Stateside Eights - Chrysler's new V-8 bomb catches the rest of the Detroit gang snoozing. BY AARON ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID DEWHURST September 2004 Don King, where are you when we need you? A new heavyweight with fancy moves and tons of muscle has just rolled into town, and we're having trouble getting up a fair fight. Just look at these stats: The new Chrysler 300C is a big boy packing 4100 pounds on its 10-foot wheelbase and swinging 340 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque with its 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. In its last visit with us [C/D, May 2004], the 300C walloped 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and kayoed the quarter in 13.9 seconds at 102 mph, then carried us around in plush comfort and with snappy handling. All it asked in return was $32,995 before options ($36,020 as pictured here with navigation, a sunroof, and faux tortoise-shell trim). Who can stand up to that, Don? Sure, there are the six-cylinder middleweights with good footwork and the right price tags. The Acura TL and the Infiniti G35 come to mind, as well as a few Germans with celebrated names. But they're too small for our big rookie phenom, and they have their own crowded class. The 300C doesn't belong on that fight card. Jump up to the luxury V-8s—the BMW 545i, the Mercedes E500, the new Cadillac STS, the Lexus GS430, for example—and you nail the size and performance, but whoa, look at those prices! All are about 50 thou and up—waaay up. No golden gloves, please. So we called around Detroit, the place that went to the bank on the working-class V-8. At Ford, we were shown first to a Lincoln LS V-8, a nimble runner that dices with imports. But its price—over $47,000 with options—knocked it out. So Ford dived into its back room and brought out a $30,890 Ford Crown Victoria LX Sport, a civilian Vicky fitted with a cop suspension, cop tires, and cop dual exhausts. "If you're looking for V-8 performance in this price range," said the Ford spokesman, "this is what we got." It's what they got. The Ford's twin tailpipes raise horsepower out of the 4.6-liter SOHC 16-valve V-8 from a waifish 224 to a slightly more appropriate 239. The Sport trim also includes a quick-getaway rear-end ratio: 3.27 instead of 2.73. A few more options, including side airbags ($300), traction control ($175), and a plastic trunk organizer ($190), nudged the Vic's price only to $32,170, well within the target class. This 14-year-old queen is a tired soul to be sure, but the Crown Vic is the only Ford sized and priced right to be a contender in this fracas, especially now that the Mercury Marauder is history. The Vic also imparts some coolness, thanks to its status as the nation's Car 54. Dress it up with antennas and spot lights, and the highway becomes your oyster, at least until the real cops show up. GM once supplied V-8 heavies to all of its division. Now it has to give its catalogs a pretty thorough rummage before it turns up a fairly obscure $38,495 Pontiac. Bet you didn't even know a Bonneville could be that expensive, or come with an optional V-8. It can and does, starting this year. At the far end of Pontiac's order sheet sits the new Bonneville GXP, putting hurt to the front tires with a 275-hp, 4.6-liter DOHC 32-valve Northstar. A reinforced four-speed automatic handles shifting, and a digger 3.70 axle ratio supplies tire screech to spare. What else is in it for me, you ask? The $35,995 base GXP (before the inevitable GM incentives) includes 18-inch alloy wheels governed by traction control and the StabiliTrak anti-wipe-out system, plus an eight-speaker Monsoon stereo with CD changer. Most of the Bonneville options are standard on the GXP. To get the pearl pictured here, one need add only the $1100 sunroof, the $750 paint upgrade (called Crimson Tintcoat), a $325 XM satellite-radio receiver, and a $325 digital head-up display. Unlike the Chrysler, the Pontiac offers no navigation console. You must call OnStar to figure out which bonny ville you are barreling through. Thus assembled, the surviving remnants of Motown's V-8 sedan heritage headed for the Southern California hills. Three rounds to the bell, and you've got a ringside seat. ------ Third Place - Ford Crown Victoria LX Sport Merge onto a California freeway in a plain-wrapper Crown Vic, and all eyes are on you. FBI? ATF? INS? You wouldn't get more attention driving a stretched Hummer with Heidi Klum sticking out of the sunroof (also a familiar sight around L.A.). It seems as if the only people who pilot a Crown Victoria hunt terrorists, illegal aliens, or alien UFOs. And the Vicky is certainly built to squad-car spec. There's precious little frill in the government-issue sheetmetal or in the flat dashboard console, both of which feature monochromatic oceans of material. Information is on a need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know the engine speed, apparently, so there's no tach. For some reason you do need to know alternator volts, however. And a nonspecific oil gauge (quantity? temperature? pressure?) always keeps its needle right in the happy middle. Practicality reigns in the airy spaces between the doors and inside the best-in-test trunk, which is, granted, partly consumed by the full-size spare tire. Mulder and Scully enjoy prodigious legroom in