In the nearly 600 days I’ve been reviewing cars at Automotive.com, I’ve stepped foot in maybe 150 cars. That’s a lot. Some arrive weekly in our press fleet, and I’ll take them home for the night or the weekend; others I drive on press trips, sometimes driving models that haven’t been released or don’t technically exist in the U.S. yet. And very quickly, driving all these cars–observing and testing meticulously–constantly evaluating, taking mental notes and making physical observations, you’re able to instantly tell a lot about a car.
A few things to consider: cars these days, really are very good. They’re advanced, and even basic cars feature sophisticated technology that only years prior was found on very high-end, luxury and premium makes. So, a lot of times when we’re being critical, it’s because you really have to get down to the details. We can’t just say, “yup, car number 150, also very good.” And when you know what to look for, there are stark differences. Even cars that employ the same engines–think half of the Hyundai and Kia lineups, for example–may drive very differently. Like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two cars are exactly alike, and the differences matter.
It was with this understanding that I took the 2013 Chrysler 200 Convertible home over our winter holiday. Why not? A new set of wheels, a convertible in LA’s mockery of winter (actually it was raining a lot and freezing, I only got the top down once or twice, heated seats never came off).
To be fair, the 2013 Chrysler 200 Convertible, is better than a handful of cars that I’ve driven. It’s better than the Smart, or Scion iQ, for example. And while those cars don’t compete with the 200, you can’t deny that the 200 was bigger, and more comfortable. But the Smart was less than half the price, and both were literally half the car the 200 is, so expectations were pretty low to begin with. On the other hand, the Chrysler 200 purports to be a premium convertible. Instead, it’s emblematic of everything that was wrong with American cars before the economic downturn, crash, recession, depression, QE 1 and QE 2, bailouts, and all of that. Before America got it again. It was heavy, slow, low-rent, no effort shown, the interior was cheap, and the automatic top was tediously slow to operate.
In fact, on that first drive home, stopped at a red light, I pushed the button to lower the top. After much mechanical noise and little progress the light turned green; I had a long row of cars behind me, so I eased my foot off the brake and slowly accelerated to 10 or 15 miles per hour, while continuously holding the convertible-top button. But the low-res green-pixilated screen said “car in motion too fast,” or something similar. So I took my foot off the gas completely and tried again, without luck. At this point the top had only partially retracted, was frozen pointed straight up 12 feet in the air, making it look like I was piloting a lazy pterodactyl dinosaur float as I cruised down La Cienega Blvd. at four miles per hour, pissed off drivers in other cars dangerously careening past me.
This was no good. But two or three lights later the top, exhausted by now, was in downward dog. We were both happy. Except like I said it was freezing, and I just wanted to put the top down as a novelty. But I didn’t have 10 or 15 minutes to get it back up while I was still driving, so I put up with it. But other things were bad too. I had to double-check to make sure the car actually had a V-6 engine, not a four-cylinder or maybe experimental three-cylinder. I couldn’t believe the lack of acceleration. And it was the pokey transmission that was largely to blame. The instrument panels and gauges looked like they were photocopied at a FedEx-Kinkos, cut out and pasted on with sniffing glue. The heavy doors were long and arduous in snug parking spaces at The Grove. The body shook and wiggled over every road imperfect. The trunk–already tiny–virtually disappeared with the top down. I could go on and on.
But then one night I picked up European acquaintances that were in town, just married, absolutely pleasant and wonderful. When I pulled up in the 200, they commented on how nice it was, and again when seated inside, they mentioned how plush and comfy the seats were. And then, for a moment, I did it: I was able to pull myself out of my body, mentally erase the experience of driving the latest and greatest cars week after week, and observe this transport with fresh eyes.
Yes! The seats were actually pretty nice. And they had a heated function, and there was a color media screen, and there was satellite radio, the top was automatic, and if you were parked somewhere, the whole fuss was over in 25-30 seconds. Not bad. And that’s it. In the auto-journo bubble, looking at fractions of a second in sprint times, or considering the coefficient of drag, or compression ratios, really, for most people, this is white noise. And if you’re an enthusiast, of course it matters. But if you’re not–and really, most people are not–then it’s good to step outside and recalibrate, even if momentarily. And despite the surprising praise from my sophisticated European friends–and the admission that the 2013 Chrysler 200 convertible isn’t the worst car I’ve ever driven–it’s still pretty awful.
The silver lining in all this is that the current 200 will soon be extinct, replaced by something more in line with the automaker’s newer product, which is actually quite nice. And with it, Chrysler will fix this (auto-journo) monstrosity, in no time. There are already plans in the works.