They benefitted from Fiat’s recent success at the time. The Italian’s Compact platform was transformed into a trio of newer variants of it.
Emboldened by millions of dollars from the late Sergio Marchionne’s coffers, it seemed that the future of Chrysler was secured. New product was what they needed and Fiat S.p.A. offered up a platform that was flexible for compact and midsize class vehicles.
The Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep brands benefitted from Fiat’s recent success at the time. The Italian’s Compact platform was transformed into a trio of newer variants of it. In turn, they spawned four vehicles for the American venture: The Dodge Dart (winner of #VOTY12), Jeep Cherokee, Chrysler Pacifica and 200.
By 2015, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles thought they had the North American market all figured out. That was until they realized how strong the SUV/Crossover market had become. Everyone was rushing to make an SUV for every budget and every lifestyle. FCA had the Jeep brand in their portfolio. That iconic brand became the focal point for all future product for FCA (and, now Stellantis), driving the consumer rush into SUVs and Crossovers. It became the company’s leading global brand within the decade.
While Jeep led the charge for the Italian-American automaker, it seemed that Chrysler was being set aside. The same Chrysler that appeared on the corporate nomenclature. The name that was attached to its original founder Walter P. Chrysler. The same Chrysler that were purveyors of mid-priced and luxury cars since the late 1920s.
In two-and-half model years, FCA's chance to enter into the competitive mid-sized family sedan market had to achieved by replacing a car that dated back to the last “merger of equals” with Daimler AG. They did so by developing the sedan on a Fiat-based platform with North American consumers in mind. The result was the last generation of the Chrysler 200.
Why am I telling the story of the Chrysler 200? In the July, 2022 “My Favorites” column, I talked about vehicles that had “brief appearances” – vehicles that showed up for a few years before disappearing from the North American marketplace. The 2015 Chrysler 200 should’ve been included on that list. However, I felt that its story should be told in a separate article. Not just because I had the chance to work with the Chrysler 200 twice. It was a vehicle that was born – and died – on this website’s watch.
Let me start off with a summation I made from my first article on the 2015 Chrysler 200 Limited: “The new Chrysler 200 arrives at the right time. It gives customers in the ‘heart of the market’ another solid choice to consider. If you were as excited about the 200 when it revealed, do not curb your enthusiasm. One drive may keep up your momentum.”
In other words, I thought this mid-sized sedan had real potential.
The story actually began as I was waiting for my flight back home to Minneapolis-St. Paul at Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport in May of 2012. I came off of the last wave of the 2013 Dodge Dart media drives. I was crunching in my head whether the platform that rode on the Dart would be developed for other models across the Chrysler side of the eventual merger with Fiat. Speculation was rising on at least two vehicles – the Jeep Cherokee and the Chrysler 200. The Jeep SUV would be first, with its unique styling that may have plenty of Fiat influences than Jeep ones. Both the Dart and Cherokee had their controversies – both involving their respective model names. How dare Fiat revive the Dart name for such a small car? How could they also provoke our indigenous population by reviving the Cherokee name?
What about this mid-sized sedan coming up? Would it be a Dodge or a Chrysler? One thing was certain that the Chrysler brand needed help. It had three core models: The minivan, the 200 mid-sized sedan and the 300 full-sized sedan. The older 200 slotted underneath the 300, but it was certainly showing its age after the facelift it received for 2011. Eminem helped its cause by appearing in the car's Super Bowl commercial in 2011. That spot gave the Chrysler brand a new marketing direction by talking up the luxury aspect of its lineup, along with showing pride as a Detroit-based nameplate.
The JS platform that the older 200 rode on dated back to 2007. It was caught in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis and the eventual selloff by Daimler AG of 80.1% of Chrysler to the private equity firm Cerebus. The original platform was co-developed with Mitsubishi, which eventually spawn the JS platform that underpinned the Chrysler Sebring/200 and Dodge Avenger.
The 2011 facelift was executed under private equity control. To complete the job, Chrysler needed an additional infusion of investment to get it to market. That is where Sergio Marchionne enters the picture.
Flushed with new investment, Chrysler elevated the Sebring to the more contemporary 200 for 2011. For what it’s worth, this was truly a stop-gap measure. As Marchionne and Fiat S.p.A started infusing Chrysler with its Compact platform and its variants, the JS Platform was on its way out of the Sterling Heights, Michigan assembly line.
That was confirmed by Marchionne himself. In an announcement in early 2013, he indicated that it will be replaced by a sedan that will appear at auto shows during the next winter.
Around the same time, there was much speculation added towards adding a smaller Chrysler model to the brand's lineup. The company was looking at importing a rebadged Lancia compact car to be sold as the Chrysler 100. At that time, several Chrysler brand models were exported to Europe rebadged as Lancias to help bolster the upmarket Italian brand's fortunes that had seen its market share shrink to be sold in just a few countries. It made sense to create some sort of foreign exchange program and introduce a highly styled compact hatchback to the North American market. Unfortunately, that plan never transpired.
January of 2014 was a momentous month at Auburn Hills with two big announcements. One, was the naming of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as the entity that will formally merge the two companies later in October. The new corporate name was announced as Fiat S.p.A. finally bought the last shares of Chrysler from the United Auto Workers pension fund, paving the way towards formalizing the entire enterprise in to one corporate family.
