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FIRST DRIVE: Chrysler Crossfire

2003-11-28 07:28

John Oxley

The new flagship of the US company in South Africa, the Chrysler Crossfire is an out-and-out two-seater sports coupe that goes like the clappers, handles like a dream - and epitomises Chrysler's new direction in terms of innovation, quality and performance.

In the words of Chrysler SA marketing manager Guy Franken, the Crossfire is a "uniquely American sports coupe with superior handling and road performance."

At the same time, he says, it's a showcase for the future of the brand, especially in terms of establishing a new corporate look.

Is it as good as they say? I drove it for 375 km in a big loop starting and finishing at the Arabella Hotel near Hermanus, with lots of country roads, tight and twisty passes, and some long undulating straights.

I drove both the 6-speed manual and the 5-speed automatic.

My first impression? The handling is awesome. Which is not surprising since much of the chassis development comes from the Mercedes SLK.

The next impression? It's quick, and torquey, and just a dream to drive.

Powerful V6 engine

Which is also not surprising, because the engine and gearboxes come from Mercedes-Benz, the former a 160 kW 3 valves per cylinder V6.

My third impression? The body is stiff and rigid (twice as rigid in fact, as a Porsche Boxster), and the whole thing is screwed together so well that there was not a rattle or a squeak even when driving VERY hard on roads which were a long way from perfect.

Which, again, is not surprising, for the Crossfire is the first real fruit of the merger with Daimler-Benz, with the result that much of the German company's quality ethos has been transferred to the American product (which is actually assembled by Karmann in Germany) in Chrysler's new Quality Gates Process, which ensures the car is checked at each production stage.

The car

The Crossfire started life as a concept car shown for the first time at the Detroit Motor Show in 2001. Refreshingly new and different, it received such acclaim that, in the words of one Chrysler bigwig "the public simply demanded that we build it".

As a result a high speed development programme was instigated - so fast, in fact, that production began just two years later, with worldwide release in July this year.

Walking around the car with Trent Barcroft, Chrysler's divisional manager for SA, I was struck by the numerous startling visual design cues that make the Crossfire so different from others.

Trent pointed out that the Chrysler badge is prominent above a new slatted grille.

"This will be the face of Chrysler in coming models," he said.

The bold grille is flanked by double bi-xenon headlamps under clear polycarbonate covers. More astonishing, however, is the long bonnet, with its six prominent strakes; three pairs each side of a heavy crease which runs up the centre.

This crease continues along the roof (and is one reason why no sunroof is offered) and is also a styling feature on the dashboard.

Along the sides of the car there is a strong crease line that gives the car a prominent wedge shape.

This crease goes from concave to convex as it travels along the car - and it's the "cross" where the crease changes that led to the Crossfire name.

Air outlet

There is a large air outlet feature ahead of each of the big front wheels, with three strakes along it - and one immediately notices that the wheels are of different sizes, 18 inch front, 19 inch rear.

This is one of the reasons why there's no spare (that, and a decent luggage space) but a bottle of puncture fix liquid is provided, plus a small tyre compressor?

The back of the car is also different, with a "humped whale" look reminiscent of my favourite coupe of all time, the Bugatti Atlantique. There's also a popup spoiler which automatically deploys above 105 km/h (and drops when speed falls to 60 km/h). Or you can pop it up and down yourself via a switch on the centre console.

By the way, the spoiler really works, generating a large amount of downforce to keep the backend down at high speeds.

There's a strong tail lights treatment, and a smallish oblong rear window. The twin tailpipes are under the bumper in the centre, and have oblong trims.

Inside the look is very American, with a large centre console that flows back between the sculpted front seats.

The centre console is trimmed in silver "boom box" plastic, and you'll either love it or hate it.

Trim materials are two-tone leather, either grey and black or grey and cedar (a shade of red), the latter available with every exterior colour except red and blue.

The heated seats are well padded to hold one in hard cornering. The driver's seat has eight-way adjustment (electric of course) and the passenger seat four-way.

The steering wheel is leather trimmed, with four spokes, and is adjustable for reach.

The instrument panel uses chronometric style dials, a large speedo (reading to 260 km/h)in the centre flanked by a revcounter and a combined fuel and water temperature dial.

There's only one cupholder (a popup thing mounted on the centre console that I opened accidentally twice while cornering hard) plus a large locking glovebox and more stowage space on the centre console.

The car comes well equipped, with individually controlled aircon, electric windows and mirrors, an Infinity radio/front loader CD with six speakers, and cruise control.

There are latest generation airbags, technically four (front and side thorax each side) but effectively six as the front bags protect chest and legs.


As mentioned there are two gearbox options, and I drove both.

The 6-speed manual is slick and smooth, and to get the best out of it I took the car to the cutout when driving fast so I got a great gearchange as the power was cut. But it's also smooth at low speeds, too.

And the auto box is an absolute joy. A smooth-shifting auto which adapts to your driving style, it can also be driven in sequential manual mode by simply pushing the lever to the left.

As to be expected the car comes well equipped with the latest technical and safety features. ABS with Brake Assist and EBD is standard, and there's also Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) to get you out of trouble if you over-extend yourself (but remember, it cannot overcome the laws of physics.

On the road the car is an absolute joy. The front suspension is independent by double wishbones, with anti-dive geometry, coil springs, gas-filled shock absorbers and an anti-roll bar.

At the back is an independent five-link setup with anti-squat geometry. There are coil springs and gas-filled shock absorbers, and another anti-roll bar.

The nett result is that at low speeds ride comfort is far better than most sports cars, and verging on sedan-like, while at high speed the suspension easily rides over the bumps and doesn't get unsettled by dips and surface changes.

Braking is excellent. More than once I had to brake from high speed to virtual walking pace when I came upon overloaded trucks, and each time the big discs (300 mm ventilated front, 278 mm solid rear) hauled the car down with ease, and in a straight line.

Different tyres

As mentioned Chrysler uses tyres of different sizes - 225/40ZR18 at the front on 7.5-inch wide alloys, and 255/35ZR19 at the rear on 9-inch wide rims.

Now to performance. Chrysler claims a 0-100 time of 6.5 seconds, with a top speed of 242 km/h, and (nod nod, wink wink) I have no reason to disbelieve either.

Certainly the car is very quick, and the high torque of 310 Nm (on a plateau between 3 000 and 4 600 r/min) makes it extremely driveable.

And now to the prices. Barcroft says transport costs, import duties, and the fact that Chrysler SA does not have high MIDP offsets, have pushed the price of the car up.

It costs around $35 000 in the States, and import duty is just under 40%. By my count, at R7 to the dollar, that comes to R343 000 (without export offsets).

In South Africa the manual costs R415 000, the automatic R425 000.

The car comes with Chrysler's 3 year/60 000 km warranty and free 3 year/60 000 km services.

Some 140 cars were ordered in the first batch, with around 100 sold already. If you don't buy now, you'll have a chance at the 400 being imported for next year.


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