Thursday, November 25, 2004

Never in the history of automobiles has there been such an array of enticements to persuade buyers to embrace a particular car. There are hybrid power trains, seven-speed automatic transmissions, navigation systems, communications options, DVD entertainment, automatic clutches, paddle shifters, air-cooled seats, side-curtain air bags, active steering, pavement-sensing suspension systems, automatic cruise control and night-vision cameras, as well as hundreds of other refinements to enhance performance and enjoyment.

But in the end, the biggest factor in a buyer’s decision comes down to one thing: Styling.

If a car doesn’t look good, it has no chance. Witness fiascoes such as the Pontiac Aztek and, in an earlier era, the Ford Motor Co.’s Edsel.

Both had acceptable underpinnings, and drove as well as their competitors, but suffered from public derision over their looks.

Of course, you don’t have to please all of the people all of the time.

Yet there seems to be common agreement on some cars, at least anecdotally.

Such an automobile is the 2005 Chrysler Crossfire Roadster, a new convertible version of the two-seater that represents the first true melding of the technology of the components of DaimlerChrysler, the German company that owns both the Chrysler Group and Mercedes-Benz.

The Crossfire Roadster, which is built at the famed Karmann coach works in Osnabruek, Germany, evokes compliments and long looks almost everywhere it goes.

Passersby in shopping-center parking lots are likely to pause, give it the once-over and, if the driver is nearby, remark on how nice it looks.

Comments flow regardless of whether the top is up or down.

There is nothing generic-looking about this sports car, from its fluted hood to its bustle.

Inside, it’s not unique, but it has a quality look and feel, with aluminum accents for the black and gray vinyl coverings on the instrument panel, console and doors.

The Crossfire uses the chassis and drivetrain of the Mercedes-Benz SLK320.

There are three versions: The base Roadster, priced at $34,960, the tested Limited, at $38,920, and the high-performance supercharged model, at $49,995.

Power on the base and Limited models comes from the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benz 3.2-liter V-6, which delivers 215 horsepower.

On the Roadster, it drives the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

The test car had the six-speed.

If the bucks matter more than the nameplate, the Crossfire Roadster is the vehicle of choice.

The test car’s $38,920 price tag is $8,450 less than the SLK Mercedes-Benz.

The Mercedes-Benz does have one advantage: A folding steel top, where the Crossfire Roadster uses a padded fabric top with a glass rear window that automatically folds itself under a steel tonneau cover.

The mechanism is slightly goofy. To lower the top, you must first release and twist a handle, then push the top up about eight inches. That causes the side windows to run down.

Then you touch the console-mounted button and there’s a loud, gunshotlike crack as the tonneau cover releases.

Then the top disengages and drops into the tonneau.

To put the top back up, you press the button. But it only goes up as far as eight inches above the windshield header.

You have to pull it down, twist the handle to lock it in place, then return to the console button to raise the windows.

If you do any of this out of sequence, the mechanism gets confused and may or may not raise or lower the windows part-way or all of the way.

Still, either raising or lowering the top, once you get used to it, takes only about 23 seconds — an advantage when a thunderstorm approaches.

The tested Crossfire Roadster is a modest performer — more of a sports touring car than an outright sports car.

It is at its best cruising around town or sedately motoring at legal speeds on twisting roads in the countryside — top down, of course.

It has some performance parts, including fat tires on big wheels — 18-inch in the front and 19 in back — as well as the six-speed manual gearbox.

There’s no spare tire — a good thing because there’s only a little over 6 cubic feet of luggage space, or about enough for a couple of small duffel bags or cases of wine.

A tire pump and sealer are included for emergencies.

Acceleration feels strong through the gears.

Chrysler says the zero-to-60 time is under seven seconds, so the Roadster is not likely to be embarrassed entering or passing on the freeway.

The shift linkage is a trifle clunky, but not annoyingly so.

There’s a high-performance look, however, when a rear spoiler deploys at about 60 mph, then drops back down at urban speeds.

Though the Crossfire Roadster has such amenities as heated seats, there are no rear speakers for the audio system.

And the climate control is not automatic, though there are separate controls for the left and right seats.

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