downward when the car was in reverse, heated seats front and rear, a heated steering wheel (though those of us in the deep sunbelt are waiting on the cooled steering wheel so we don’t burn our fingers in the summer) and extra touches like the shade for the backlight that can be raised and lowered with the touch of a button. In the daytime, it reduces the sunlight coming in and helps keep the rear seating area more comfortable.

The heated and cooled cup holders were a major hit. One note about those: we found the cooling worked better with cans than plastic.

The eight-way adjustable leather-trimmed front seats with adjustable lumbar supports were comfortable without being too cushion-y. Even though the rear seats don’t adjust, their support made long stretches of highway driving easy and drew rave reviews from the folks in back. Rear legroom was not an issue, even with the driver’s seat adjusted for a six-footer.

Some have said they don’t like the red leather interior; I disagree. For one thing, it’s a tribute to the originals: a black car with a red interior was the hot color combination for the classic 300 letter-series cars. For another, it’s a pretty classy red, far more subdued than the lipstick red used back then.

Climate control was first-class and easy to control and while it wasn’t the “fry to freeze in five seconds” of the old Airtemp systems, the air-conditioning was able to quickly cool the interior from 100-plus degrees to livable and maintain it. Chrysler also remembered to add ventilation registers for rear seat passengers. We’re not sure why these aren’t universal as the moving air helps passengers feel cooler.

Chrysler’s Uconnect touch-screen system is fairly intuitive and is as easy to use as any. However, the decision tree that must be navigated to utilize some of the functions still makes it advisable to either allow a passenger to make the changes or wait until the car is safely out of traffic and parked. The large screen works well with the backup camera to give you a clear view of possible obstructions.

Bluetooth is standard and controls on the steering wheel help keep hands-free calling truly hands-free.

Of particular note is the “Beats by Dr. Dre” sound system. It’s outstanding, with an incredible range and all the bass one could reasonably want. We tried all sorts of different music, from classical to rap, and the reproduction was as good as I’ve heard. One experiment I didn’t get to try was Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a real test for any sound system.

The 300S is equipped with a laundry list of safety features including enough collision warnings that it was like having a digital version of my mother along when I was first learning to drive.

One other complaint we did have concerned the doors: they are difficult to close, especially if one is petite. It’s a long reach and something is needed that you can wrap your hand around to pull the door closed. Marge commented that she thought she was going to have to get out of the car; close the door partway; then get back in the car to finish the job.

The roomy interior is matched by a capacious trunk. It was easy to stow the luggage and all the extras for our vacation.

Where the Chrysler 300 fits in the automotive pecking order seems to depend on who’s talking. One source pits the 300 against the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus and Nissan Maxima; others consider the 300 an upscale model that competes against the Infiniti M, Volvo S80, Hyundai Genesis, and Toyota Avalon.  With the exception of the Impala, the Chrysler 300 has outsold all of them, including non-police versions of the Taurus, for the first seven months of 2012. It has also outsold every Buick, every Cadillac, and every Lincoln.

There need not be any confusion: Chrysler is an upscale brand, and the 300 has a performance pedigree. The creature comforts and driving dynamics of the 300S carry on these traditions in a large, very competent sedan that can cruise the boulevard or Interstate as an equal to cars costing much more. Perhaps those who feel lost with the passing of the Cadillac DTS, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis will find the car they want at their local Chrysler dealer.

Fifty years is a long time. But it felt really good to have a Chrysler vacation again.

2012 Chrysler 300S: Base price: $33,170. Price with options and destination charge: $40,460.
Final Assembly: Brampton, Ontario, Canada. U.S./Canadian content: 59%. Engine source: Mexico. Transmission source: Germany.

Standard equipment: 3.6-liter V6 24-valve engine with variable valve timing; 8-Speed ZF automatic transmission with E-Shifter; 730-Amp maintenance-free battery; 180-Amp alternator; dual rear exhaust with bright tips; 20 x 8.0 polished/painted aluminum wheels with 245/45VR20 BSW all-season performance tires; automatic headlamps and fog lamps. Interior: cloth bucket seats; eight-way power driver's seat with power four-way lumbar adjustment; heated front seats; rear 60/40 folding seat; air conditioning with dual zone auto climate control; remote proximity keyless entry; remote start; theft deterrent system; Uconnect® 8.4 SAT/CD/DVD/MP3/SD Card Input; Uconnect voice command with Bluetooth; SiriusXM radio w/one-year subscription; remote USB port; Beats audio system with ten premium speakers including dual trunk-mounted subwoofers. Safety: reactive head restraints; supplemental front seat-mounted side airbags; supplemental side-curtain front and rear airbags; electronic stability control; antilock four-wheel disc brakes; tire pressure monitoring display.

Options: Safety Tec Package ($2,420): adaptive Bi-Xenon HID headlamps; adaptive cruise control; automatic high beam headlamp control; automatic headlamp leveling system; blind spot and cross path detection; exterior power mirrors with supplemental turn signal repeaters and courtesy lamps; forward collision warning; front/rear parking assist system; rear back up camera; rain-sensitive windshield wipers; rear fog lamps; universal garage door opener.

Luxury Group ($3,250): Exterior mirrors with auto adjustment in reverse; driver's auto-dimming exterior mirror; door sill scuff pads; driver and passenger lower LED lamps; front and rear LED map pockets; leather-trimmed bucket seats with eight-way power adjustment and four-way lumbar support adjustment; heated rear seat; heated steering wheel; heated/cooled front console cupholders; illuminated rear cup holders; power adjustable pedals with memory; power tilt/telescope steering column with memory; memory for the radio, driver's seat, and mirrors; power backlight sunshade and trunk mat.