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RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL

Caught up in the Crossfire

A lighted fuse of polished elegance and high ambition, Chrysler's latest riff on the history of car design is bound to hold up well over time.

October 01, 2003|DAN NEIL

Like many great beauties -- Marilyn Monroe, for instance -- the new Chrysler Crossfire has a faintly tragic air about it. And like many consumers of beauty -- Frank Sinatra, for instance -- I'm only too happy to exploit it.

The 2004 Crossfire ($35,570 as tested) joins Chrysler's recent portfolio of low-volume, high-zoot production cars -- including the PT Cruiser and the Prowler -- that riff on the history of car design. The PT Cruiser and the hot-rod-inspired Prowler are not really serious cars but fun and frothy exercises in nostalgic styling, rendered with a kind of Toontown exaggeration that gives the viewer a winking nudge in the ribs. Alas, one's ribs get sore pretty quickly. These days, the PT Cruiser strikes me as insufferably twee. Both it and the Prowler look destined for the nearest Shriners parade.

The Crossfire, on the other hand, is deadly serious, a lighted fuse of polished elegance and high ambition. It's a small car, only 159.8 inches long sitting on a 94.5-inch wheelbase. But the Crossfire has tremendous visual presence, with its wide body raked over relatively huge 19-inch rear wheels and 18-inch front wheels. The glassed-in part of the car, the greenhouse, is low and narrowed, giving the car a sloe-eyed allure.

The most distinctive part of the Crossfire profile is its boat-tail hatchback, formed as the edges of the roof converge into a kind of teardrop shape, leaving the rear fenders to flare out over the rear wheels. It's a wonderfully organized form -- romantic and rational at the same time. But what makes the Crossfire work is its surface detailing: the Art Deco fluting, polished strakes, raised spine and sculpted surfaces, which make the car look like a piece of precision-milled machinery.

This is the kind of car that makes you set your alarm clock early so you can go stare at it in the driveway. It's gorgeous.

As a "halo" product, the Crossfire is crucial to the Chrysler brand's effort to move upmarket, to be a premium brand in the same league as Lexus or Cadillac. This is not an easy thing to do. Consumers have a pretty definite idea of how much they are willing to spend on a Chrysler, no matter how swell it is. The Crossfire argues its case well.

So what's so tragic? Only that it's not really a Chrysler. Under the artful skin of the Crossfire is the running gear of a Mercedes-Benz SLK, right down to the crankshaft in its 3.2-liter V-6 (the car is assembled by Karmann in Germany). This is the first car to come from the DaimlerChrysler merger that gene-splices Chrysler design and Mercedes engineering.

Although few could complain about the results, I confess to a little wounded nationalism; it would have been great for such a wonderful car to be American to the bone. Chrysler, more than any other American car company, could justify a revival of streamlined, Deco- flavored styling. Chrysler's Airflow sedan in the 1930s was America's first streamlined mass-production car, and what it lacked in functional aerodynamics it made up for in the expressive, streaking styling of the Machine Age. The most exciting car of the year is made of leftover Mercedes.

And there is a degree of insincerity to the Crossfire. In the same way that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is an elaborate titanium blossom surrounding more or less rectangular spaces, the Crossfire's exterior design, as beautiful as it is, isn't essential to the car.

Of course, a few laps around the neighborhood will wring such doubts from your mind. The Crossfire is wicked fun to drive. In the transition from the SLK's open top to a fixed roof, the chassis has become substantially stiffer. The car has all the flex of a cast-iron sink and that lovely feeling of deep soundness that Benzes, at their best, have. It feels as if you have a good leg under you at all times.

Commuters, be advised: The Crossfire's suspension tuning favors handling over comfort. The ride is pretty choppy in that short-wheelbase way, and there's a steady diet of zings transmitted through the steering wheel and seat from the huge Michelins.

On the other hand, the car handles far better than I expected, with a nice even balance in S-curves that gradually and gracefully transitions to understeer. Toss it from corner to corner and the Crossfire recomposes itself without fretting, with little body roll or ungainly rebound.

Thanks to the car's low weight and its yards of high-quality rubber, the Crossfire has lots of lateral grip. The car has anti-lock brakes and traction and stability control, but on dry pavement these systems allow enough slip and slide to have fun.

Our test car was equipped with Benz's five-speed automatic transmission mated to the 215-horsepower V-6 engine. A six-speed manual is available, though most Southern California commuters will shun it. The car was pretty quick, returning zero-to-60-mph times in the neighborhood of seven seconds, though adding more power would be a beautiful thing.

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