front while the perps, even those sitting three abreast, get surprisingly good head-, knee-, and legroom in back. Complaints erupted right away over the car's giant slabs of Spam—what Ford calls "seats." Up front, legs splay awkwardly wherever gravity can pull them, and torsos do the slip-'n'-slide through every turn. Passengers in back roll around like bowling balls. Long trips are akin to running a marathon in a kilt; there just ain't enough support where it counts. Not unexpectedly, the lowest horsepower supply generates the pokiest track times. The three cars are separated by precisely a second each to the 60-mph mark, the 4180-pound Vic bringing up the tail at 7.9 seconds with a lazy 16.2-second quarter-mile at 88 mph. The V-8 pulls with a V-6's enthusiasm up long grades, and the transmission, with just four speeds to cajole the power from the unwilling engine, downshifts reluctantly over its big gaps. Manual control boils down to an overdrive-lockout button on the shifter. Over the wide-and-smooth, the Crown Vic supplies a mellow cruise if not faithful steering. The front end is loose, enough so that the nose wanders relentlessly on the highway and must be constantly herded in the desired direction. Some more tension in the factory wheel alignment might sharpen the Vic's sense of straight-ahead. The Sport's upgraded suspension pays its best dividend fighting body roll, keeping the old barge commendably flat in turns. Elsewhere, the extra shock-absorber-and-spring firmness means that bump energy simply gets passed into the floor, seats, steering column, and other jiggly parts of the body. Tire rumble and heavy clunks underfoot signal when the underbody iron—it's a live axle in back—has been put in motion by rougher spots. Stouter tires than the fleshy Goodyear Eagle LS rubber might make fast driving more fun. When the Vicky is pushed hard, they roll over on their sidewalls and chaos ensues. The front end wants to plow; the back end wants to slide; you want to slow down. The car slithered through the lane change without the aid of an anti-skid system and with its tush all a-wag, setting the slowest speed of 54.3 mph. For rum runners and the heroes of Daytona—circa 1954—the Crown Vic's behavior will wet the eyes with nostalgia. The rest of us would like a little more tomorrow built into cars trading at today's prices. Highs: Cheaper by the dozen, big space inside, the choice of the CHP. Lows: Flaccid seats, a wandering chassis, a V-8 that thinks it's a six. The Verdict: An institution for institutions. ------ Second Place - Pontiac Bonneville GXP GM is getting back its rear-drive religion, but the process is slow. While we wait, the "driving excitement" division offers this front-drive diversion. It's a Bonneville, whisked mostly free of plastic, its essential slanting-wedge shape shining through. Hunkered down on its 18-inch wheels—are those brake calipers actually painted red?—the GXP says PDQ more succinctly than any previous car to wear the Bonnie badge. Alas, open the door, and the mood passes. The buttons and the air vents (eight, and about a billion buttons) are staging a riot on the dashboard. The instruments merge together in unappealing white puddles bleeding with red lettering. Pontiac has done this before: built dashboards seemingly from melted air-traffic-control consoles. The more spacey they get, the more dated they look. As if it needed additional gimcrack, the interior is dotted with carbon-fiber-pattern plastic bezels and steering-wheel trim, as though an F1 team were consulted. Who are they kidding? A polished metal appliqué wraps the shifter, and suede seat and door-panel inserts add yet another unexpected material to the mix. A mosquito in a nudist colony doesn't get this busy. Space is generous, even in the back with three people, but the rear-seat passengers suffer on lumpy cushions. Headroom in the rear also skimps, thanks to the fast roofline. Data from the various dials and readouts are more or less visible through the portals of the huge steering wheel, which is big enough to serve as a second spare. Your hands on that wheel travel in long arcs, most noticeably when attempting tight maneuvers such as our lane-change test. The Pontiac posted 56.3 mph, 2 mph better than the Crown Vic. That's due not to the Bonneville's steering mechanism, which is slow, dead to feedback, and typically a few feet late with its responses, or to its chassis, which when pushed gets flustered and breaks grip with an unexpected snap. No, the accolades accrue to the Bonneville's well-programmed and fast-acting StabiliTrak anti-skid system. It stutters the brakes just enough to rotate the Bonneville back to course, a better safety strategy than a bag full of airbags. If your course is down a pocked road, expect the GXP to ride more heavily than the others here, with firmer damping and less suspension travel. A few buzzes were heard behind the dash as the body took its lumps from the unforgiving undercarriage. That suspension includes a forked aluminum control arm in the rear that serves as both a trailing and diagonal arm. It is braced by a center-line-mounted (and hence, very long) toe-control link. This arrangement, odd-looking though it may be, nonetheless helped supply decent poise up to 7/10ths. Enough so that drivers preferred wheeling the Bonneville over the Ford in every