The Last Road for The Show
Back in 2014, we were pleased as punch when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles introduced a mid-sized family sedan to compete with the big boys. However, things have since changed…
It was a bold promise made during Super Bowl 48 with Bob Dylan being coherent for once in extolling the virtues of this new sedan. A car that was going to set the tone for 2015 with a Fiat-sourced, Chrysler-massaged platform extended to accommodate a car of Mazda6 proportions. It would be one a few left in the class with V6 power, more so with all-wheel drive.
Then, we reviewed it. At least, I did. If they sent the V6-powered model with all-wheel drive, we would think it was a great product and was beyond the class leader's imaginations. However, the real volume was to come from front-wheel drive, four-cylinder versions. In order to supplant the outgoing Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger in rental fleets, they had to take the new Chrysler 200 as its replacement. All FCA had was a single model that was handsome and advanced for its kind.
So, I reviewed it…for three outlets. It was good, but middle-of-the-road good. That was what I expected from the 2015 Chrysler 200 Limited on the streets of the Twin Cities.
Then, something happened. The reported sales figures came out every month with a truth that would dictate future strategies for FCA. People went to FCA dealers to buy Jeeps and Ram pickups. The enthusiasts went directly to the Chargers and Challengers, while families kept the minivan flame glowing. From a different angle, it just seems that no one was buying the Fiat co-developed sedans – the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200. Let alone the fact that no one was buying Fiats in this country – period.
FCA Chairman Sergio Marchionne may have consulted everyone before making his statement regarding the future of North American production and products. He concluded that sedans no longer mattered in USA production and North American sales. Marchionne based this statement thinking that the sub-$2.00/gallon fuel pump prices of that time were "permanent."
The decision was made to euthanize both the Dart and 200 to make way for increased production capacity of Jeeps and Ram pickups. Even while mid-sized sedans still hold strong in the marketplace – although most buyers have been taking Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, Nissan Altimas, Chevrolet Malibus, Hyundai Sonatas and Ford Fusions for the most part. Without a player in this segment, FCA has abdicated this market for the sake of Jeep, Ram and Hellcat.
The Dart will finish production this month. The 200 has the rest of the year to go with a short production run for the 2017 model year. In the meantime, FCA sent a 2016 Chrysler 200 Touring for a review. Though it is not unusual for a vehicle to be brought in for a story at the end of its lifespan, it did provoke a few thoughts while evaluating it.
Yet, I did not want to just evaluate it the normal way. I did that two summers ago. I wanted to do something fulfilling to say "farewell" to it. I have to consider how much these vehicles are brought in for the purpose of seeing how they mesh with the regular routine of some automotive writer and vehicle reviewer who is currently working a day job somewhere. Of course, my usual routine goes beyond just commuting. I may have a short commute from home to my current office, but I also have "commutes" to meet with clients, readers, meeting with car clubs and attend car events. I still have a job – OK, two – to do, after all.
Before we dive into this, here are a few facts about our tester. The Touring is an upgrade on the base LX model, which includes enhancements such as the UConnect 5.0 infotainment system. It has the 2.4 liter Multiair II Tigershark four-cylinder engine underneath the hood, connected to the nine-speed automatic and its rotary e-shifter on the console. While I averaged 32.7 MPG overall in the 200, I enjoyed a willing and able driveline that took me wherever I wanted. It is also safe, as the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety awarded the 200 its highest honor of being a "Top Safety Pick +" for 2015.
Of course, I can go on with what the 200 Touring does not have. For example, I do not have a reversing camera, or power seat adjustments, SiriusXM radio, the UConnect 8.4 infotainment system, leather seating…and so forth. But, this car is not about what it does not have, but rather what it does competently. If I fall upon the spoiled automotive journalist milieu, then I failed to see the car on its merits.
One cannot quantify a vehicle objectively by looking at a completely loaded vehicle that a few people will buy. It is best when you evaluate a vehicle with just the essentials and a bit more – equipment people will use as a necessity. Yes, you have to crane your neck when backing up the car, or have to work the manual seat adjustments to get comfortable. But, didn't we used to do that a few years ago? We might still do so today.
For $23,485, you get a quite a bit of equipment in the Touring as it is. In today's terms, that is quite a value in relative to the class.
The point of this story is not to re-review the Chrysler 200, but to see if it can still hold up against its rivals even after the line is shut down for good. To do so, I took it on a day trip into Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa so I can see how the 200 can be a viable car in the marketplace. Not everyone does that daily, but you have to take in consideration that the average car owner loves to drive their new car to see relatives or to spend the day at a regional destination. These drives are a great test of a car's all around satisfaction.
