DETROIT - Three years ago, Chrysler gussied up the antiquated Sebring midsize car, gave it a new name and prayed that it would make enough money to help the company survive.
It worked. Prodded by a Super Bowl ad
featuring rapper Eminem, Americans noticed the restyled 200, even though it
leaned through turns and cruised noisily down the highway. Buyers mostly liked
one thing: It was cheap. Huge discounts shrank its price to among the lowest in
Still, the car wasn't a top seller and
captured just 3 percent of the market last year. But now, a resurgent Chrysler
is rolling out a revamped 200, this time with hopes of competing against the
Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion - not just on price, but on style,
gas mileage, refinement and beauty.
Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne
said the company invested a lot of its know-how in the new 200 to make it
competitive. "This car is shoulders above anybody else. Let the car fight.
It's pretty good at it," he said.
"It's brutal," Al Gardner,
CEO of the Chrysler Brand, says of the fight for midsize-car buyers.
"You've got to be as competitive as you can."
Last year, Chrysler sold just over
122,000 of the 200s, less than a third of the Camrys sold by Toyota.
Executives hope the new 200 gets a
bigger slice of the pie, especially since it's widely believed Chrysler will
cancel the 200's sister car, the Dodge Avenger, to focus marketing dollars on
the 200. Executives won't comment on the Avenger's future.
The timing for the new 200 isn't
ideal. Buyers are starting to shift away from midsize cars in favor of small
and midsize crossover SUVs. Some analysts expect the midsize car market to
shrink slightly this year.
Stephanie Brinley, an auto analyst
with the consulting company IHS, says the 200's styling will help it pick up
sales if it drives and rides well. "Visually it's where it needs to be,
and I think the interior is where it needs to be. It looked great," says
Brinley, who previewed the car in December.
Gardner says the 200 will deliver on
ride, handling and performance with two engine choices: a new 184-horsepower
2.4-liter four-cylinder, and a 295-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. It also has a
nine-speed automatic transmission that will take the four-cylinder engine to 35
mpg or more on the highway, he says. The car also features an electronic shift
system with a knob instead of a bulky lever, saving space for storage of large
objects such as purses.
Despite all the improvements, Chrysler plans to cut the base sticker price of a 200 by $95, to $22,695 including shipping, when the car hits showrooms in the spring.