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RUMBLE SEAT

A little off the back

Whacking the top cuts into Crossfire's stylish beauty, but it still turns heads.

August 04, 2004|DAN NEIL

The usual tempo for new-to-market coupes is to launch the hardtop version first and then, when the fires of consumer demand are banked a little, to stoke them again with a convertible version. From Audi to Volvo, this is a time-honored tradition observed with increasing finesse, and more than a little rote cynicism, thanks to advances in convertible top technology.

The logic of this incrementalism is that convertibles are sexier, more desirable, the forbidden fruit of plein-air indulgence, cars from which practicality is almost literally thrown to the wind.

And yet, as car design grows more organic and sophisticated -- which is to say, when engineering problems interpose themselves less and less between the car and its life as sculpture -- convertible versions of coupes may actually diminish the car. I think, for instance, that the Audi TT ragtop is much less satisfying visually than the coupe. The convertible misses the corset bows in the roofline from A-pillar to rear deck, a shape that harmonizes the smooth encapsulation of the fuselage.

The new Mini convertible looks like the car has suffered some sort of farm accident involving a threshing machine. The PT Cruiser convertible -- a singular bit of faux-retro giddiness -- apparently didn't see the low bridge.

When it comes to these archly styled PoMo coupes, less is definitely not more.

From the minute I saw the Chrysler Crossfire, I dreaded the inevitable day when the company would amputate that lovely convergent shape along the rear roofline -- they call it a "boattail" but it's not really -- sacrificing the humped hatch lid for something altogether less interesting.

That day is here.

It's not like they chipped the wings off Victory at Samothrace. I mean, I'll learn to love again. But the Crossfire coupe is one of the most gorgeous cars on the market. They teach you in newspaper school to avoid the word "unique," and yet the fixed-roof Crossfire is just that. It looks like nothing else: a perfect bit of pocket elegance, sleek, vivid and vivacious, with the dynamism of the best Art Deco, as Gallic as a stateroom on the Normandie.

The convertible is less so, just so.

I suppose it was too much to hope that Chrysler would just leave the Crossfire as is, since it is based on a convertible, the Mercedes-Benz SLK. The Crossfire owes its anatomy to the SLK and is very much a re-skin of the Benz, which is being replaced for model year 2005 with a new car. Crossfire will continue with the previous SLK's hardware and well-amortized tooling at the factory in Osnabruck, Germany.

The cars share powertrains: a 3.2-liter V6 engine, putting down 215 hp and 229 pound-feet of torque, buttoned to either a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. The new, high-performance Crossfire SRT-6 (either coupe or convertible) is powered by the SLK32 AMG's supercharged V6, good for 330 hp.

Suspensions: double A-arm front suspension with coil-over-shock units up front; in back, a five-link with coil springs and shocks. Steering: Mercedes' distinctive, though increasingly obsolete, power recirculating ball type (the new SLK has power rack-and-pinion steering).

There are two significant mechanical differences between the 2004 Benz SLK and the Crossfire roadster: first, the SLK has a retractable hardtop, which is more secure, quieter and more weather-tight (though I can't imagine the Crossfire ragtop leaks); second, the Crossfire has a more aggressive wheel-and-tire package. The Chrysler is shod with huge alloy wheels wrapped with ferociously hard Continental SportContact 2 radials, 255/40ZR18s in front and 255/35ZR19s in the rear. The biggest rims for the SLK are 17-inchers.

The Crossfire's wheels and tires are dramatic, and they give the car a freaky, clawing grip in sweeping corners -- but they do the car no favors in around-town driving, where the Crossfire stutters and trembles on anything but perfect concrete. Bigger impacts set up a chassis-shaking syncopation in the car. The flinty, jostling ride betrays the wheels' additional unsprung mass.

The car is quite quick for a little car -- 6.5 seconds to 60 mph, with a top speed of 150 mph, if you feel like burnishing your forehead to a high gloss. The engine sounds like one of the "I, Robot" helpmates gargling 40-weight champagne.

Overall, the car's handling is confident and secure, with a pronounced understeer tuned into the suspension and a certain free play in the on-center steering to keep the short-wheelbase car from feeling squirrelly. The brakes are heroic. And if any of the above fails to moderate one's poor driving, a brace of electronic driver's aids, like traction and stability control and antilock braking, will intervene.

This is my second go-round in the Crossfire, and this time I'm a little less forgiving of the car's interior. The central console, buttons and gearshift are enameled in a silver satin, metal-flake paint that does not endear itself over a week's time.

All caveats and conditions aside, this car will do fine in the marketplace and, in particular, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where I was repeatedly flagged down for eager confabs of the "what-a-beautiful-car" variety. Chrysler's design team did a nice job re-sculpting the car to incorporate roll hoops into the contours of the rigid tonneau.

Like so few cars, apparently, the Crossfire has beauty to spare.

*

2005 Chrysler Crossfire roadster

Price as tested: $39,995

Powertrain: 3.2-liter, 18-valve, SOHC, V6, five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 215 hp at 5,700 rpm

Torque: 229 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm

0-60 mph: 6.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 94.5 inches

Overall length: 159.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,174 pounds

EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city, 28 highway

Competitors: Audi TT, BMW Z4

Final thoughts: Canvas lingerie

Automotive critic Dan Neil

can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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