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First drive: Crossfire blows in

Crossfire hurricane: Chrysler hopes its SLK-based coupe will build new momentum for the brand.

Chrysler has a new hero in the shape of its slinky, Mercedes-based Crossfire coupe

Chrysler logo22 Jan 2004

THE first fruit of DaimlerChrysler’s 1998 "merger" is a reality, and it arrives here as the struggling Chrysler brand’s new hero Down Under.

Now on sale globally and in Australian Chrysler Jeep dealerships from this month, the Mercedes-Benz SLK-based 2004 Crossfire coupe is said to combine "stunning design with proven engineering".

Priced at a keen $69,990 in either six-speed manual or five-speed Autostick auto guise – almost $13,000 less than the entry level blown 2.0-litre SLK200K – the 3.2-litre V6-powered Crossfire will compete directly with a number of new sub-$60,000 sports cars.

First there’s the all-conquering Holden Monaro, followed in popularity by Nissan’s 350Z and the four-door Mazda RX-8, while priced almost lineball with Crossfire are coupes from Audi (TT 1.8T), Alfa Romeo (GTV V6) and Peugeot (406 Coupe).

Of course, Mercedes’ own SLK range starts at $83,074 (with the CLK range opening at $90,900 for the CLK240), but identical V6 motivation commands $112,074 and $115,900 for SLK and CLK buyers respectively.

BMW’s 3 Series coupe line-up starts at $65,900 (320Ci), with the 3.0-litre 330Ci costing $96,300.

Developed in just 24 months, Crossfire is built in Germany in conjunction with respected coachbuilder Karmann. Just 15 per cent of annual production – 20,000 at full capacity – will be sold outside the US.

First appearing as a concept at the 2001 Detroit motor show and in final production form at the 2003 Sydney show, Chrysler Jeep Australia/Pacific hopes to sell some 400 Crossfires (coupes and roadsters) in 2004, with the first shipment of 120 coupes already spoken for and some 300 orders on the books.

The Crossfire coupe’s sculpted two-seater steel bodyshell is said to have been reinforced to handle Crossfire’s larger wheels/tyres and, in conjunction with a modified SLK platform, now boasts torsionally rigidity of 20,140Nm/degree.

Beneath this lies a Benz-sourced 3.2 V6 producing 160kW at 5700rpm and 310Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

That’s good enough for claimed a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 6.5 seconds and - despite an average aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.37Cd - a top speed of 242km/h. Combined average fuel consumption is stated at 10.4L/100km (manual) and 10.1L/100km (auto).

Crossfire measures 4059mm long, 1766mm wide, 1305mm high and, like SLK, rides on a 2400mm wheelbase. Front and rear track is 1439mm and 1502mm respectively, the turning circle is 10.3 metres, luggage capacity just 94 litres, fuel capacity 60 litres and kerb weight a respectable 1388kg - split 54/46 per cent front/rear.

Like SLK, the rear-drive Chrysler offers independent double wishbone front and independent five-link rear suspension, while front vented brake rotors measure 300x28mm and the solid rear discs measure 278x9mm. Single-piston callipers are fitted all round.

Unique features include a satin silver-finish centre console and transmission tunnel, Chrysler’s new corporate grille with vertical ribs and prominent winged logo up front, quad headlights, fake air-extractor louvres behind the front wheel arches, a dual centre-mounted exhaust and a speed-sensing automatic rear spoiler with manual over-ride.

There are also staggered-size seven-spoke alloy wheels measuring 18x7.5-inch front and 19x9.0-inch rear, and wearing 225/40 ZR18 and 255/35 ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres. Instead of a full-size (or even temporary) spare, Crossfire owners must make do with a compressor and sealant can.

Befitting its luxury pricetag, Crossfire’s swag of standard equipment includes twin front and side airbags, ABS with Brake Assist, Electronic Stability Program, all-speed traction control, heated power leather seats (available in three colours), power windows/mirrors, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, 240-watt six-speaker CD audio, remote central locking and illuminated entry system.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

CHRYSLER says it’s flattered by the inevitable comparisons that will be made between its new Crossfire coupe and the Mercedes-Benz SLK convertible, with which it shares 39 per cent of its components.

