Chrysler’s New 300C

By Tom Inglesby

In 2002, Ford joined the “retro-car” fray with its contemporary adaptation of the styling cues from the original two-seat Thunderbird. But the T-Bird wasn’t so much “retro’ as it was an update—what the ‘Bird would look like today if it had continued as a two-place “personal automobile” instead of wandering all over the place with various attempts at market adaptation—remember the four-door T-Bird?
    Chrysler has also gone that route, producing a modern edition of a car that was, in its time, one of the most awesome performance marques anywhere. The new Chrysler 300C, like the 1957 300C, goes a step and more beyond being a variant of the family sedan with a big engine. To many drivers, the new 300C is the car for the 21st Century—at least until the next round of performance vehicles comes out.
    When Virgil Exner, chief designer at Chrysler in the 1950’s, dropped the “tail fin bomb” in 1957, the cars from Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and Imperial became instant “love ‘em or hate ’em” fodder for the car buying public. And on top of the heap was the 300C. It was the direct performance descendent of the 1955 300, the first domestic car to offer a 300 hp rated engine to the general public.
    Like many city kids, with the ink barely dry on my first driver’s license, I saw the original 300C as the rich man’s race car. It was huge, brutal—but beautiful in its own way—and so powerful they should have been confined to the racetrack. And of course, I wanted one.
    With a production run between 2251 and 2402 (figures vary depending on the source), we were more likely to “see” a 300C in a magazine than on the street. So we comforted ourselves by lusting after the plentiful ’57 Chevy Bel Air, Ford Fairlane 500, the rare Plymouth Fury or Pontiac Bonneville that might wander through our neighborhood, and left the rest of the performance cars for the newsstand.
    It took 47 years but I finally got to drive a 300C. Not the sky-high tail finned 1957 but the 2005, arguably a much better car, just not quite the same image. In fact, the two are so totally different in image—exterior style, at least—that it loses the “evolution of the vehicle” feeling retro cars are supposed to have. There are some styling cues carried over from the original 1957 version—the large grill opening, the aggressive stance, the lower than its stable mates look—but without the 300C badge, few would see any heritage.
    What made the 1957 300C special was not just its Virgil Exner styling, but also its performance enhancements, making it the fastest and most powerful production car in America—and one of the best-handling. The 300C won the Flying Mile at Daytona with a top speed of 134 mph; at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, it recorded 145.7 mph with aerodynamic shields over the headlights and upper windshield lip, and air cleaner and muffler removed.
    The 392 cid Hemi V-8 (6.4L) produced 375 hp with an optional high-performance version at 390 hp (available only with a manual four-speed transmission). Even the standard engine had twin Carter four-barrel carburetors. By today’s standards, it was a brutally primitive power plant that had a reputation for its hemispherical combustion chamber design that gave it more efficiency, power and, surprisingly, mileage than many of its smaller displacement high-performance contemporaries. But we’re talking about 10-12 miles per gallon—per gallon of $0.35 premium.     
    It’s in the performance that the 1957 and 2004 models start to meld. More importantly, below the surface lies new technology that shows just how far automotive research has carried the concept of performance. The 2005 5.7L (348 cid) Hemi engine sports Chrysler’s Multi-Displacement System (MDS). The MDS system allows the engine to operate on four cylinders when power demands are minimal for an up to 20-percent increase in fuel efficiency.
    At $33,835 sticker price, our test car featured the 340 horsepower Hemi V-8 engine, mated to an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick—an automatic with manual gear change option. The mileage you can expect with this version, according to the government rating method, is between 17 and 25 mpg; our economy check showed a slightly better highway mileage of 27 on a “brisk” trip between San Diego and Las Vegas. However, the city rating was somewhat more optimistic than our 15 mpg. That might have something to do with the “aggressive” starts from stoplights around town—no use having that image without displaying it occasionally.
    All Chrysler 300C models feature dual exhaust tips, large performance disc brakes, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain sensing wipers and Boston Acoustics six-speaker 288-watt digital sound system. Seven-speaker 380 watt digital amplifier, GPS navigation radio and high-intensity headlamps with washers are also available.
    All Chrysler 300 models—the “C” is only one of the options under this model designation—include 17-inch wheels and eight-way power driver's seat. Our 300C upgraded the wheels to 18-inch with self-sealing tires.
    Driving the 300C is a blast—blasting off stoplights, blasting around town with the stereo blasting, blasting along the Interstate at cruising speeds that seem to creep up on triple digits very easily. The interior is top grade and so comfortable that you feel like you’re at home on the sofa. Until you take a turn and the bolster keeps your body from moving around. It has all the safe feeling you could want in a car today.
    In keeping with the global nature of the industry, the 300C is built in Canada with its Hemi engine coming from Mexico. But the overall feeling is still “All American Hot Rod.” Is it the best “letter series” 300 ever? That depends on your criteria, of course, but judged solely on contemporary competition, the 2005 300C is going to make its mark as the benchmark performance sedan. Others are already chasing its taillights—Cadillac, for one, in a similar price class. It’s going to be an interesting decade.