Review: 2002 Chrysler 300M Special

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SEE ALSO: Chrysler Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

The ``300'' nameplate first appeared on a Chrysler back in 1955. That car combined distinctive styling with a namesake 331 cubic inch, 300-horsepower version of the race-proven ``Hemi'' V8 and a heavy-duty suspension developed for La Carrera Panamerica, the famed Mexican Road Race. It was notable for its speed and handling, and dominated stock car racing when stock cars were, indeed, modified street cars. It set the tone for the legendary ``Letter Car'' dynasty, being followed by the 300B through L in the next decade. Over the years, the 300s morphed from thinly- disguised race cars to, alas, typical 1960s American luxury cars, but all are highly sought after by collectors today. Nostalgia is in name only. When Chrysler reintroduced the name in 1998 as an early-release 1999 model, it was for a car that embodied the gestalt of the 300 ``Letter Series'' in a very contemporary vehicle. The 300M combines style, luxury, and performance in the best manner of its predecessors, in a front-wheel drive, V6-powered chassis. If the engine is smaller and the horsepower less, the car itself is smaller, and much more nimble in handling. There is no shortage of luxury in appointment, and plenty of eye-catching style. The 300M Special makes its debut this year. It ups the sport level with a firmer suspension tuning, lower ride height, and high- performance brakes, and adds horsepower to the 3.5-liter V6 engine. A subdued ``ground effects''-look package distinguishes it from other 300Ms, without giving an excessive ``boy racer'' look. I've been driving a 300M Special for the past week, and it has been very enjoyable. Many American sedans have attempted to re-create the ambiance of European sports sedans and have fallen short of the mark. Not the 300M Special. It delivers on the promise.

APPEARANCE: The 300M's shape is wearing well. It's less ``cab- forward'' than ``cab-centric,'' with a relatively short hood and rear deck, and large passenger cabin. The front of the front doors is nearly at the trailing edge of the front wheel well, while the rear door extends almost to the front of the rear wheel arch. The Special shares the regular 300M's rounded shape, with definition provided by sharp creases at the tops of the fenders and a brow line at the front edge of the hood, which creates the top of the trademark Chrysler egg-crate grille and owl-eyed headlights. Besides its distinctive, discreet badging, the Special may be told from the normal 300M by its lower ride height and dark gray lower ``aero kit'' front and rear bumper cladding and side sills, which lower the visual center of gravity even more. The 300M Special has a European-tinged performance look, and looks right.

COMFORT: Those wide doors make access easy, and the passenger cabin is as large as it looks from the outside. Note the ``300M Special'' lettering on the scuff plate. Good use of materials and textures makes the 300M seem even larger than it is, and it has more interior space in all dimensions than any of the mid-sized European or Japanese sports sedans, and a contemporary international design. The seats are faced with soft leather, and both comfortable, supportive front buckets are power-adjustable. Chrome-bezeled black-on-white instruments, including an analog clock, give a traditional European look, balanced by contemporary faux carbon fiber trim. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is tilt- adjustable and has controls for cruise control and audio systems. The switchgear is well-marked and easy to use. Rear seat passengers have plenty of room. Although it is contoured for two, the width and a relatively low central tunnel allow decent comfort for a middle occupant. The trunk is quite large, with external struts that prevent crushed luggage.

SAFETY: The 2002 Chrysler 300M has next-generation front air bags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and a theft-deterrent system. Side air bags are available.

ROADABILITY: Suspension modifications to the 300M Special are the basics for improved handling. Firmer springs and shocks and a half-inch lower ride height increase cornering performance with no loss of comfort. A quicker steering ratio improves both steering feel and response. It's not a hardcore sports sedan, but a sports- luxury tourer, and it compares well with any such car from any part of the world.

PERFORMANCE: The 300M's 3.5-liter single overhead cam V6 would have been an exotic racing engine back in 1955. The Special's version has 255 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at 3950 rpm, up a bit from the standard 250 hp and 255 lb- ft. If that's not the 300-plus horsepower of some of the ``Letter Cars,'' the M is considerably smaller and lighter, and horsepower ratings could be optimistic in the old days. The M is plenty quick, and the engine's torque spread is wide enough that manually shifting the four-speed automatic is never really necessary. But using the ``Auto Stick'' mode does add to driving pleasure, especially on the scenic route, and increases acceleration.

CONCLUSIONS: The Chrysler 300M Special has substance to go with its style.

SPECIFICATIONS 2002 Chrysler 300M Special

Base Price $ 31,940 Price As Tested $ 32,595 Engine Type single overhead cam V6 Engine Size 3.5 liters / 215 cu. in. Horsepower 255 @ 6500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 258 @ 3950 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic with ``Auto Stick'' manual mode Wheelbase / Length 113.0 in. / 197.8 in. Curb Weight 3650 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 14.3 Fuel Capacity 17 gal. Fuel Requirement 92 octane unleaded premium gasoline recommended Tires 245/45 ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent Chapman strut Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 26 / 21 0 to 60 mph 8.0 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.313

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination Charge $ 655

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