Bravo Sergio!

200Svert3

This past week I have visited the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Motor Trend Virginia International Auto Show, and while those two might seem unrelated on the surface, a distinct European influence was present at both. The first is obvious since the famed artist Picasso was born in Spain and lived the bulk of his life in France, but the latter is a slightly different story.

While the Picasso exhibit showcased the evolution of his style and talent, the show floor set aside for Chrysler presented a similar phenomenon. Last spring, when I attended the New York Auto Show, the bankruptcy-induced marriage between Fiat Auto Group and Chrysler was still on its honeymoon, and many in the automotive world sang songs of impending doom for the future of the new couple. Most people had based these fears on the dismal memories of Fiat’s last foray into the American car market. Those woefully unreliable little cars prompted the acronym based on Fiats name, “Fix It Again Tony.”

The outmoded thoughts from decades past have overlooked the automotive giant Fiat Group has become today, and when it comes to performance cars, no one can deny the Italians know a thing or two about how to stir the soul.

The cars displayed at New York last spring were little more than the same old faces with a bit of make up, but anyone in Hollywood can tell you that make-up used properly can make all the difference, and such was the case with Chrysler’s first touch of the Italian flair. Fiat Group CEO Sergio Marchionne has exercised the wisdom to anoint passionate car people to lead each of Chrysler’s divisions, and their efforts are bearing fruit. It turns out that last years show cars were but a taste of what was to come, and the transformation of this year’s line-up is nothing short of amazing.

The Dodge Challenger is the lone model to soldier into the 2011 model year virtually unchanged, and given its popularity one can see why you leave a good thing alone…for now.

Both the Dodge Charger and the Chrysler 300 were blessed with a major re-skin on the outside and a whole new world of interior. The boxy, hard-edged look has given way to a more sculpted appearance, punctuated by classy LED lighting. While the Charger echoes lines of the legendary 68-70 models, the 300 has slipped into an Armani fitted suit which appears to be aimed squarely at a German automaker that is fond of four rings. Marchionne has made no secret that he intends to add the Hemi-powered sedans to the Lancia badge in Europe, since that marque could benefit from a powerful rear wheel drive model. Given the stiff competition of performance oriented German sedans in the European market, the American cars can only stand to get better as a result.

300SRT-2

Any interior surface in either of these cars that smacked of cheap plastic has been banished without remorse. The look and feel of stitched leather is now abundant, and even the base interiors benefit from these materials in concert with inviting fabrics. Thick rimmed steering wheels lend a substantial vote of confidence and beckon you to drive. Here once again is the Italian influence aimed at that elusive driver-car connection.

The recent Super Bowl ad that featured Eminem showcased the launch of the “new” Chrysler 200, along with the inventive tagline, “Imported from Detroit.” While rebadging has been a long standing practice among American automakers, the Chrysler 200 is far more than a new nameplate.

While I’m personally not thrilled with the whole alpha-numeric naming system that has become so popular in recent years, I can see the logic behind Chrysler’s decision. With dealers welcoming the first of Fiat’s imports with the Mini-fighting “500” model, and the 300 already established, another hundred number badge makes sense.

Any gearhead worth their salt knows the Chrysler 200 is the successor to the much maligned Sebring, a name which had unfortunately become synonymous with terms like cheap and loathsome. The sharp pens and brutal laptops of the automotive press had pummeled the Sebring with every verbal insult known to man. The only recommended action they could bring themselves to write usually involved a blunt object of some kind, so it goes without saying the Sebring was an orphan car of the most mundane order.

Marchionne and his Chrysler team have now proven the Sebring was a clear victim of the bean-counter mentality, which was to churn out rental fleet shoeboxes that barely qualified as cars. The new 200 began as the bones of its outcast brother but was now blessed with new front and rear fascias, a wider track, more taut suspension, an athletic new engine and gearbox, and a sumptuous new interior to show its worthiness to its new stablemates. The transformation is nothing short of miraculous, and even though the roofline and abbreviated decklid still cast a familiar shadow to the Sebring it replaces, the 200 showcases the difference it makes when passionate car people work their magic.

In spite of the insults that laid the Sebring so low, I am the proud owner of a 2008 Sebring Touring convertible. Besides the drop-top, Marchionne knew this car was going to be a different animal. The Sebring convertible has been the best selling ragtop for years bar none, and while a large portion of that was due to fleet sales, the Sebring became the darling of the rental industry for good reason. Here was a car that brought open top motoring to the masses, and it did it while still providing seating for four and ample trunk space.

Many will say the Mustang can make a similar claim, but anyone who has ever looked closely at Ford’s ponycar convertible knows its back seat is a padded area in name only. Unless you plan on sawing your kid’s legs off at the knees, don’t ask any humans to try and occupy that space.

In 2008, Chrysler bestowed the retractable hardtop on its Sebring, and it was a whole new design from the ground up. While the car still suffered from the same questionable interior appointments as its homely sedan sister, the straked styling looked much better on the two-door bodywork. The rigidity of the topless design was superb and one-touch top lowering along with no separate boot cover made the car even easier to live with.

Here again, Chrysler kept all that was good with their precious drop-top, and addressed its shortcomings with aplomb. The drivetrain, suspension, fascias, and interior all received the generous treatment of the sedan, and the result is an open top car that is truly beautiful and doesn’t cost a king’s ransom.

Marchionne has stated that both the sedan and convertible 200 are scheduled to be replaced with a new platform in 2013, and while many have voiced concerns over what those new models will be, most fear they will be rebadged import econoboxes. I didn’t have to look far within the walls of the car show to find a vote of confidence.

Tucked into a small corner of the show floor was a trio of exotics, a Ferrari California Spyder, an Aston Martin Vantage Roadster, and a Maserati Gran Turismo Cabriolet. While all three of these cars certainly stir the inner soul of any gearhead, for me there were distinct differences.

The Aston is pure sports car pornography; a racy, two-seat cockpit tied to a howling V8 engine, all wrapped up in curvaceous bodywork. This is a car that is scintillating to look at, and is good for nothing except to drive with wild abandon.

The Ferrari exudes its exclusivity with a shape and look that are distinctive to the Prancing Horse. Once again we have two seats holding the reigns of a voracious engine, but the overall appearance while striking is not terribly pretty, but for some the name is all that matters.

Fiat Auto Group actually owns a portion of Ferrari, but Maserati on the other hand is one of its own. The Gran Turismo Cabrio is the perfect blend of exotic and reality, with a true four seat interior and an actual trunk. The long, sleek nose houses a 4.7L V8, and while not the most powerful of the three, its exhaust note is an unadulterated automotive symphony. The supple leather interior begs to be touched, and the swooping curves of the wheel arches personify the ageless “Coke bottle shape.” Given its Italian heritage, it may be a crime to compare it to a Coke bottle since its image is more evocative of the sexy female contour than any inanimate object.

Just looking at the Maserati makes my heart rate take a jump, and if even the slightest portion of this Italian DNA finds its way into the next Chrysler convertible then we have nothing to fear.

Like Picasso, Marchionne and his appointed enthusiasts at Chrysler have taken the mundane and the pedestrian for their subject matter, and re-interpreted them into automotive art. While this represents their infancy, the showcase of their talent gives a glimpse of a bright future for the Chrysler realm.

Imported from Detroit, by way of Modena, Italy, and that sounds like a lovely trip to me.

– T. August Green

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