To start this day trip, the 200 got me to my annual visit to the Chippewa Valley Cars & Coffee meet in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Put on by the Chippewa Valley Sports Car Club, it is a way for enthusiasts to meet and show what they have done to their vehicles since the last meet. You might some interesting vehciles there. For example, I saw what I think is the most creative vehicle ever concocted. Take a Polaris Slingshot – the three-wheeled vehicle that is registered as a motorcycle, even powered by an automobile engine – replace the GM Ecotec four underneath its hood with a GM V8 – an LS-code Small Block, to be exact – and turbocharge it. The customized Slingshot by Alpha Powersport is best described as "beyond epic." It certainly made everyone's morning.
With my fill of cars and Dunkin' Donuts, I set off as the sun finally broke cover in Eau Claire. I headed down Wisconsin Highway 93 towards La Crosse. What I expected was a nice, flat rural highway. I was wrong. This thing has sweet curves and elevations that would entice me to bring something sportier on this drive. The 200 did fine and I truly enjoyed that second leg of my drive. This is absolutely beautiful country with the hills intermixed with green farm valleys. How come I did not know this existed? Eventually, Wisconsin Highway 93 will get you close to the Mississippi River just several miles from Onalaska. No matter where you start on this stretch, I suggest that you simply enjoy the drive.
A lunch stop in downtown La Crosse was in order. Little did I know there was an Elvia Presley fan convention at the La Crosse Center, as I ate at a burger place across the street from it. On my way there, I also noticed that the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse were playing football that afternoon. The city was indeed busy, overflowing with activity. I think I made the right chgoice to make a stop in town.
After lunch, I headed over the Mississippi River into Minnesota and discovered another topographical surprise – Houston County. As soon as Minnesota Highway 16 headed out of La Crescent, you are treated to more bluff country. Driving through this part of Minnesota provoked an interesting thought – "where am I, exactly?" There are plenty of river bluff areas up-and-down Minnesota, but this was a huge treat to drive through. The curves, elevations and mini-valleys among the tree-lined bluffs were simply magnificent. This continued after the split onto Minnesota Highway 44, a diagonal chop across the southeastern tip of the state. Bluffs soon gave way to rolling farmland. My drive was treated to wonderful main streets through Caledonia and Spring Grove. A connection onto US Highway 52 signaled a turn southward into Iowa and onto the lovely college town of Decorah.
Ah, Decorah! Home of Luther College. This is a town of Norwegian heritage and the best-known choral music program in academia. It is a beautiful town that serves as a gateway to the Iowa bluffs along the Mississippi River. It is an oasis from the business of Iowa farming with its vibrant historic downtown and its proximity to the Luther College campus. Had I know what was ahead, I should've stayed here – or turned around back towards Rochester, But, I had a mission to fulfill in the Chrysler 200…
My next turn was into more uncharted territory. The 200 was doing great on this trip, providing me a smooth ride and a gentle feel, while the UConnect 5.0 kept me entertained with my iPhone connected and my music files playing through its audio system. The air conditioning kept me comfortable, as did the supportive cloth seats. However, the smoothness of Wisconsin and Minnesota gave way to the straight and bumpy roads of Northeastern Iowa and the inevitable quest along Iowa Highway 9 to make it to Mason City.
I arrived into Mason City. Frank Lloyd Wright left his imprint here, as did Meredith Wilson and his most memorable work, "The Music Man." However, I did not feel any spark from this town. Granted, the Stockman House was indeed the simple, but elegant work of Frank Lloyd Wright, as was the hotel he designed in the center of Mason City. Yet, I was not inspired to make a dinner stop there. I did go across the interstate into Clear Lake to consider dinner, but I actually wasn't hungry. I did pick up something from the Kum & Go…
The only thing I thought about was to where to have dinner and the idea came up with a crossing back into Minnesota on Interstate 35 northbound. A stop on the Owatonna/Medford border for food lent towards a smooth ride home.
The point of this drive was to say "farewell" to what I thought would be a strong selling vehicle for FCA. Along with the Dart, the Chrysler 200 was supposed to engage car buyers to take one, as SUV buyers scooped up Jeeps and truck buyers taking deliveries of various Ram models. They were supposed to keep FCA in the race.
As I drove along these highways, I put away all of the corporate decision-making in the back of my head. Yet, it still registered with this car and its ability to make a journey such as this comfortable through these three states.
I know the enthusiast readership will think I'm nuts for heading towards this conclusion. But, this message is for the consumer that wants something to take him or her to work and back, shopping, a night out and for some road trips somewhere. You have a lot of choices in the mid-sized family sedan class. There are some that look great, others that are better made and well-engineered. There will also be great values and excellent discounts to be had, especially after the drubbing the entire class got in U.S. auto sales during August of 2016.
All I ask is that you consider putting the Chrysler 200 on your shopping list. That way, you will help the morale of the workers at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, where this car is made. You might make their jobs easier towards the end of production of this automobile.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
All photos by Randy Stern