And so it should be, because the original (and soon to be replaced) SLK has carved itself an enviable niche as one of the finest accessible two-seater roadsters on the road – and Crossfire is now available for less than two-thirds the price of its SLK320 donor car.

But truth is Crossfire feels even more than two-fifths an SLK. Cover the winged Chrysler logo on the leather-bound steering wheel, for starters, and the familiar audio and climate control units - plus SLK-sourced switchgear, indicators, cruise control and the like – and you’d be forgiven for confusing the Crossfire interior for some special-edition iteration of Mercedes’ most popular drop-top.

Arguably, one might also mistake Crossfire for the stylish Benz convertible at a glance in the rear-view mirror, but overall the most convincing Chrysler in recent memory drapes its SLK underpinnings in a well executed, cohesive and distinctive new set of clothes.

A central ridgeline that runs the entire length of the exterior is mirrored inside, while a deeply sculpted wedge shape starts at the leading edge of each door, meeting to form a unique boat-tail rear-end look.



11 center imageLike the SLK’s, Crossfire’s interior is extremely quiet, dark and classy in a highly logical, German type of way, with multi-adjustable power seats comfortably accommodating drivers up to six feet tall.

It’s reasonably tight in there, even for a compact coupe, and while Crossfire doesn’t match the likes of RX-8 and 350Z for interior space, it beats S2000 and betters them all for interior quality.

The upmarket theme is backed by a full compliment of top-notch equipment, including twin-zone climate control and full leather and heated seats, although the automatic rear wing (which pops up at 90km/h and can be overridden) activates rather loudly and further restricts the already limited rear vision.

The overriding SLK theme continues on the road, where Crossfire exudes all the solid, safe and secure messages conveyed by its DaimlerChrysler sibling.

First there’s the familiar recirculating ball power steering, which feels meaty and firm at low speeds and effective enough when worked but, like SLK, ultimately lacks feel, response and feedback. In total contrast to the Z4’s lively variable electric steering, the Crossfire’s weeds out so much unwanted information it feels dull and isolated.

Likewise, Crossfire exhibits all of the SLK’s solidity and sure-footedness on the road, but musters even more grip from its larger rubber (225/40 ZR18 front and 255/35 ZR19 rear versus 205/55 and 225/55 ZR16s on SLK320), making it the only current production car we know of with staggered wheel diameters) – and perhaps even a little more agility thanks to its marginally lighter 1388kg kerb weight (versus 1429kg for SLK320).

But there’s no denying Crossfire’s suspension is biased more towards comfort than performance, as the many varied surfaces of the Great Alpine Road during the launch drive showed it delivers Mercedes-like top-shelf ride quality with only moderate levels of body control and handling response.

Overall balance is excellent, however, with mild understeer to be found at the limit of adhesion and power oversteer available for the taking when stability control is deactivated.

Otherwise the driving experience is overwhelmingly similar to that offered by SLK, with one significant exception: the tight, short-throw six-speed manual that’s not available in the SLK range. It not only makes Crossfire quicker (6.5-second claimed 0-100km/h acceleration compared with 6.9 for the auto-only SLK320), but adds a whole new dimension to the Crossfire character that no SLK can match.

In five-speed Tipshift auto mode (woops, I mean Autostick), Crossfire is spritely enough, with good off-idle urge and a healthy midrange marred only by overly wide gear ratios spacings.

But the now-superseded 160kW 3.2-litre three-valve Benz V6 was never renowned for top-end performance and, though happier at high engine speeds than the Z’s 3.5-litre V6, cannot match either the 206kW Nissan nor the 177kW (manual) RX-8 rotary for performance – or handling precision.

But at least the six-speed manual (which requires a silly pull-up to find reverse) doesn’t upchange or downchange when it wants to.

There's no doubt Crossfire makes a more convincing argument as a serious performance roadster in manual guise. As a cut-price SLK320 with a distinctive new bodyshell, it also offers roadster enthusiasts a wider performance envelope and better value than the SLK320.

Chrysler hopes to shift up to 400 Crossfires in 2004 and it should easily convince that many customers to fork over $70,000 for this Mercedes-Benz-engineered roadster minus the badge.

But there are less expensive Japanese coupes available that do the job better.

GoAuto can help you buy a new Crossfire

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