Saturday, August 16, 2003

One word for Crossfire: 'sexy'

Chrysler's two-seater stunning to look at

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Chrysler Crossfire

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Sexy sport tourer

What I drove: 2004 Chrysler Crossfire, two-door hatchback coupe

Base price: $33,620
Price as tested: $34,495 (with destination)

Options on test vehicle: None

Drivetrain layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 3.2-liter V6 producing 215 horsepower and 229 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic with Autostick

Wheelbase: 94.5 inches

Length: 159.8 inches

Width: 69.5 inches

Height: 51.4 inches

Weight: 3,060 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 18/27

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/

36,000 miles; drivetrain: 7 years/70,000 miles; roadside assist: 3 years/36,000

Assembled in: Osnabruck, Germany

Safety: Dual front airbags, side-impact airbags, passenger-side airbag on/off switch, antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability program, emergency brake assist.

Cool: Stunning design, art deco details, solid German engineering, intimate interior, torquey engine

Uncool: Tight interior for 6-footers, nontilting steering wheel, poor rearward visibility

Accolades: Playboy: "Car of the Year"; Maxim Magazine: "One of the 10 Best New Automobiles"; Business Week: " '03 North American International Auto Show Coolest Car."

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Car Talk
"Now that's a sexy car. What is it?" my friend Jan asked when we came upon a shiny black Crossfire parked along the road one day.

"A Chrysler Crossfire," I replied, then gloatingly added, "I'm testing one in two weeks."

"Wow! Can I be your friend?" she said.

Now I've got a shiny black Crossfire in my driveway, and Jan is away on a camping trip, so I'll just have to tell her about it.

I'll tell her she's right, this low-slung two-seater is sexy, inside and out.

Introduced in June, the Crossfire is the first child of the 5-year-old Daimler-Chrysler marriage. The Chrysler folks will tell you the Crossfire symbolizes what the DaimlerChrysler merger is all about - a blending of American design and German engineering. While the Crossfire's seductive sheet metal was conceived in Michigan, 39 percent of the coupe's mechanical bits and interior pieces come straight from the Mercedes-Benz SLK320, including its suspension and engine.

Art deco beauty

To make the Crossfire look distinctly American, Chrysler graced it with art deco details such as silver metal strakes on the sides, a silver windshield surround, and a sassy "boat tail" rear end. With its long nose and rounded fastback shape, my first impression was of the Jaguar E-type that Harold (Bud Cort) converted into a hearse in the 1971 movie Harold and Maude. I don't mean this in a bad way. The Crossfire looks beautiful. It has so many stunning lines and details, it's endlessly fascinating to behold.

With 19-inch wheels in back and 18-inch wheels in front, the car has tilted-forward profile, like a runner poised before a race.

The feeling of forward motion is enhanced by six grooves running the length of the hood, and a central "spine" that starts at the grill and continues through the dashboard, roof and ceiling all the way to the rear window.

The next time you're near a Crossfire, check out the complex and hard-to-manufacture rear-quarter panel, which extends all the way to the windshield and is a single piece of stamped metal. It's incredible; this car belongs in a museum.

Intimate interior

The dreamy design carries into the cockpit, where a silver-tone center console extends up into a gray-and-black, pebble-finish dash. Brushed aluminum accents are sprinkled about - on the door handles, around the instrument gauges and on the six-speed shifter knob. In typical Mercedes fashion, the window buttons are located in the center console and are counterintuitive ("up" means "down" and "down" means "up.") This can take some getting used to, as can the look-alike buttons below the radio.

Mercedes doesn't believe in cup holders, and it shows. The pop-up cup holder in the center console felt wobbly and interfered with manual shifting. I either tossed my water bottle on the passenger seat or gave it to my daughter, who got to ride shotgun because the Crossfire has a passenger airbag on/off switch.

Chrysler made the car's body sides tall and the windows small "to give the driver the feeling of being inside the cockpit of something very special, sporty and serious," explains Trevor Creed, Chrysler Group senior vice president of design."

The result is a very snug and encapsulating cockpit. My first few times in the Crossfire, I felt like I was wearing it.

Getting in and out of the two-tone leather seats requires deep knee bends from 6-footers, and could prove troublesome for the elderly. My 6-foot-3-inch husband couldn't push the driver's seat back far enough to get comfortable, and the telescoping but nontilting steering wheel made him feel pinned in. The low ceiling and small windows just added to the effect.

On the road

As for me, the more I drove this car, the more it grew on me. Even the cockpit seemed to grow roomier as the days went by.

The 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter V6 can be teamed with a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional five-speed automatic with AutoStick. My test car had the six-speed manual. At first, I kept dogging the gears like a geek, unused to the slippery-smooth shifter and heavy-handed feel. Once I got used to it, finding the gears was easy; though gear engagement felt a little notchy and rubbery.

The engine emits a satisfying growl at full throttle and provides plenty of punch at midrange. The 229 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm caught me off guard a few times when I stepped on the gas and got thrown back in my seat. Driven aggressively, the Crossfire feels like a muscle car.

While not as nimble as a Porsche Boxster, the Crossfire felt confident and composed in the twisties, with little body lean and lots of tire grip. Chrysler claims the Crossfire is stiffer than a Porsche 911, and I believe it. The car felt tight and solid. Steering felt heavy and slightly remote, but accurate.

Ride quality was firm but not as harsh as I expected for a car rolling on 18- and 19-inch low-profile tires.

Obstructed views

A little rear spoiler pops up at around 60 mph. The flip-up wing looks cute but it restricts visibility through the already postage stamp-size rear window.

Which brings me to the Crossfire's weakest link: rearward visibility. The fat C-pillars and teensy rear window combine to make backing up safely in parking lots a hit-or-miss proposition.

The cargo bay can swallow half a week's groceries or a weekend's worth of luggage. But for extended trips, send luggage ahead via UPS.

Priced at $34,495, the Crossfire is set to compete with the likes of the Audi TT, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4 and the Nissan 350Z. But unlike the 350Z, and like the TT and SLK, the Crossfire isn't a true sports car. The Crossfire is a sporty car, a "let's go away for the weekend" car, a sexy touring coupe designed to take you places. And deliver you in style.

With its arresting looks, graceful performance and German cachet, the Crossfire should have no problem attracting the 17,000 affluent buyers (mostly married empty-nesters) that Chrysler seeks.

For those who prefer top-down driving, a convertible Crossfire will debut next year.

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