Two sedans, two sizes. Two four-doors with similar yet different audiences. Two cars with complementing features and content, yet not quite apples-to-apples in any comparison. One comes from Germany, the other comes from Detroit but is based on a German sedan from a decade ago. Yet, these two sedans are closer than you might imagine and both represent how much the industry has changed over the past few years.
Arriving at the time of year when it’s darn near impossible to keep your vehicle clean, at a time when the rural roads around the state are at their worst with potholes and frost heaves, these two cars stood out after a succession of trucks and crossovers for their handling composure and general comfort. With supple independent suspensions working overtime, along with seamless AWD systems, the Chrysler and the Audi proved to be undaunted by the elements.
And given how the industry is now agog over the autonomous car, it was refreshing to pilot sedans that retain the virtues of driving enthusiasm. While the “compact” Audi is most assuredly the better “sports sedan,” the full-size Chrysler need make no apologies for its performance. And the Audi also could demonstrate that it can, when properly equipped, come very close to the current autonomous capabilities introduced by other automakers. Would that have been possible, or practical, in a small sedan 10 years ago?
The Chrysler arrived first and drew admiring comments all week for its Redline Red Tri-coat paint and sporty stance. Wearing a larger front splitter/air dam, color-matched rear spoiler and more LED lights than the Audi — the brand that started the lighting trend years ago — the 300 S-series looked stylish and outgoing in a sea of bland black, gray and white vehicles. Perhaps a hot redhead for spring, the Chrysler was no shrinking violet.
Inside, the Chrysler’s cabin is a bit starker with a black presentation on most surfaces. The suede and leather heated sport seats were cosseting, the controls are large and intuitive, and the features list warrants inclusion in a comparison with a near-luxury sedan like the Audi. The Chrysler’s rear seat is much more accepting for three passengers than the compact (almost midsize) Audi, while the trunks in each sedan are comparable in size with ample space for a traveling entourage.
Among the first notes in the logbook were comments about how easily the Chrysler rolls down the road. Pulling out of downtown Belfast and heading north up Route 7 through the foothills of Jackson and Dixmont up to Dover-Foxcroft, the Chrysler’s 300-hp V-6 provides good enthusiasm and easy power for the long grades. Backed by an eight-speed automatic, the rear-drive biased handling of the AWD 300 S gives the long sedan, 120-inch wheelbase, a steady attitude and stable dynamics. The steering feel is direct, actually providing more driver feedback than the electric system in the Audi.
With 300 pricing starting at $32,340 ($34,840 with AWD) our S-series model’s $42,455 sticker (with several options) reveals not only the range of this model between competent full-size sedan and well-equipped family sedan, but the willingness of the market to accept a wide range of pricing for tried-and-true models. Keyless entry and ignition, remote starting, Parkview rear camera, dual-zone climate, heated sport seats, Beats Audio, U-connect with Apple/Android connectivity and the performance AWD system are all standard. Even the LED lighting packages, front and rear, plus the 19-inch wheels and dual exhausts are included with the upgraded S trim. EPA mileage estimates are 18/27/21 for the 300 S.
The Audi, redone last year, feels more modern than the Chrysler. It also is 500 pounds lighter, 13 inches shorter and has a wheelbase that is 9 inches shorter. However, the car has one of the slipperiest skins in the business, with a low, low .27 coefficient of drag. Combined with the lighter body, the Audi out-handles the larger Chrysler, actually rides better over rough pavement, and is quieter going down the road.
A base front-drive A4 starts at $34,900—about the same as a base AWD 300. Move up to Plus trim and the Audi’s sticker jumps to $38,700, with AWD $2,100 more. Our Manhattan Gray Metallic Audi — too subtle and too common — masks the A4’s shape and size but does resemble the larger A8 in overall look. As shown, with Quattro AWD and S-tronic trim, the sticker climbed past $39,400 to $54,275 with the addition of several option packages, primary being the Prestige package at $8,800. This includes a top-view parking camera, Audi virtual cockpit, Audi MMi controller, Bang & Olufsen sound system, 18-inch Dynamic wheel package, plus heated memory seats.
Power for the A4 comes from a revised 2.0-liter turbocharged four that now makes 252 horsepower — a 32-hp boost in output. Along with the excellent Quattro system, the A4 uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for seamless shifting, even at full-throttle high-speed abuse levels. On the highway, the Audi’s torque output keeps the transmission in high gear for all but the steepest grades and helps the A4’s mileage improve to 24/31/27 mpg — a notable upgrade over the previous A4 Quattro. Quick, smooth and efficient, the Audi’s performance helps to define the car’s dynamic differences over the larger Chrysler.
Both of these sedans use paddle shifters on the steering column as well as unusual console shifters; the Chrysler has a rotary knob, while the Audi features an electric T-handle that moves fore and aft for gears with Park-position a tiny push-button act on the rear of the handle. Neither proved to be smooth or quick to gear change requests, the electronics seemingly thinking about your requests before employing any changes.
Both sedans have excellent interfaces for their info-entertainment systems with pluses and minuses that make neither better than the other, yet better than the majority of choices in the rest of the market. The Google maps on the Audi, with a large screen atop the center-dash as well as in the center of the instrument panel, are crisp and colorful with relatively easy use of the MMi knob, while the Chrysler’s U-connect system uses simple touchscreen action and the industry’s best stereo volume steering wheel controls. The Audi has more options for instrument panel configuration, as well as more driver selectability relating to its dynamic and electronic safety system options.
Both cars also employ dynamic cruise control, one of the key components of the future’s autonomous driving. Each system works well, with forward braking assist included. The Audi not only employs a rear camera setup, but the dynamic system adds a forward view at low speeds that is shown on the large center panel. The Chrysler has automatic headlamps and remote starting that the Audi lacks, but the 300 offers no forward view camera action. The Audi also lacked a CD player — another sign of the evolving audio-system technologies with Apple and Android compatibility. This was countered by three speed readouts — both analog and digital in the dash, plus a smart digital heads-up display on the lower windshield.
While the Chrysler’s ride was impressive over tortured pavement, especially at speed, the Audi did even better. With a five-link independent suspension all around, the A4’s dampers and shock tuning soaked up these bumps with less body rebound than the heavier Chrysler. Weight to excess rears its ugly head again.
However, the Audi’s standard Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2 tires — a decidedly summer traction design — were no match for heavy rain, let alone snow.
And while the Chrysler has a user-friendly interior, it is not quite as polished or visually impressive as the finely detailed Audi’s presentation, a hallmark of this German brand.
So the Audi is the better “sport sedan” here, yet it is smaller inside than the 300, so buyers will still make choices on their specific needs no matter what they “like.” The 300 S is a very nice American full-size sedan in the traditional sense, plus it handles and drives with more verve than several contemporaries. The newer Audi A4 just has more connectivity to the driver and is a more agile sedan. Its overall demeanor and on-road performance out-match the older Chrysler design, while the luxury content is apparent in not just the price.
However, the Chrysler will come with price discounts that the newer Audi just won’t have in a competitive retail market. For many buyers, price remains a primary buying factor, so the 300 S is a real value, while the A4 S-tronic is real fun.