Jude P. Morte / Jude P. Morte | September 18, 2006 00:00
Retro ThangMuch of pop culture has always loved whatever was en vogue one or two generations ago, with obvious examples being remakes of old songs, movies and clothing styles. This makes you ask "Are they old or new?" But in many cases it's hard to tell new jack from old school, and it's even harder when the entity in question seamlessly blends old world charm with new world sophistication.
In the local auto arena, a perfect example would be the Chrysler 300C. US car history buffs will remember that in the 1950s, the release of the Chrysler C-300 (ancestor of the current 300C) boosted Chrysler vehicle sales by 17 percent. An eye-catching twin grille, chrome side strips on the car's flanks and 300 hp made the vehicle appealing to customers, with its 1956-1964 successors (collectively known as the "300" letter series due to the fact that each year's model had a new letter of the alphabet as a suffix) providing robust sales. However, it was dropped by 1965 due to cost-cutting measures caused by a US-wide recession.
When Chrysler merged with Mercedes Benz in 1998, the latter insisted that vehicles sold under the Chrysler name must go back to its post-World War II roots - in essence, a return to rear wheel drive, copious power and unique styling. The Chrysler 300C was the first vehicle (since the merger) to show customers the benefits of the merger.
Luxury old and new
The 300C's interior, much like its first impression to onlookers, is a good blend of then and now. Slide behind the leather-trimmed steering wheel and you'll instantly notice that the gauges (which turn green when the headlights are turned on) have a distinctly vintage look. The large round dials tote metallic trim rings, white faces with black numbers and a font that convenes an old and classy image. Ditto for the analog clock between the middle climate control vents.
The center console cubbyhole is cavernous (almost the same in volume as the Nissan Murano's) and features a 12-volt power outlet in addition to the outlet found within the front ashtray located in front of the a/t shift column. There are lamps within the doors (so occupants will be guided as to where are they stepping in the dark), while the rear view mirror and driver's side mirror has an auto-dim feature that minimizes glare. The MP3-capable Boston Acoustics head unit and seven-speaker system (with subwoofer) replicates tones faithfully, but needs help in the treble and midrange department. However, the OE sound system of the 300C is the best this writer has listened to date. Play Nat King Cole's "When I Fall in Love" or Norah Jones in the 300C's head unit and you'll see why.
The leather seats are soft and the inside materials have both a high-quality look and feel. The silver center dashboard trim is eye-catching and - believe it or not - plastic, not real aluminum or any other metal. It's the most convincing substitute this writer has seen in any vehicle. In fact, the 300 probably offers more features than you would expect for its Php 2.65M price.
The airconditioning provides Arctic-cold blasts (even at the lowest setting) in all temperatures and atmospheric situations. The climate control knobs (a nod to the Mercedes Benz E-Class, its platform sibling) are simple and straightforward, with a large round dial for fan speed and another for air direction. Both temperature control knobs (for driver and passenger) are situated in the same area and are easy to use. The round knobs are trimmed with chrome rings, an upscale touch that contributes to the vintage flair of the car.
But it's not all perfect. The vanity mirrors are illuminated, but are positioned in such a way that the mirror flaps block forward vision. The front cupholders can hold canned drinks, but cannot hold one-liter bottles. The size of the door speakers make storage areas within the doors limited to small paraphernalia. The rear seats have more than ample room, but given the car's overall level of luxury, we found the rear seat to be lacking in any features that might extend the luxurious setting beyond the front seats. The Chrysler Pacifica was specifically designed to include the rear-seat passengers in the car's luxury trappings with a rear console, fan speed adjuster and rear-seat warmers controlled via rear mounted switches. By comparison, the rear seat of the 300C is very plain, offering no more than a fold-down armrest with cupholders and rear aircon vents behind the center console.
Exterior examination shows that the arched wheel wells, combined with 18-inch polished aluminum wheels, a distinctly Chrysler large chrome grille, chrome mirrors, chrome bezel Xenon headlights and monotone paint (bright silver metallic for the test unit) give the car a low slung stance that's menacing and attractive. The body has an almost custom look as it appears to have a chopped top and removed bumpers, with short front and rear overhangs reminiscent of old Bentleys or its C-300 progenitor. This makes the 300C so dope (cool) that it needs to be in rehab. In fact, the car invites stares from old and new alike, and even prompted a gaggle of UP (University of the Philippines) Diliman students to remark about the car (like "How much is it?", "Is that your car?" and " That's a nice car. Where did you get it?") while this writer was a guest lecturer at UP's College of Mass Communication one Monday afternoon.
Not just luxury
Backing up the 300C's panache is performance that is distinctly American. The test unit 300C featured here totes a 3.5L 24-valve SOHC (single overhead camshaft) engine, with 250hp and 250 lbs. ft. (foot pounds) of torque, mated to a five-speed a/t and rear-wheel drive. At the low rpm range, the 300C isn't so quick as to elicit a jaw-dropping "wow," but an aggressive gas pedal squeeze brought out one of those unintentional smiles from this writer and 300C occupants alike. There's no turbo jolt or high-revving variable valve timing to wring out, just a subtle rumble and an urgent thrust. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and without drama, but tends to jerk ever-so-slightly when downshifting. And speaking of performance, this writer managed to hit 230 kph on the northbound part of the Skyway (before running out of road), yet got 9.5 kilometers per liter on three days of mixed driving.
The 300C features an electronic stability program (ESP) that helps maintain directional stability on uneven surface areas, and can easily be turned on or off via a button below the analog clock. With the ESP engaged, hard cornering produces moderate understeer and a stiff ride. On the other hand, turn off the ESP and the understeer (and the subsequent stiffness) is virtually gone, with great grip being provided by the Pirelli P7 225/60R18 tires. Could this be thanks to the German influence of its underpinnings? Perhaps, but no matter the origin, the results can't be argued. The car delivers decent handling, a supple ride and a quiet interior whether at speed or high rpm levels. Brakes are firm and offer excellent feedback, and when the ABS is engaged, it makes little noise.
One complaint about the overall driving dynamics of the car is its long hood. The driver feels well aware that this is a massive piece of hardware and parking lots (or even u-turn joints) should not be taken lightly. If you're used to blasting into mall parking lots and then swinging into a "compact" space with little room to spare, you'll have to rethink your parking philosophy. In addition, the car's short overhangs can make it hard to judge how close you are to another vehicle or, say, a parking garage support post. The good news is that a park assist rear sensor (mounted above the rear window, within sight of the rearview mirror) gives you visual and audio warnings whenever the car is in reverse. Also, the side mirrors move down five to six degrees longitudinally when the car is in reverse, helping ease parking or long backing situations.
The Chrysler 300C does what many product designers and marketers alike wish they could do with regularity — offer a product that effectively captures the heritage and hipness of the past while seamlessly integrating convenience, value, dopeness (coolness) and safety of today. As confirmed by the revival of Nike Air Force One basketball shoes, it's the addition of a little history that makes the new version that much better. Sort of like making a retro thing into a retro thang.