It’s been five years since the “merger of equals” led to the creation of the DaimlerChrysler Corporation, and whatever you may think of the founding fiction, this car represents the first real offspring of that union.

HIGHS
Look-at-me styling, granitic structure, driver-friendly dynamics.
LOWS
Stevie Wonder rear-quarter sightlines, snug for the long of leg, a tad short on snort.
VERDICT
About 50 horses short of stardom.

Consider the genetics: sheetmetal conceived in Auburn Hills, Michigan; hardware conceived in Stuttgart, Germany; gestation and birth courtesy of limited-production specialist Karmann in Osnabrück, Germany. Limited in this case means 20,000 units per annum, some 17,000 of them destined for North America. The numbers are calculated to preserve a measure of exclusivity and also recognize the realities of the marketplace. Even so, with a sports-car market that’s increasingly crowded, thanks to the arrival of the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8, that goal looks ambitious. Consider Chrysler’s last foray into the realm of limited-production high-profile cars, the Prowler: 2631 copies went out the door in 2000, its best sales year.

Then again, to understate things a trifle, the Crossfire is a far better effort than the Prowler, which was essentially a kit car with a factory warranty. And an expensive kit car at that. The Crossfire, starting at a healthy $34,495, is solid goods, with never a quiver from its railroad-trestle chassis, and its formidable foundations-Chrysler claims a body-shell rigidity number north of 51 hertz, which would be consistent with an Abrams tank-are clad in some of the most seductive sheetmetal we’ve seen in this era of uninhibited styles. Christina Aguilera has software in her closet that might attract more attention, but it would be close.

Although it’s clearly the stylish fastback exterior that’s going to get butts into the Crossfire’s bucket seats, it’s the Benz bones and powertrain that will be responsible for keeping them there to the point of actual purchase. The bones, as we’ve already suggested, are robust, with rigidity characteristics that are not entirely astonishing, in light of their origin: the same platform supports the Mercedes SLK-class roadster. The wheelbase of the two cars is identical at 94.5 inches, and the Crossfire interior-design team was limited by the same hard points: notably, the front and rear bulkheads, making the cockpit a little snug for drivers six feet or taller. More on this later.

Although the SLK is far from rubbery, its rigidity doesn’t compare with the Crossfire’s, which tells you something about cars with fixed roofs versus cars whose roofs are foldable. Chrysler says its coupe is stiffer than a Porsche 911, and our experiences provided nothing to refute this startling assertion. The design may be American, but there’s plenty of Teuton in the Crossfire’s backbone, and it knows how to follow orders.

The suspension pieces bolted to this mobile minicitadel are also from the Stuttgart parts bin. The upper front control arms are from the previous-generation E-class sedan, the lower from the C-class sedan (and SLK), and the multilink rear suspension is also from the SLK. Chrysler did make some adjustments to the foregoing, in part to accommodate the enormous (7.5-by-18-inch front, 9.0-by-19-inch rear) aluminum alloy wheels, in part to give the Crossfire its own dynamic persona. The coupe has a heftier rear anti-roll bar (19 millimeters versus 16) and firmer damping in its gas shocks.

Considering the bigger wheels (the biggest SLK wheels are 17-inchers), you might expect larger brake rotors tucked in behind them. But the cost-conscious development team stuck with the SLK320’s brakes: 11.8-inch vented front rotors, 10.9-inch solid rears, with four-channel ABS. And the parts-bin brakes obviously do a good job, arresting the car from 70 mph in 161 feet, with never a trace of fade.

This performance is as much a function of tires as it is of brakes. With the substantial contact patches and low profiles of its Michelin Pilot Sport tires–225/40ZR-18 front, 255/35ZR-19 rear–plus the support of those wide wheels, the Crossfire’s rubber does an excellent job of transferring braking power to the pavement. In light of this, we also expected pretty respectable lateral-g numbers, an expectation that was vindicated on the skidpad: 0.91 g. That’s better than any lateral-g number we’ve recorded for the Nissan 350Z and equal to the performance turned in by the new Mazda RX-8 in our April comparo “Rotary Revival.”

HIGHS
Look-at-me styling, granitic structure, driver-friendly dynamics.
LOWS
Stevie Wonder rear-quarter sightlines, snug for the long of leg, a tad short on snort.
VERDICT
About 50 horses short of stardom.

