Future Curbside Classic: 2015-17 Chrysler 200 – Goodbye To The Old Normal

Many of us were shocked when former Sergio Marchionne announced in 2016 that FCA was ending production of the second-generation Chrysler 200 after just three model years. The shock was two-fold. Firstly, it was virtually unheard of for a mainstream automaker to exit the mid-size market, especially considering the best-selling passenger car in the US market at the time was a mid-size sedan. Secondly, to abort a car so soon into its production run seemed so rash. Looking back, however, FCA’s decision seems remarkably prescient.

The introduction of the second-generation 200 was FCA’s last attempt at following the old way of working for domestic automakers: continue to invest in passenger car segments even as the Japanese and Koreans had almost taken over. With the second and final generation of Chrysler 200, FCA finally decided a new way of thinking was needed. Why bother investing millions in a segment if you were never going to topple mighty Toyota? Why not focus one’s energies in segments where you have more profitable products with greater market share?

Since the 200’s axing, Ford famously announced they were discontinuing all of their sedans from the North American market and potentially transitioning the Fusion name to a new, high-riding station wagon. Shortly thereafter, GM largely followed suit with a planned cull of almost all their passenger cars from the market. At present, that excludes the mid-size Buick Regal and Chevrolet Malibu but GM’s decisions of late don’t inspire much confidence in their future.

It’s simultaneously a new and old way of thinking. On one hand, it’s radical to completely eliminate nameplates that have existed for years and sometimes decades and abandon segments you once dominated. On the other hand, it’s not the first time a domestic automaker (especially GM) has finally developed one of the best products they’ve ever offered in a particular segment only to drop it.

What seemed like a waste of money – axing an all-new car so soon into its production run before its development costs could be amortized – now seems like another shrewd move by the late Sergio Marchionne. FCA’s profit margins and share prices have risen since the axing of the Chrysler 200 and related Dodge Dart and the future product plan has been thinned of vehicles that wouldn’t have been any more successful, like the Chrysler 100. The company is wisely focussing on the markets its experienced great success and profits in: full-size trucks and Jeep-branded crossovers and SUVs. After the 200’s axing, Marchionne had this to say:

“I can tell you right now that both the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart, as great products as they were, were the least financially rewarding enterprises that we’ve carried out inside FCA in the last eight years. I don’t know one investment that was as bad as these two were.”

He was right. Chrysler had spent around $1 billion developing the 200 and re-tooling the Sterling Heights assembly plant. That was in addition to $600 million spent developing the Dart. And how did the 200 fare? After an initially strong start, the 200 flamed out – comparing 2016’s sales numbers to 2015, the 200’s sales were down by two-thirds and Chrysler even had to pause production in January 2016 due to excess inventory, as well as layoff 1500 workers at the plant. That the 200 didn’t sell much better than its predecessor was especially disappointing as, by being FCA’s only mid-size sedan, it was actually supposed to be a replacement for both the 200 and the defunct Dodge Avenger.

The 200 wasn’t a bad car but “not bad” wasn’t good enough. There was no must-have feature like truly successful FCA passenger cars in recent years have had. Where the Chrysler PT Cruiser and 300 had thrived on the back of their brash styling, the 200 was attractive, neatly-proportioned but relatively nondescript. The optional V6 had a class-leading 295 hp and 262 ft-lbs but there was no shortage of powerful V6s (and turbocharged fours) in this class. The option of all-wheel-drive was a little less common but the 200 still had to contend with the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion, both of which featured all-wheel-drive. FCA’s uConnect infotainment was one of the best systems in the class but mediocre infotainment hasn’t been an impediment to many commercially-successful cars.

Then there was the size. Quite simply, the 200 was too small. Conversely, the related Dart was rather large and heavy for its segment. Like the 2015 Chevrolet Malibu and the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, the 200 received a great deal of scorn from critics for its snug backseat. While none of those cars were complete torture chambers back there, it certainly didn’t endear them to buyers for whom the spacious Toyota Camry was the norm. Marchionne even criticized his own designers, saying:

“The [2010 Hyundai Sonata] which we copied has the same problem. We didn’t copy the car, we copied the entry point to the rear seat. Dummies. I acknowledge it. Some people from design left some of their private parts on the table after we came up with that determination. But I think we’re learning from this process.”

Unfortunately for FCA, the Sonata also had a much more spacious back seat. The 200’s CUSW platform had been derived from the compact Alfa Romeo Giulietta but, while being longer and fractionally wider than rivals like the Camry, it had a wheelbase three inches shorter than the Sonata and Fusion. At least the trunk was big, boasting greater cargo volume than rivals like the Nissan Altima.

The satisfying Pentastar V6 was carried over for the second 200 but the coarse 2.4 four of the first 200 was replaced with a new 2.4 four, the Tigershark, which endured similar criticisms of its refinement. Though its power and torque figures (184 hp, 173 ft-lbs) were competitive with the class, its refinement was lacking. The new ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic transmission was also dinged by critics, particularly in the four-cylinder models, and had to be reprogrammed.

Moving up the range, beyond the four-cylinder LX and Limited, yielded more satisfying 200s. The range was topped with the sporty S and posh C, both of which were available with the V6 which was in turn available with all-wheel-drive. The S had its own unique suspension tune, sports seats, and fetching 19-inch wheels, while the C had 17 or 18-inch wheels, leather seats and available real wood trim.

The 200 kept up with the segment leaders in most respects but rarely surpassed them. It was well and truly competitive with rivals in terms of feature content, offering options like an automated parking system, panoramic sunroof, an 8.4-inch infotainment screen (the standard unit was 5 inches), ventilated front seats and adaptive cruise control.

After suspending production of the 200 in January 2016, FCA announced in July that it would stop production by year’s end. Marchionne expressed some interest in replacing it and the Dart with “outsourced” models. But while the FCA stable had a potential Dart replacement in the Fiat Viaggio and Dodge Neon sold in markets like Mexico and China, there was no other mid-sizer in their global line-up and evidently no other automakers that would provide them with one. Both cars, therefore, went without replacement. And as further proof of Marchionne’s rationalization of the FCA line-up, the Sterling Heights plant was re-tooled for Ram 1500 production. The money spent on developing the CUSW platform wasn’t a total waste though as it was used for the Jeep Cherokee.

The 200 may have been hamstrung by memories of its predecessor, a merely adequate base engine, and a rather tight cabin but it made up for it with an attractive interior, class-competitive ride and handling, excellent infotainment and keen pricing. In a segment brimming with talented rivals, however, that wasn’t enough to make the 200 stand out. Though it didn’t deserve to be executed so soon, FCA probably made the right call. Now, Chrysler doesn’t offer a conventional sedan in a huge albeit shrinking segment and Ford and Chevrolet may soon join them. The domestic automakers know perfectly well how to make a good, competitive passenger car but it’s no longer considered viable to do so. Welcome to the new normal.

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