Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Big front-driver tweaked for better handling


The largest front-wheel-drive, V6-powered performance sedan on the market right now, the Chrysler 300M is kind of in a class by itself now that the full-size Pontiac Bonneville SSEi is switching to a V8 in the new GXP model.

Introduced in 1998 as a tribute to Chrysler’s “letter series” models, the 300M has little in common with those early V8-engined, rear-drive muscle cars produced between 1955 and 1965. The 300M is based on the front-wheel-drive Intrepid platform and is powered by a 3.5 litre V6 engine. The 300M has a fully independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, and a four speed automatic transmission with AutoStick, but a traditional manual transmission is not offered.

In mid-2002, Chrysler upped the performance ante slightly with the 300M “Special”. Horsepower was bumped from 250 to 255 and torque from 250 lb-ft to 258 lb-ft, and the standard 4-speed automatic transmission featured “AutoStick” manual shifting capability.

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler
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Perhaps more important were the changes to the suspension and tires: stiffer performance struts, a half-inch lower ride height and standard P225/55R 17-inch Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season performance tires offered improved handling, while firmer rack and pinion steering made it feel sportier. Optional on the 300M Special are 45-series 18 inch Michelin Pilot unidirectional ultra high-performance summer tires and 18 inch alloy wheels – my test car was equipped with these.

The 300M Special features stylish “ground effects” body cladding, dual exhaust pipes, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and high intensity discharge headlamps. Inside, an Infinity II nine-speaker sound system with 360-watt amplifier and six-disc in-dash CD changer is standard.

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler
Click image to enlarge

The 2004 Chrysler 300M Special is listed at $44,385 equipped with all the features I’ve mentioned above – that’s about $3,500 more than the standard 300M.


Wide interior

Perhaps the biggest difference between the 300M and its competitors – certainly its import competitors – is that the 300M is a large car with generous interior room. Headroom and legroom are ample for front and rear passengers, but most noticeable is the wide cabin which provides plenty of elbow room.

The quality of the interior materials and the look and feel of the controls is generally very good, as it is in most other Chrysler vehicles nowadays. 300M Specials have a carbon-fiber-like trim on the dash and the door. The centrally-mounted analogue clock and classy chrome-ringed, white faced gauges add elegance to an otherwise practical, easy-to-use instrument panel. I particularly liked the design of the buttons on the radio and CD player – they’re indented to allow the forefinger to fit easily. I also liked the swivelling heater buttons – easy to read and simple to operate – and the tactile feel of the rotary dials for the headlamps and fan control.

The premium stereo delivers a rich, surrounding sound which I enjoyed, but I found the bass and treble adjustments didn’t make a significant difference to the sound quality. The dash-mounted 6 disc CD changer is easy to access.

The standard leather “waterfall” front seats are wide and offer good side support. The front seats have power height and backrest rake adjustments but do not have a power lumbar feature. The front seats also offer three memory settings, and high/low temperature seat heaters with the buttons on the side of the seats.

Between the front seats is a useful, padded armrest which flips up away from the driver. Inside is a 12 volt powerpoint which has a flip-up cover to prevent dirt getting in to it when not in use. Two cupholders pop out of the front of the centre armrest when needed and hide away when not needed – much more attractive than open cupholders.

300M Specials also include a leather wrapped steering wheel with cruise control buttons, a leather-wrapped shift knob, and a compass and outside temperature gauge in the overhead console.

Rear passengers have a fold-down centre armrest with two built-in cupholders, and map pockets on the back of the front seats for magazines, and so on.

The 300M’s roomy trunk (476 litres/16.8 cu. ft.) is another benefit of a large car. 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks fold down for more versatility – something you don’t see in a lot of luxury cars – but I didn’t like the fact that they weren’t lockable.


