- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2004

Big. Rear-wheel drive. V-8 power. Sound familiar?

It should. It’s the formula that American car builders know best. Over the years, it has given them some of their finest hours.

But in the efficiency and resource-preservation years of the 1980s and 1990s, the manufacturers set the old formula aside. Front-wheel drive, for better packaging, and smaller four- and six-cylinder engines, for fuel economy, became the norm.

At one point, the world’s biggest automaker, General Motors, decreed that henceforth all of its cars would have front drive. It never quite achieved that goal, but it came close.

Now the pendulum is swinging back, and nowhere is the old formula embodied more starkly than in a brace of 2005 models from DaimlerChrysler: the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum.

By any definition, both cars qualify as big — well over 16 feet long and weighing more than 2 tons. They have rear-wheel drive, although in a nod to the times, all-wheel drive becomes available soon after their introduction.

And they have more than V-8 power. They have Hemi engines. Hemi is one of those American icons, like Harley-Davidson and Mustang, that seems to have nearly universal recognition, despite the fact that no Chrysler has had a Hemi since 1958 and none has powered a Dodge car since the early 1970s.

Hemi is a nickname for a pushrod engine with hemispherical combustion chambers and two valves per cylinder. Because of developments that enhance fuel economy, low emissions and power, the new version obviously is far different from the old snorters that powered muscle cars decades ago, but it still qualifies as a Hemi.

The biggest difference is that the new 5.7-liter engine, which delivers a whopping 340 horsepower, is a so-called multidisplacement design. It is set up to run on four cylinders at cruising speeds to enhance fuel economy, which is a respectable 17/25 miles to the gallon on the EPA city/highway cycle. The other four cylinders light up instantly if you punch the gas pedal.

In practice, it’s seamless. Even if you’re focused on it, trying to detect when the transition occurs, you can’t tell. Step on the gas, and there’s a surge of power.

The Dodge Magnum is basically a station-wagon version of the Chrysler 300 four-door sedan, though the Dodge folks prefer to refer to it as a “sport tourer.”

Both cars offer the same lineup of engines, with the Hemi at the top, followed by a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine and a 190-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6.

With the takeover of Chrysler by Germany’s Daimler, both cars also incorporate technology from Mercedes-Benz, which had some dealers salivating at what they see as a sales tool. (“Look, this here Dodge has got some Mercedes stuff in it.”)

In truth, it’s not a lot. The five-speed automatic transmission mated to the Hemi engine is a Mercedes design, as is most of the front suspension system. That’s about it.

With the Hemi, the Chrysler is called the 300C. With the 2.7-liter six, it’s the 300, and with the 3.5-liter six, it’s the 300 Touring or the 300 Limited.

The 300 series cars replace the Chrysler Concorde and 300M, and it’s a clean break. The existing cars have front-wheel drive, V-6 power and Chrysler’s swoopy cab-forward styling. In contrast, the new 300 has boxy styling.

Regardless of one’s styling preference, it is safe to say that the new 300 looks better in reality than it does in photographs. There’s a high belt line, with vertically challenged windows all around, that gives the car a formidable, muscular look.

The only drawback is the restricted vision, especially out back, where wide pillars flank the squeezed-down rear window.

From the driver’s seat, the tested 300C had a big-car feel, with the hood visible out front. It also drives like a big car, although its moves on twisting roadways mimic those of a sports sedan. It hunkers down through the curves and has the balanced feel that comes from a rear-drive car with big power up front.

On the highway, the 300C has a tendency to wander slightly, especially in crosswinds. But the interior is library quiet, with little road or engine noise, and only slight amounts of wind noise.

There’s plenty of comfort for two up front. In back, it’s the same for the outboard passengers. But the old bugaboo of a rear-drive car — the driveshaft tunnel — intrudes severely into the floor, which means there’s no space for the center passenger’s feet. But that’s a common problem in almost all cars these days — even some with front drive.

The Chrysler 300 has a base sticker price of $23,595, with the 300 Touring at $27,395 and the 300 Limited at $29,890. The tested 300C starts at $32,995. With a couple of options, including a motorized sunroof and an upgraded stereo system, the suggested delivered price of the test car was $35,455.

The Chrysler folks would love to have you compare that with the BMW 745i and 545i, Infiniti Q45 Luxury Edition and the Jaguar XJ8. That’s because all of them have V-8 engines with less horsepower and price tags well north of $50,000. It’s your call whether you think the 300C belongs in that company.

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