Plentiful grip combined with suspension tuning that strikes an acceptable balance between compliance and limited body roll make the Crossfire a generally eager, cooperative, and predictable companion for back-road banditry. Perhaps you noticed the qualifiers in there. Acceptable? Generally? Chrysler’s new coupe does stick to smooth pavement like sun-softened bubble gum, and understeer isn’t the dominating trait that it is in the Z, even though the Crossfire has a slightly higher forward weight bias: 54.5 percent of the 3111 pounds of our manual-shifting test car pressed down on the front wheels. The rear stays planted, unless the driver wants a little playful kick-out, which can be induced provided the electronic stability program is switched off. It’s also possible to drift the car across apexes without excess drama, but lurid power slides aren’t on the menu: There’s not enough muscle to overpower those big rear stickies.

On the other hand, it is possible to provoke rear-end wagging by hurrying the car around corners clad with broken or lumpy pavement. Although the tuning of the various suspension components is mostly harmonious, there are times when the shocks don’t quite keep pace with the springs. When that happens, the rear end can begin contributing more to the steering than the driver might really want. We wonder how much the mass of those big rear wheels–54 pounds each–contributes to this effect.

Steering is another soft point in the Crossfire’s dynamic menu. It’s the same recirculating-ball system used in the SLK, which translates as a little slow (3.1 turns lock to lock), a little heavy, and a little numb. The six-speed manual transmission is also SLK hardware, and it, too, leaves something to be desired, with its reluctant engagements and heavy-handed feel. But we prefer that to the leisurely responses and stick waggling that go with the Mercedes five-speed automatic, which has been adapted to Chrysler’s AutoStick manumatic controls.

We also think the manual will help you hustle your Crossfire to 60 mph a little quicker than the automatic, although we’re not entirely sure about this, since the engine-control program won’t allow unloaded revving beyond 4000 rpm, which inhibits launches. In any case, propelled by its 3.2-liter Mercedes V-6 (215 horsepower, 229 pound-feet of torque), the Crossfire surges to 60 in 6.5 seconds, to 100 in 16.1, and through the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 96 mph. This is a wink quicker than we forecast in our May preview, but slower than the numbers posted by the Infiniti G35 and Mazda RX-8 in the “Rotary Revival” comparo and more than a second slower to 60 than the Z we tested in August 2002. You get the picture: No one could call it slow, but it’s not as quick as some key competitors. With a chassis capable of handling 300 horses, a power increase wouldn’t hurt this slick little coupe at all.

Another something that wouldn’t hurt is a little more longitudinal space in the cockpit. Taller drivers reported difficulties with achieving a comfortable combination of legroom and seatback angle. The steering wheel does adjust for reach, which helps, but a rake adjustment would help more.

Remarks related to roominess were mixed, but complaints related to rear sightlines were universal. The sweeping sail panels that flank the Crossfire’s sexy boattail hatchback severely limit the driver’s vision in the rear quarters, the back window looks like a smallish soft trapezoid in the inside mirror, and it gets even smaller when the retractable rear wing deploys at 57 mph. Chrysler says this device reduces lift at high speed. We can’t say for sure. We can say it reduces the rear view to a slot better suited to an armored personnel carrier.

Aside from space and sightline issues–and counterintuitive power-window switches–the Crossfire’s interior is a pleasant and stylish place to be. Chrysler has done a nice job of making relatively inexpensive materials look classy. The satin-finish brightwork of the dashboard center stack and the interior two-toning look spiffy, the leather-clad seats add an upscale touch, and if some of the secondary controls–for cruise, headlights, wipers, power seats–are obvious to us as Mercedes pieces, that may not be so obvious to folks who stop to check out the Crossfire up close and personal. And if it is obvious, there are worse automotive sins than using Mercedes fittings in a Chrysler.

At the end of the day, the Crossfire represents a little more friction between form and function than we’d expect from a company that prides itself on design. And even though it’s loaded with standard luxury features, it could use a little more thrust to justify its rather ambitious price. But this is nevertheless the most seductive Chrysler two-seater in recent memory. Suddenly, the Audi TT is yesterday’s news.

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