Chrysler 200, with Fiat's help, is an all-new car
(MCT) -- Once life becomes all potholes and clouds - with Kenny Rogers stuck on my stereo and "The View" embedded in my TV - I might buy an old Chrysler 200.
You may know it as the diva of the Dollar Store parking lot.
If things get really bad, if oddball, escapist Austin keeps tugging at me, I'll just settle into an interior that looks as if a dozen milk jugs exploded there.
From the floppy seat of an old 200, looking out over waves of industrial-strength plastic, even Whoopi Goldberg and my cold, cruel world should look better.
But I need to hurry. The old 200 sprung from pre-2008 Detroit, when money was scarce and cars were conceived on the cheap and sold largely on subsidized $199 monthly leases.
We got exactly what we paid for with those cars - and less.
The 2015 Chrysler 200, though, an all-new midsize sedan created after Fiat took control of the Chrysler Group, makes an astounding evolutionary leap.
It's like I went to bed one night as me - a small, grouchy gray-haired guy running out of open road - and woke up as Dirk Nowitzki, the smiling, golden giant king of Dallas.
Well, that may be a slight exaggeration - but not by much.
As far as I can tell, not a single piece of the body or front-wheel-drive platform or third-world interior got carried over from the old 200 to the new.
The 2014 model, for example, got by with an ancient four-speed automatic. The 2015 sports a new nine-speed controlled by a rotary dial, utilizing more gears than any competitor in the segment.
And that's just the start. The white 200 S I had recently is bigger than its predecessor and vastly better-looking.
Built on a Fiat-conceived platform that also supports the Dodge Dart, the new 200 moves from square and harsh to smooth and flowing - practically overnight.
The once-blocky 200 now offers a sleek, rounded front end, a long, slinky wheelbase and a stylishly curved top.
The headlamps, for instance, merge so seamlessly with a tight, horizontal grille that they appear to be one piece.
A raked windshield and gracefully sweeping top give the 200 the sort of profile now common to some Infinitis and the new overtly European Ford Focus.
Character lines up high and down low tightened the sedan's smooth doors, making them look leaner.
Moreover, striking 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped with 235/40 tires fitted snugly into nicely rounded wheelwells.
This can't be a Chrysler 200, I decided. A Christmas-tree deodorizer would look ridiculous hanging from this car's rearview mirror.
But it gets stranger, kids. At an estimated weight of 3,500 to 3,700 pounds, the new 200 is one of the larger vehicles in the midsize segment.
And get this: With the optional 295-horsepower Pentastar V-6 - the Chrysler Group's 3.6-liter workhorse - the front-wheel-drive 200 is the most powerful car in the midsize segment.
Are you sure I don't look a little like Dirk?
Fairly smooth most of the time, the engine could be jumpy when mildly prodded from a stop.
But it delivered lively low- and mid-range torque, pushing the bulky 200 to 60 in a fairly swift 6.3 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
Although the V-6 didn't feel as strong to me in the high ranges as the Fusion's turbocharged four, it could still spin the front tires if a certain small driver got overly aggressive in exiting curves at speed.
For the most part, I also liked the nine-speed automatic, which could select from a wide range of ratios to keep the V-6 at a nice light boil.
Occasionally, if I punched the throttle hard at 30 or 40 mph, the transmission felt confused, as if it wasn't quite sure how many gears to drop down.
But most of the time it was efficient, playing a major role in helping the 200 achieve 19 mpg in town and 32 on the highway.
While the sleek sedan's specs look kind of sporty - with the exception of its front-wheel-drive - it really doesn't play that way.
Though fitted with a firmly fluid suspension as an S model, the 200 wasn't especially eager to tackle curves.
Part of the problem was thick, quick steering that made it difficult to figure out what in blazes the front wheels were doing.
And despite its relatively tight springs, the 200's body leaned some in corners. Although it felt fairly well-controlled and didn't suffer much understeer, it also didn't seem totally at ease.
It tended to squirm some, like my 8-year-old grandson, Bubba, in reading class.
But, hey, does anyone really expect BMW moves from a $31,000 family sedan? The 200 felt at least as competent overall as a Toyota Camry or Nissan Altima.
Like the exterior, the interior of the 200 showed some real flair - and style generally sells more cars in the midsize segment than performance does.
Mine had black interior with subtle, blue-tinted trim pieces that matched the nifty blue strips on the edges of the seats.
Grippy cloth formed the centers of the seats, which also had decent bolsters.
Leg room in the back of the 200 was OK for me, but head room could be kind of tight because of the car's swoopy roof line.
A flat black dash in fairly classy plastic exuded confidence, wrapping around a prominent center stack featuring a big 8.4-inch touch screen.
The door panels were mostly hard plastic, but at least included padded armrests.
In fact, I thought the interior kind of defined the new 200. It doesn't set any benchmarks but is better than many in the midsize sedan segment - the largest, most competitive car segment in the auto industry.
In one model year, the lowly 200 moved from laggard to solid mid-pack contender.
And that's more progress than any other sedan in the segment can claim - enough, I think, to move the 200 from Dollar Store to Target parking lots.
2015 Chrysler 200 S
Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger midsize sedan
Price as tested: $31,220
Fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 32 highway
Weight: Estimated 3,500 to 3,700 pounds
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6 with 295 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds
SOURCES: Chrysler division; Car and Driver
ABOUT THE WRITER
Terry Box writes for the Dallas Morning News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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