New models - Chrysler - Crossfire
First drive: Drop-top Crossfire top class
Chrylser's Crossfire Roadster proves you don't have to be all-new to be all-fun
30 Aug 2004
By BRUCE NEWTON
IT certainly doesn’t look like a brick, but in terms of its importance to the regeneration of the Chrysler brand in Australia, the Crossfire Roadster is very much being cemented in as part of the foundations.
Launched here last week, the Roadster is the drop-top variation on the Coupe that went on sale in Australia in late 2003.
Priced at $75,990, Roadster is just $6000 more than the Coupe, placing it in the heart of a group of competitors that includes everything from the Nissan 350Z to the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
While sales expectations are a comparatively modest 200 in a full calendar year, Chrysler Australia is banking on this sporty two-seater having a signifi - cant halo effect that benefits the entire brand.
The problem has been that while the existing model line-up, the PT Cruiser and Voyager, has some cut through, the Chrysler brand is less well recognised.
"One thing we have learned with Chrysler is that PT Cruiser and Voyager ... are better known as unique products rather than as Chryslers," said Chrysler Jeep Australia national sales manager Brad Fitzsimmons.
"The job for us is to continue to build the Chrysler brand and name. That will take time for people to know the name Chrysler and understand what Chrysler is going to represent in the future." Which is where the Roadster comes in, as it is forecast to account for up to 70 per cent of Crossfire sales once it gathers some momentum.
"This car is a luxury product and a quality product, and represents Chrysler and things that will develop in the future," said Mr Fitzsimmons.
The fact that Chrysler has been trying to build a brand in Australia based on the PT retro wagon and Voyager large people-mover is a strong clue as to why it has struggled for real progress. Sales have pretty much flatlined between 2000 and 2500 over the past few years.
This product paucity can be directly linked back to Chrysler’s US origins and its focus on building left-hand drive vehicles. Only since Daimler-Benz’s 1998 takeover (rather inaccurately labelled a "merger of equals" at the time) has Chrysler perspective shifted further above the horizon.
In fact, the Crossfire would not even exist if not for Daimler’s buy-in. While it looks unique inside and out, the fact is that underneath there’s a whole heap of superceded Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster (its replacement is being launched here now, by the way), starting from the core rear-wheel drive platform.
To that you can add the double wishbone front suspension, multi-link rear end, recirculating ball steering, the 160kW/310Nm 3.2-litre 18-valve V6 engine and the two transmission choices, a six-speed manual and five-speed auto with tipshift – sorry, Autostick.
All up, the official estimate is 39 per cent of Crossfire owes its origins to SLK.
The Crossfire is even built in Germany, albeit at the Osnabruck assembly plant of independent coachbuilder Karmann.
What emerges from the end of the line as a Roadster retains many of the Coupe’s styling flourishes.
The Coupe’s signature centre spine is interrupted by the cloth roof, which is only partially auto, the header rail clipping/de-clipping done by hand. Behind the passengers there are twin roll-over hoops with racing-style fairings.
Extra underbody bracing to make up for the lack of a metal roof adds 36kg (although the car still only weighs in at a svelte 1424kg in manual form – add 16kg for the auto) and tyres that have a slightly softer sidewall than the Coupe’s to assist with ride quality.
Chrysler claims performance levels are hardly affected by sawing off the roof. Manual acceleration from 0-100km/h is 6.5 seconds while top speed is 242km/h. In these days of $1-plus fuel it’s worth noting a thrifty combined fuel consumption claim of 10.1L/100 (10.4 for the auto).
Standard equipment is high with dual front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes including brake assist, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and traction control all part of the safety story.
Comfort items include heated electric leather seats, power windows, cruise control and dual-zone climate control. Only the lack of a six-disc CD player in the classy polished metal-look centre console is an obvious omission.
With Roadster’s arrival, Chrysler now has another 12 months to wait for the arrival of its next brick in the wall, the 300C sedan.
DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:I WAS prepared to be unimpressed by the Crossfire Roadster. You know, recycled Benz bits from a superceded car that never got me that excited anyway. And what sort of sports car heritage does Chrysler have anyway? Don’t they build minivans? But you know what? The Roadster works.
In a very primal way that a sports car should do, the Crossfire invites you - nay urges you - to have a good old-fashioned red hot go.
Sure there are issues. Predominantly they are found in the cabin where space is at a premium. If you go much over 180cm you are going to struggle to fit comfortably, roof up or down.
That’s because driver's seat rearward travel is almost as limited as the telescopic-only adjustment of the steering wheel.
And storage areas. You can hardly fit an overnight bag or two in the boot and that’s generous compared to the cabin where such luxuries as storage wells behind the seats and cupholders are non-existent.
But get beyond that lot and you’ll be delighted. The Roadster is a tactile car that rewards someone with a passion for driving.
For a start, it has a surprisingly strong and torsionally rigid chassis for one so light. That means no scuttle shake – the traditional bane of convertibles that haven’t fortified properly what’s left of the body after the metal roof has departed.
Getting that fundamental ingredient right means the car sits super-flat when cornering, with excellent body control. And yet the ride is still more comfortable than you would expect, taking into account the stiff chassis and low profile tyres.
Only serious holes and sharp-edged speed bumps caused real wincing.
The rubber, no doubt, plays a key role in giving this car surprisingly agile steering attributes. It hangs on with plenty of aplomb, eventually developing a moderate front-end push. But by then you are realising this is a vice-free chassis that really loves a twisting mountain road.
Chrysler certainly chucked plenty of winding stuff in during the Adelaide-based drive launch, which meant plenty of time to appreciate a steering system that is pretty much as good as recirculating ball can get.
A bit light in weighting and a tad light on for feel, but it also devoid of the kickback and shake that can mar under-engineered drop-tops.
The engine is another winning part of the package. It simply didn’t seem to be this good when tasted in E-classes and C-classes of yore.
But in the Roadster it feels like it has been liberated, happily piling on the revs from 2000rpm to well past the 6000rpm redline, all the while accompanied by a ripping and tearing exhaust howl that sounds delicious when the roof is down and the noise is bouncing off roadside walls.
Of the two transmissions on offer, the manual is the most rewarding if you are in serious sports mode, offering a positive two-step shift allied to a well modulated clutch. Third gear is a particularly good ratio, allying well with a broad torque band that peaks at 3000rpm.
Only a rough shift into fourth marred the experience, either through an adjustment issue or driver ineptness. Either way, the synchromesh was beaten more than once, resulting in a painful graunch.
The auto removes some of the edge off performance at lower speeds, but shifts pretty much seamlessly most of the time. In the winding stuff, the ratio is easy to control via the Autostick (say that with a Texas drawl please) and you’ll want to use it to give yourself that added engine braking going in to a corner and an extra burst off acceleration coming out.
Around town, of course, the auto is the ’box to have. After all, you want to concentrate on being seen rather than driving the car.
That’s because this car is a looker and an attention-getter, no doubt about it.
It’s nice to be able to say that it is capable of backing the style up with some inviting, exciting performance.
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