Car reviews - Chrysler - Crossfire - coupe
Unique styling, refinement, build quality, solidity, pedigree, safety features, performance, light weight, handling, grip, ride quality, sound system, exhaust note, value for money, exclusivity
Room for improvement
Indecisive auto transmission, average interior plastics, tight interior, lack of seat travel, limited rear vision, average aerodynamics, limited equipment, no steering wheel reach adjustment, no spare wheel, no rear wiper, narrow hatch opening
5 Mar 2004
CHRYSLER has been known for some pretty adventurous design concepts and styling exercises over the past 10 years, so it seems slightly ironic that its latest arrival is little more than a Chrysler interpretation of a superceded Mercedes-Benz.
That view, of course, is not doing much justice to a car that should earn itself a worthy spot in the sub-$100,000 two-door coupe market.
The Chrysler Crossfire is a new entrant into a segment that includes a number of highly regarded contenders. Mazda RX-8, Nissan 350Z, Audi TT, Alfa Romeo GTV – even Holden Monaro – are all in there swinging.
But the Crossfire, which owes plenty to the soon-to-be-replaced Mercedes-Benz SLK, brings a new level of class into the category.
If it’s not realistic to compare it with a similarly engined SLK because the Benz has a fold-down metal roof, at least the idea that the Chrysler-badged product is around $40,000 less than the identically engined SLK320 remains an appealing one.
Especially when you consider the Crossfire, although it might have been largely styled in the US, is actually built in Germany.
Looking at the overall size of the car, its cockpit dimensions, overall length, height and width – and particularly the cabin area – it’s clear that the donor car is never far below the surface.
But, largely because of the absence of the folding metal roof, the Chrysler weighs slightly less, helping it unleash a little more performance.
Factory claims have the manual transmission version covering the 400 metres in a rapid 14.8 seconds, and accelerating to 100km/h in 6.5 seconds – slightly quicker than the already capable, auto-only Mercedes SLK320.
And the on-road contact has been upgraded to provide prodigious grip. Like the Benz, it uses asymmetric front-rear tyres, except that the rear wheel diameter is also bigger, up from 18 inches on the front to massive 19-inch rims with 255/35-section low-profile tyres at the back.
Match this with the availability of a six-speed manual gearbox and you have a rapid, rewarding road car backed up by solid Mercedes suspension technology.
Crossfire uses the same wishbone front, multi-link rear suspension components as the SLK, supported by the same all-disc braking system complete with four-channel anti-lock and brake assist, plus the Mercedes ESP Electronic Stability Program.
The Crossfire gets the same traction control system too, which uses either the engine management or the ABS system, or both, to intervene and minimise wheelspin.
Apart from the looks, not much of this car is actually born in the USA.
Although Chrysler says just 39 per cent of components are adapted from Mercedes-Benz, the fact is that the car is fundamentally German.
This means the basic structure, the front and rear suspension and the complete driveline, from the 3.2-litre V6 engine through to the six-speed manual or five-speed auto transmission and the differential.
So the Crossfire picks up all the on-road competence and refinement of the SLK, as well as the safety-oriented body structure complete with its various post-accident, passenger-protecting systems.
The body is said to be extremely strong and is designed to effectively absorb front and rear impacts, as well as side impacts. With its fixed roof, plus a bulky crossmember that stretches across the car behind the seats, the Crossfire is possibly even better than the SLK, especially in terms of side impacts.
It’s a given that dual front airbags, as well as side airbags, are part of the system, as well as pretensioners and load limiters for the seatbelts.
But what about the aspect of the Crossfire that is aimed at twanging the heartstrings of car-buyers – its compact, chunky styling?
There can be no argument that Chrysler stylists penned a distinctive, attractive design. Not everybody will love it, but that’s the way of any reasonably inspired creation.
For most, the Chrysler’s stubby body with its massive wheels and individual design touches – like the crossover belt-line where concave becomes convex, the corrugated bonnet and the central spine that continues over the roof – is immensely appealing, just the sort of thing you want in a car that is more plaything than practical conveyance.
Although the aerodynamics are not anything special (the Cd figure is 0.37 – a Holden Caprice manages 0.30), the design team decided the Crossfire needed some additional help at high speed to keep the back firmly planted on the road and designed a Porsche-style, pop-up spoiler that materialises just under the rear window when speeds exceed 90km/h.
This sort of velocity is a dawdle for the Crossfire which, with an accentuated snarl from its specially developed dual exhaust system, will blast along with the best of them despite the seemingly modest 160kW engine.
The secret is in the relatively light weight of 1350kg (the auto version) and the quite decent 310Nm of torque.
In the automatic model we drove, the Crossfire was always eager, almost straining at the leash despite the more sedan-like tuning of the Mercedes five-speed transmission.
It uses the familiar sideways flick for sequential control but, like all Mercedes-Benz cars, it’s not really that obedient to driver requests and will change down or up when it thinks it should.
But the handling and roadholding are close to phenomenal. With the massive rear tyres it is only excessively brutal use that will cause it to break grip – and then the ESP cuts in, bringing it back into line, often without the driver even being aware.
And the ride remains quite fluid and absorbent for a sports car. The suspension has pretty decent travel for a car of this type, showing up in its ability to better absorb large bumps than many of its peers.
The Crossfire cruises quite easily, without the nervousness that afflicts some other fast-steering sporting cars.
Perhaps the only negatives are in the cockpit. Opinions on internal attractiveness and durability varied, but there can be no question the Crossfire has a different ambience to a regular German-made prestige car.
The upper dash material has a dry, desiccated-looking pattern and the silver plastic finish on the centre console did not really appeal to everybody.
But the biggest difficulty was finding room to move within the relatively restricted space. It’s not so much a problem with cabin width, more that the heavy-duty transverse B-pillar beam prevents any serious rearward travel for the seats. This means 180-centimetre passengers can’t really manage any stretch-out leg space.
Then there’s a relatively encroaching roofline to limit headroom, plus a thick rear pillars that mean backing manoeuvres are less optically-informed than they are a matter of guesswork.
The Crossfire boot is relatively deep – it will apparently hold at least one golf bag – but this is because there’s no spare tyre. And the hatchback, even if it shuts with a lovely, solid thump, is relatively narrow.
It could do with a standard cargo net or cover to keep luggage where it belongs and prevent it thrashing around when the car is on the move, and there is no apparent reason why it doesn’t have a rear wiper, like other hatchbacks.
The equipment levels are okay, but nothing outstanding. There’s no trip computer and the steering wheel adjusts for reach only. But driver and passenger have separate climate-control dials and the seats are heated and power adjusted, even if the "logic" switches on the outboard edges are difficult to reach.
The sound system is a thumping, six-speaker setup (including dual subwoofers) with AM/FM radio, CD player and a 240-watt, six-channel amplifier.
Sadly, the Chrysler does miss out on the little pop-out tag in the grille that makes Benz bonnet-opening such a pleasure.
But the Crossfire is quite a bit of sports car for the money. Chrysler will be levering everything it can out of the Mercedes connection – there are plenty of three-pointed stars stamped in not-so-hidden places if you bother to look – and so it should, because the SLK is a good basis to work from.
And, because it goes harder, grips better and looks spectacular, the Crossfire is a better drive than the already very competent SLK320.
It might only be a niche model for Chrysler, but it will certainly do no damage to the status of the badge in Australia.
And it will be further helped along when the convertible version arrives later in the year.
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