Driving impressions

When it comes to handling dynamics, large, front-wheel-drive sedans have a disadvantage: they have more weight over the front wheels than comparable rear-wheel-drive sedans. Still, the 300M’s longitudinally-mounted front engine is placed further back in the chassis than many transverse units and the 300M offers an independent suspension (front McPherson struts/rear Chapman struts and lower links). I found the 300M Special’s handling to be quite stable with minimal lean when cornering – due in part to its fairly wide track and firmer struts. The ride is comfortable over smooth pavement while small bumps reveal its stiffer suspension.

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler

Test Drive: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special car test drives chrysler
Click image to enlarge

The standard 300M model comes with Michelin Pilot MXV4 Plus P225/55R17 all-season tires while the 300M Special is clad with Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 P225/55R-17 all-season performance tires. My test car had the optional Michelin Pilot Sport P245/45ZR-18 inch summer high-performance tires on multi-spoke 18 inch alloy wheels. These provide precise grip and steering control and are extremely sticky, but perhaps a little noisy.

The 300M is not as nimble as smaller, rear-drive cars, and therefore not as exciting to drive. But in the wet or the snow, the 300M has excellent traction. And if directional control is lost while cornering, the car invokes gentle understeer rather than sudden oversteer.

With 255 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at just under 4000 rpm, the 300M Special’s engine is powerful, responsive and surprisingly quiet. At 100 km/h on the freeway, it’s turning over just 2000 rpm at 100 km/h, and 2,400 rpm at 120 km/h. Fuel consumption is reasonable for a large car: 12.6 l/100 km (22 mpg) in the city and 8.0 l/100 km (35 mpg) on the highway, according to official government figures.

I found the 4-speed automatic “Autostick” transmission smooth but occasionally reluctant to change from 4th to 3rd under light acceleration. To engage the manual mode, the driver pulls the floor shifter from Drive into a gate behind it. To downshift, the driver taps the lever to the left – to upshift, tap to the right. The shift lengths are short, and shifts are quick and smooth. Chrysler says the transmission is “performance-tuned” and has a different front axle ratio for improved acceleration.

I found the 300M’s firmer steering too stiff at speeds under 30 km/h, but it felt firm and steady at freeway speeds. Its turning diameter of 11.5 metres (37.6 ft.) is reasonably tight for a large, front-wheel-drive sedan.

From the driver’s seat, visibility to the front and sides is unobstructed, but if you look over your right shoulder you’ll find a large C-pillar and a high rear deck which partly obstruct vision when lane-changing or backing up.


Competitors

The full-size 2003 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi ($44,145) is probably the 300M’s closest competitor but it will be replaced by the V8-powered Pontiac GXP for 2004. 2004 model year competitors include the mid-size, front-wheel-drive Pontiac Grand Prix GTP ($34,475), Buick Regal GS ($34,440), and Chevrolet Impala ($36,265); and the full-size, rear-wheel-drive V8-powered Mercury Marauder ($47,140). Import competitors are numerous, but include the Nissan Maxima, Acura TL, Infiniti G35, Lexus GS300, BMW 3-Series, and Mercedes-Benz C280.


Verdict

The Chrysler 300M Special is a roomy, comfortable performance sedan that performs better than you might expect for a large, front-wheel-drive car. And it’s a good value when compared with import performance sedans and full-size domestic sedans.

The 300M is made in Brampton, Ontario.


Technical Data: 2004 Chrysler 300M Special

Base price $44,385
Options $390 (side airbags)
Freight $1,050
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $45,925
Type 4-door, 5-passenger full-size sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, 24 valves, SOHC
Horsepower 255 @ 6500 rpm
Torque 254 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic “AutoStick”
Tires Michelin Pilot Sport P245/45ZR-18 inch summer high-performance tires
Curb weight 1656 kg (3650 lb.)
Wheelbase 2870 mm (113.0 in.)
Length 5023 mm (197.8 in.)
Width 1890 mm (74.4 in.)
Height 1410 mm (55.5 in.)
Cargo capacity 476 litres (16.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.6 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.0 l/100 km (35 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 7 yrs/115,000 km

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