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FIRST DRIVE

'Route 66 meets the autobahn'

Chrysler's first modern two-seater, Crossfire, is a Mercedes wearing designed-in-Michigan sheet metal. The combo will make beautiful music on the road.

May 28, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

My first glimpse of the car that became the Chrysler Crossfire was 29 months ago when the concept version debuted at the Detroit Auto Show.

I loved it.

Now the real thing is here and some of the fancy bits are gone -- touches that worked on a hand-made concept but can't be translated into mass-produced sheet metal.

No matter. The boat-tailed Crossfire -- the rear end narrows to a blunt point, like the stern of a rowboat or canoe -- will be one of the most striking vehicles on the road when it starts rolling out of Chrysler dealers' showrooms this summer. Its rear end evokes the classic Auburn boat-tail speedster of the 1930s as well as the fast-back muscle cars of the 1970s.

After a day of trying to find the 2004 Crossfire's flaws while driving it in the hills and valleys of inland San Diego County earlier this year, I still loved the car.

It is the first DaimlerChrysler vehicle to be assembled after the merger. So it's been created from parts bins from Mercedes and Detroit -- and the car benefits from the mix.

Crossfire isn't a true sports car, although it will attract some of the same shoppers who will ogle the Nissan Z 350, the Porsche Boxster and even the Honda S2000. The Crossfire suspension is a little too soft, the horsepower a little too lean to make the 3,060-pound coupe perform in sports car territory.

But it is a world-class sports coupe: a two-seater comfortable enough for a cross-country drive or a daily commute on L.A.'s crumbling freeway system; nimble enough for a weekend of "S" curves along that wonderful stretch of Highway 1 from Cambria to Half Moon Bay and powerful enough to climb effortlessly through the Sierra on a winter ski jaunt or summer camping trip.

As a bonus, it gets decent gas mileage, albeit on 91 octane premium. Chrysler estimates 18 miles per gallon in city driving for the 6-speed manual transmission model, 21 mpg in the city for the automatic and 27 mpg on the highway for both versions.

It isn't a race car, and because of the Crossfire's limited capacity for people and cargo, it is best considered as a second or even third vehicle rather than as primary transportation. But it is fun to drive, sure-footed and relatively powerful, and it does double duty as a beautiful sculpture that will keep you peering into the garage at odd hours -- just to look at it again.

Granted, this isn't a car for everyone: Chrysler plans to build only about 20,000 a year for worldwide consumption, with about 11,000 of the first year's production numbers slated for the U.S. market.

It's a halo car, intended to help polish Chrysler's image and pull shoppers into its dealers' showrooms, where most will admire the Crossfire, then turn their attention to Concordes, Sebrings, Town & Country vans, PT Cruisers and the new Pacifica luxury van-sport utility cross.

Those who do plunk down the Crossfire's $34,495 purchase price -- $35,570 for the model with an automatic transmission -- will be getting a two-seat hatchback that not only will make them the center of attention wherever they drive, but will make driving there a blast.

Of course, Chrysler dealers may try to gouge a few thousand dollars more out of those who'll pay extra to be first on the block to own one.

Chrysler, which was taken over by Germany's Daimler-Benz in 1998 and now is known as Chrysler Group, boasts that the Crossfire is the perfect blend of German engineering and American design: "Route 66 meets the autobahn."

Privately, Chrysler executives say the Crossfire and the just-released Pacifica are crucial to the company's effort to reestablish itself as a premium brand in the minds of American consumers.

It is fortunate, then, that the Crossfire benefits from the mix.

Crossfire -- the name comes from the two sharply creased character lines on the coupe's flanks that cross just under the side mirrors -- shares a lot of its platform with the current generation Mercedes-Benz SLK, although most everything has been beefed up to increase stiffness. Chrysler vehicle development manager Tim LaBoda says the Crossfire is stiffer than a Porsche 911.

It uses the same front and rear suspension set-up and the same power-assisted, recirculating-ball steering as the SLK, and the engine is the same 215 horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 that Mercedes stuffs into many of its vehicles, including the M-Class SUV, the C-Class coupes and sedans and everything else with a 320 in its moniker.

The transmissions come from the Benz bin as well, and the choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic with "auto stick" manual mode is one of only two options available. The other is tire selection: Michelin Pilot 2 or Continental All-Season.

Using tried-and-true Mercedes-engineered designs make it likely that the Crossfire will be a first-year car that will hold up well.

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