situation, something of a feat for a nose-heavy front-driver. The Northstar's extra wattage also sealed the Bonneville's second place. Spurs to the groin, it tackled 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and the quarter in 15.4 at 91 mph with only minor torque-induced swagger. The 3.70:1 axle ratio tries to compensate for the cammer V-8's lack of low-end tug, at least relative to the old supercharged 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 that once powered top-end Bonnevilles. It largely succeeds, but the Bonnie's lithe-shifting four-speed transmission is one ratio short of driveline nirvana. As in the Crown Vic, the pedal usually has to be mashed through the downshift detent to get the Northstar's north wind blowing, and then it's a sudden gale. At least the V-8 is a willing revver, voicing a sophisticated burr through to its 6500-rpm redline. Even so, at this price, the highest in the test, you can buy a lot more car for the cash. Highs: Shapely, now that it's shorn of plastic; decent power; a button for every whim. Lows: Lifeless steering, odd switchback behavior, needs another gear. The Verdict: An expensive dose of so-so. ------ First Place - Chrysler 300C As far as we're concerned, the verdict on the DaimlerChrysler merger is in. Together, the two companies have built a gotta-get-one vehicle that neither Mercedes nor Chrysler was ever able to deliver at anywhere near this price. Case closed, jury dismissed. Is the 300C really that good, you ask with brow deeply furrowed, or is this just typical motor-mag shill? In a nutshell, no. Granted, here in the company of the aged and the overheated, the newest car seems especially modern and civilized. The 300C is not the biggest, with more inches at the wheelbase but four inches fewer between the mirrors than the Crown Vic and a shorter overall length than both the Ford and Pontiac. Yet it never feels wanting for space inside until you pack three across the back seat. The single-piece skin swathing the dash looks durable if a bit over-grained. Chrome-ringed dials—green fluorescent at night—add suavity and convey the essentials. Knobs sit where a roving hand expects to find them, even for the navigation system, which is quickly mastered. The climate control makes its climates quietly, especially when set to "low auto," a shrewd feature that restricts fan blow to hold down noise. A thick, leather-wrapped steering-wheel rim feels substantial, serious, even with its whimsical "tortoise shell" accent (which looks like sea scallops afloat in Aunt Jemima, only better). Fake tortoises also donated fake shells to the pulls on the door panels, which despite an additional chrome sash still look a little dowdy. A fan club did develop for the 300's seats and their simple, supportive design. The Chrysler gets nearly universal palaver. Jaded John Q. can't get enough of that Elvis-era grille, skimmed roof, and wide-set wheels. Sure, it's a new shape, but a half-dozen other cars unwrapped this year won't draw half this much attention. The 300C has got the look. It's got the brawn, too. A growling Hemi and a Mercedes-designed, Kokomo-built five-speed automatic are a dream team. The V-8 delivers a devastating punch, and the automatic makes sure it's delivered through the appropriate ratio. Feeling playful? Your mood is read fast by the computer, which starts holding gears. If you want something different, just slap the shifter sideways from the "D" position. Nothing is simpler or more transparent. Our 300C sucked up fuel at the rate of a gallon every 15 miles over 400 miles, even with the Hemi's seamless cylinder-deactivation system at work. Ditto the Crown Vic, and the Pontiac slurped its way to just 14 mpg. Obviously, the Hemi's cylinders weren't deactivated very much, especially during the track testing. We were unable to duplicate our initial 300C test numbers mentioned at the top. This car ran to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and turned the quarter in 14.4 at 99 mph, significantly slower for no readily apparent reason (same test site, similar test weight). Both were preproduction cars, perhaps with slightly different computer calibrations. The braking distance from 70 mph was an undistinguished 189 feet—all three cars here stopped within seven feet of that. The electronic stability button doesn't turn the system off, it just cuts it to a reduced-intervention mode. On the skidpad, lateral g and high slip angles are an aphrodisiac to the yaw sensors, so the Chrysler herked and jerked its way to a 0.76-g performance, the lowest of the group. But in the emergency lane change, where a good stability-control system helps rather than hurts, it was fastest by a wide margin: 62.2 mph. In the real world, the 300C instills cornering confidence with negligible body lean and steering that scribes precise arcs. The ride can get a little crusty over bumps, but the chipped-from-granite structure prevents sympathetic rattles and shivers. Grunt, grip, attitude, and comfort. Until there's a serious contender, Chrysler owns the Detroit franchise on all of it. Highs: One mother of a motor, refined ride and handling, baby-Bentley looks, plenty of space. Lows: Small patches of cheapness, may be too stiff-legged for some, unproven quality and reliability. The Verdict: The winner by default also has darn few faults.