Sometimes a car gets more buzz from the hype that surrounds it, rather than over the car itself.
The 2011 Chrysler 200 is a freshened version of the Chrysler Sebring, and it has been given a heavy marketing push, starting with a two-minute Super Bowl ad starring rapper Eminem. This emotional and well-shot commercial--with the tagline "Imported from Detroit"--garnered a lot of attention and continues to fuel discussions and merchandising. The trade publication Automotive News reported that showroom traffic interest in the 200 (unsurprisingly) picked up after the ad.
Fast forward to this week. As first reported by Jalopnik and covered in The New York Times, the Detroit News edited and softened the online version of the review of the 200 from its original print version after a dealer advertiser complained. The author of the review, auto journalist Scott Burgess, resigned over edits that cut some bite from his review. The online article has since been restored to its original language.
Looking past the spin and drama, Chrysler is in a tough situation with the Sebring/200. Introduced in 2007, the Sebring and its platform-mate Dodge Avenger were poster children for automotive underachievement. Reliability out of the box was lousy, and both cars have hovered at the bottom of our family sedan Ratings. Further dampening our impressions, we had Consumer Reports-owned Sebring that almost stranded our staff members on several occasions.
Given its competitive shortcomings, a clean-sheet design would seem to be in order. But Chrysler, faced with an entirely uncompetitive line-up, had (and still has) a lot of plates up in the air as it wrestled through dark days of seeking federal assistance and a new global partner. While the automaker was saved, a Fiat-based platform replacement would be years away. Perhaps Chrysler could have axed the Sebring, but it's hard to have a mainstream brand without a mainstream family sedan. (Keep in mind Chrysler currently doesn't even have a small sedan.) So Chrysler spruced up the Sebring with an optional new Pentastar V6, put in a much nicer interior, and renamed it the 200, hoping it will tide things over until a proper replacement could be developed with its new partner. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and this freshening is far bolder than anything the sedan had been treated to prior.
To find out how the changed car stacks up, we recently bought a 200 Limited. This well-equipped, leather-lined car has the V6 engine, a power sunroof, the touch-screen audio system we've complained about in other Chryslers for years, and a nifty integrated Garmin navigation system. It stickered for $27,825. This is cheaper than most V6 competitors but then again, most of those models are excellent cars with strong reputations. Inherent Sebring/200 problems like so-so driver visibility and a small cabin for this class can't be helped much by a freshening. Or an ad with a Grammy-winning rapper.
Is the 200 better than the Sebring? Although formal testing has not begun, the 200 makes a much better impression than the Sebring. But the real question is, should you buy one instead of a Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, or Ford Fusion or...well, the list goes on. And on.
It's one thing to make a good advertisement. It's another thing to build a good car. And in this segment, it takes a great car to stand out. Anything less is destined to backfill rental car fleets.
Burgess found the 200 to be significantly lacking. We'll find out ourselves in the weeks ahead as we thoroughly test the Chrysler 200 and report our findings, without fear of advertiser pressure.