Story and photos by Grant Yoxon
Carlsbad, California – The residents of San Diego County drive nice cars. Yes, I’m generalizing. But to an outsider and a car nut, I’ve never seen so many high-end German cars idling along in one place. After a while, you hardly notice the 911s, M5s and SLKs.
In this part of the world there is also traffic, lots of traffic. It takes time, too much sitting in traffic time, to drive from Carlsbad to open road. It gives one time to view the boulder-strewn landscape and gauge the reaction of other stuck in traffic travellers to this new face on the automotive landscape – the 2004 Chrysler Crossfire.
In a place where look-at-me cars don’t even raise an eyebrow, this first progeny of the Mercedes-Benz/Chrysler marriage, born of surrogate mother Karmann, attracts a whole lot of attention. We hadn’t driven five minutes down El Camino Real in Carlsbad before we were engaged in conversation – open window to open window – with a local resident who had three questions –
What is it? When can I buy it? And how much will it cost?
If you want to get noticed in San Diego County, you need far more than just run of the mill German precision. While it’s lineage is German, being based on a highly modified Mercedes-Benz SLK platform with precisely 39% of its components coming out of the Mercedes-Benz parts bin, what you see, inside and out, is 100% American eclectic with a few parts from strategic partners Hyundai and Mitsubishi thrown in.
Of course, you won’t see the Japanese or Korean influence and any resemblance to the SLK is strictly proportional. The Crossfire, with its long hood, centre ‘spine’ and slightly ‘boat-tailed’ back, may have drawn inspiration from the boat-tailed speedsters of the thirties. And there is an element of Art Deco in its design. But it is a thoroughly modern rendition and one that is distinctly Chrysler.
The Crossfire looks great from any angle, but the best view is from behind where its broad fenders envelope huge 19-inch rear wheels and P255/35ZR19 tires. The fronts are smaller, P225/40ZR18s. The larger real wheels give the Crossfire a classic muscle car stance.
If the looks make your heart flutter, driving it will certainly raise your pulse. Beneath the scintillating sheet metal is a proven Mercedes-Benz drive train – the 215 horsepower 3.2 litre single overhead cam V6 engine – standard on the CLK, optional on the SLK – combined with a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with manual shifting capability.
Chrysler reps at our press preview in California didn’t brag about the Crossfire’s performance potential, but Mercedes-Benz claims the same engine will propel the CLK to 100 km/h in 7.6 seconds – and the CLK is 206 kilograms (454 pounds) heavier than the Crossfire. You can do the math, but yes, it is quick.
A brief drive through the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego gave us the opportunity to experience the car’s broad power band. Maximum torque of 229 foot-pounds is available from 3,000 to 4,600 r.p.m. The car will pull strongly in any gear except sixth, but responds to a downshift with a smooth rush of acceleration. Cornering is flat thanks to a low centre of gravity, a rigid unibody and fully independent suspension (double wishbone up front,
five link in the rear).
The big wheels and tires not only accent the Crossfire’s curvaceous body but provide ample room for equally huge 300 millimetre (11.8 inch) front and 278 mm (10.9 in.) rear disc brakes. Push the Crossfire too far and there is plenty of braking power ready to set things right. And if that isn’t enough, Mercedes’ all-speed traction control and electronic stability program – their first application in a Chrysler product – will help keep the Crossfire on the road.
Despite its sporting nature, the optional 5-speed automatic is not at all out of place in the Crossfire. Equipped with a manual shifting feature that allows the transmission to select the best gear for the engine’s r.p.m. and torque by simply holding the lever for a moment, the automatic can give you the best of both worlds.
It is also better suited to the stop and go of North American freeways. Equipped with such standard creature comforts as dual zone air conditioning, powered and heated, leather covered driver and passenger seats and 240-watt digital sound system, an automatic-equipped Crossfire will certainly ease the pain of the daily commuter crawl.
The Crossfire’s cabin is a tight, but comfortable place to be. Those long of body will wish for an inch more seat travel and a steering column that not only telescopes, but tilts as well. The Crossfire’s windshield and side glass provide narrow views of the world around, and the taller you are, the more confining it feels, although headroom is okay.
Interior pieces are a combination of Mercedes switches and controls and Chrysler aesthetics, and include the best and worst of both. The bright aluminium-like plastic material that covers the centre stack and console looks like a peel and stick appliqué, while the close proximity of the turn signal and cruise control stalks is a recipe for disaster.
One could describe the Crossfire as a niche vehicle – only about 700 of the planned first year production of 20,000 will make it to Canada – but it will have served its purpose if people walk into Chrysler showrooms to look at the two-seater Crossfire and drive out in Chrysler’s other radical departure, the six-passenger Pacifica.
But don’t think that the Crossfire is mere fish bait. With prices ranging from $47,745 for the six-speed manual to $49,245 for the automatic with AutoStick, DaimlerChrysler should have no trouble selling every Crossfire they can make.