- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

Although the marriage seems to have hit the rocks, the acquisition of Chrysler Corp. by Mercedes-Benz hasn’t been completely devoid of benefit — particularly to Chrysler. Some sharing of systems and engineering has provided Chrysler with certain products it otherwise never would have had.

The Crossfire is a prime example. Based on the first-generation Mercedes SLK, Crossfire is an engaging two-seater with better than average handling and a definite European attitude. It won’t come close to blowing a Chevrolet Corvette off the road, but snappy cornering and a stable over-the-road demeanor is all the sporty credentials most drivers require.

More than a year had passed since I last drove a Crossfire. I was reintroduced to it when Chrysler provided a $30,070 base version for a recent long weekend of touring southern Arizona. From Phoenix on Friday night, the 750-mile Arizona adventure included visits to Tucson, Tombstone and Nogales before returning to Phoenix. While there is no reasonable way to characterize its 7.6 cubic-foot trunk as large, it easily swallowed two carry-on bags.

Driving that number of miles in less than three days demands a lot of seat time. Because the door openings aren’t very tall, climbing in and out of the cabin requires folding oneself almost into a ball.

Once inside, however, the interior is surprisingly roomy. There is plenty of headroom and decent leg and hip room. The sculpted seats deliver loads of lower back support and the thick side bolsters keep occupants firmly in place. Instrumentation and controls were lifted nearly intact from the SLK. Some controls, such as the audio system, are more complicated than necessary; but overall the design is logical.

At touring speeds, the cabin is quiet. Some tire noise was always present, but the engine let itself be heard only under hard acceleration. Essential creature comforts included in the base price are dual-zone manual climate control with air conditioning, power accessories, cruise control and a four-speaker audio system with CD player.

The seats in this version are cloth, but that was a plus when returning to the car after being parked for an hour or two in the blazing Arizona sun. Perhaps the only real drawback to Crossfire’s sleek styling is the very limited visibility to the rear. Massive C-pillars and a smallish rear window transform seeing what’s behind you a chore when motoring along and a downright adventure when backing out of a parking space.

Most of Crossfire’s mechanics are also from the SLK. A 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 sends its output via a six-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels. The manual transmission is all that is available in the base Crossfire. Step up to the $35,120 Limited coupe and a five-speed automatic is offered as an option.

Acceleration isn’t blistering, but Crossfire more than holds its own when the light turns green. The manual transmission helps coax the most out of the V-6. It is peppy off the line and tours effortlessly at speed. Fuel economy is average for a V-6-powered car. The Environmental Protection Agency rates its fuel performance at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. The decent mileage stats, however, are somewhat negated by the need to use high-grade fuel.

Safety features run from four-wheel anti-lock brakes with brake assist to traction control and stability control. Seat-mounted side air bags are standard.

Crossfire’s suspension is tighter than most. This stiffer architecture translates into more road imperfections being transferred to the seat of the occupants’ pants. On good pavement, though, Crossfire tours along smoothly and quietly.

In addition to the coupe, a convertible version offers open-air driving. Roughly $4,000 separates the different hardtop trim levels from their convertible counterparts. The convertible top is power operated.

Much more comfortable and roomy than it looks at first blush, this two-seater is ideal for cruising around and seeing some sights. User friendly enough to employ as a daily driver, the only real caveat is its requirement for high-grade gasoline.

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