Once-staid Chrysler stages a strong comeback with a pair of rear-drive classics.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Believe it or not, urban tastemakers (a.k.a. hip-hop recording artists such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent) have proclaimed the Chrysler 300 sedan and its sister model, the Dodge Magnum sportwagon, the 2005 models of choice. Buyers have been dressing up new 300s with vinyl roofs and massive 22-inch wheels as soon as they're off the lot. Not that the cars need such attention-grabbers—with slab sides and gun-slit windows, the 300 and Magnum look like nothing else on the road.
Every decade or so Chrysler comes up with a style that sets the industry on its ear. In the '80s it was Lee Iacocca's compact K-cars; in the '90s designer Tom Gale created the cab-forward LH sedans. For 2005, Chrysler has gone back to rear-wheel-drive cars with a retro look—and created another sensation.
Rear drive has been enjoying a renaissance of late—it delivers more power to the pavement and more fun to the driver. One drawback: It provides less grip on slippery surfaces, so traction control or all-wheel drive (available on both cars) is a useful option. Chrysler based the cars on the compliant suspension and five-speed transmission used by its corporate sibling Mercedes-Benz. On top of the German engineering, it designed a pair of bodies that evoke memories of street-racing hot rods and gangster-movie cars. The 300 sedan features a vertical egg-crate grill, high hood and deck lid, and chop-top roof. The Magnum wagon extends the bulked-up-on-steroids theme with an unusual lift gate that cuts into the roof, making it easier to load the cargo.
Each car model has three engine options, but a muscular car needs a muscular motor, so the best pick is the 340-horsepower Hemi V-8. It propels the 300C from zero to 60 in a very quick 5.3 seconds. Mileage is only fair (25 mpg on the highway, 17 in city driving), but both cars are a joy to drive: powerful and well balanced, with a level of quality I've never seen in a Chrysler. Entry-level prices start alluringly low ($22,495 for the Magnum, $23,595 for the 300) but ratchet up quickly. The Magnum RT stickered at $31,625, while the 300C test car I drove was $38,685. Whether the retro styling will retain its allure remains a question. If you're thinking of getting one, skip the vinyl roof. Those things went out with leisure suits.