The other was the unveiling of the 2015 Chrysler 200. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit was center stage for the reveal. It heralded a new direction for Chrysler at the time. The 200 would also influence the design of the next new vehicle for the brand – the Pacifica minivan. Therefore, it’s significance was about to measured.
The introduction of the Chrysler 200 was bolstered by a Super Bowl commercial featuring Bob Dylan. It focused on the fact that the 200 will be assembled in Sterling Heights, Michigan at a newly renovated plant designed to build this sedan. The tag line, “we made this” resonated with the "buy American” consumer. Some of us wondered if Bob Dylan was the right spokesperson for the job. Perhaps, maybe?
I caught the new 200 at the Chicago Auto Show in February. I was beyond impressed at the time. The car looked good in person. The interior was a departure in a few ways from what was out in the marketplace. Available V6 power still hold some sway, especially with enthusiasts.
At that point, I was shining the light on the Chrysler 200 without acknowledging some of its drawbacks. Rather, by ignoring consumer trends that will make this vehicle immediately redundant. This car really got me, and I wanted to work with it more.
In the spring, several of my colleagues were flown by Chrysler to Louisville, Kentucky to get their chance to drive the 200 for the first time. If I recall, most of the impressions coming out of that media drive program was positive. However, they also pointed out some of its drawbacks. I made notes for when I got the chance to work with one in the summer.
However, my first drive in the Chrysler 200 came sooner than that. At the 2014 Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally at Road America, I took a couple of V6-powered 200s out into the countryside.
In the end of those brief 20–25-minute runs, I concluded that “[k]nowing I will be doing more work with this car, my first impression has been extremely positive. I truly love the new 200. It is a massive leap forward for Fiat Chrysler Automobile to compete in the biggest segment in North America.”
That was followed up later in August with the arrival of a 2015 200 Limited. Instead of the Pentastar V6, it had the Tigershark four-cylinder engine. The Tigershark was an updated version of the World Engine shared with Mitsubishi and Hyundai. Fiat infused some of its Multiair technology to create the Tigershark. The result was a decent level of performance, although hampered a bit by the then-new nine-speed automatic transmission developed by ZF.
If there was one thing that concerned me about the 200, it would be whether it would match up with its competition. Contemporary versions of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Subaru Legacy, and Nissan Altima offered great space for four adults – rear seat headroom, included. Then, there were the Mazda6s of the world that had lower rooflines that sloped to limit rear seat headroom for taller adults.
The Chrysler 200 had about the same space as the Mazda6, but with more emphasis on comfort than sportiness. However, the only complaint that the media had was access and exit from the rear door of the 200. The door sill opening was a bit small, to be honest.
It was also seen on par with the Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, and Chevrolet Malibu of the time. Some customers wished that the Chrysler was more accommodating than the Camry or Accord. One wondered if the 200 was as spacious as a Camry that it would make a difference in customer acceptance.
On a positive note, the 200 had a great driver's environment with some design advances. The rotary transmission actuator was a departure from the competition, yet it became its most controversial feature. Saving space in the center console was on the minds of many manufacturers looking to reduce weight and the number of working parts for the sake of driver convenience. Chrysler adopted this type of shift mechanism, along with Ford, and, eventually, Hyundai and Kia. You could argue that logic and ergonomics were sources to the pushback from consumers of this type of shifter, but it was seen as a “game-changer” by Chrysler for the mid-sized sedan segment.
Granted, initial sales were pretty strong for the 200. In the USA alone, 2015 yielded the best year for this model at over 177,000 units sold. That was the best year for Chrysler’s mid-sized sedan since the Cirrus was sold. The next year, the bottom fell out. Sales for the 200 in 2016 sales tallied at just over 57,000 units.
The reason for this sales drop was simple: Customers wanted SUVs, not sedans. Within Auburn Hills, that meant emphasizing the Jeep brand above all others. When you had Jeeps sold alongside the 200, it was obvious which vehicles would draw attention to consumers entering these showrooms.
The Chrysler 200 was well built, yielding no quality issues whatsoever. Why would you want to discontinue this car?
Marchionne and his team in Auburn Hills knew that to satisfy the demand for Jeeps – and Ram trucks – they had to find more production capacity without building new facilities. After the last 200 rolled off the Sterling Heights assembly line on December 2, 2016, it would be converted to building Ram pickup trucks.
Whether you agree with this decision made by FCA to discontinue production of a very good sedan or not, it would be a decision that other manufacturers made to acquiesce to consumer demand.
The Chrysler 200 became an albatross. A victim of the marketplace. It was safe, earning five stars by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration and Good ratings across the board by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There were no long-term recalls issued by Stellantis so far.
Later in 2016, I had one last run on the Chrysler 200. This Tigershark-powered Touring sedan was taken on an extended drive through La Crosse, southeastern Minnesota towards Mason City, Iowa. One final shakedown for old times sake.
My conclusion at the time was more a plea to consumers who have passed up the Chrysler 200 for a Jeep product – or another vehicle from another manufacturer. “All I ask is that you consider putting the Chrysler 200 on your shopping list,” I wrote. “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.”
You will still see plenty of Chrysler 200s on the road. Last generation models, in particular. They’re also showing up on dealer lots, in their used car inventory as well.
It still saddens me to see how a mid-sized sedan was seemingly set aside after 2-3 model years just because consumers want something else completely. The 2015-2017 Chrysler 200 was a really good car that deserve a lot more than was given by the manufacturer.
All photos by Randy Stern