For evidence of how much consumer automotive tastes have evolved through the generations, one need look no farther than the full-size sedan class.
Once the quintessential American car, favored by all for every driving need, full-size sedans have shrunk to an afterthought segment in an industry now dominated by compact crossovers, compact cars, midsize cars and pickup trucks. At one point in the 1960s, Chevrolet sold 1 million Impalas in a single year, one-eighth of the total new vehicle market, followed closely by Ford’s Galaxie. No crossovers, no minivans and barely any pickup trucks were sold to consumers in that era.
Last year, the whole full-size sedan segment (non-luxury class) in the USA moved less than a half-million units, in total, barely beating out the minivan class. Moreover, far too many of the sedans that did sell went to livery service customers or other fleets — in many cases, rental fleets. Preferences are different.
Chrysler’s 300 series actually had a decent sales year, staying even as other rivals saw sales slide in an up market. Chevy Impala, Buick LaCrosse, Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon — all down last year. The 300 — and its Dodge Charger sibling — up or even.
Those sales came despite the 300C getting a little long in the tooth, so to speak. Next to Ford’s Taurus, the Chrysler is one of the oldest offerings in the class, yet it distinguishes itself with composed road manners, excellent all-wheel-drive handling and traction, plus a plethora of features that generally work better than the competition’s layouts.
Among four trim levels — Limited, S, C and Platinum — the 300 offers two engine choices, 300-hp V-6 or 363-hp V-8, rear or AWD, as well as a sweet eight-speed automatic transmission with rotary shift knob that helps increase fuel efficiency. Our 300C tester, $40,920 suggested list price ($32,000 is 300 base), carried a huge panoramic sunroof, Chrysler’s excellent U-Connect system with its oversized touchscreen, plus heated and cooled leather seats, heated power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, remote starting, power rear sunshade, heated second row seats, LED running lamps and polished 19-inch wheels. Add a portfolio of safety and driving aids — lane change, blind spot, forward braking assist, and Parkview cameras — and the premium Chrysler makes a fine place to start a long road trip.
The 3.6-liter V-6 provides ample propulsion. Dual exhaust pipes adorn the rear fascia, nicely integrated chromed pieces like they should be instead of ugly metal appendages as afterthoughts, so only true aficionados will know whether you have the Hemi engine or the base motor. EPA estimates are 18/27/21 mpg with the AWD hardware, 19/31 mpg without.
Not unlike our recent Dodge Charger, however, the Chrysler’s interior does not feel as roomy as some rivals, like the Impala, Avalon or the Azera. As in the Taurus, design cues shape the greenhouse to look elegant, yet steal precious inches of head and shoulder room, while the large center tunnel running through the cabin robs rear seat leg space. The decision years ago by many automakers to abandon front bench seats and six-passenger seating in favor of large consoles, surely contributes to the closeness of this cabin. The Chrysler’s console could offer more surface pockets and slots too; it is a large divider in the cabin, but not that useful day-to-day.
The days of using your full-size sedan to tow the boat or the camper have long since passed; pickup trucks and crossovers have supplanted the family sedan as the workhorse for the 21st century. Lifestyles are different; cars are used to ferry people. Trucks ferry people and gear and toys, and they can work too. Multifaceted rules the marketplace.
Lacking a hybrid or alternative power system, Chrysler must surely be readying a modern interpretation of the big sedan, like its current reincarnation of the minivan in the newest Pacifica package. With a huge amount of history behind this model — dating back to the 1950s — the 300 is a car that can serve many going forward, yet it too must evolve. The AWD driveline works great, the styling is not without its redeeming characteristics, while the market for these big cruisers remains viable, if not robust.
Building on a solid foundation — and the Chrysler 300 does drive very nicely — should ensure continued production of this storied model. With the electronic and efficiency components that would make this full-size ride the standard-bearer, Chrysler/FCA can regain lost ground in the car wars and draw buyers once again.
Next week: Jeep Cherokee Latitude