The 2005 Chrysler 300 was as good as it got for DaimlerChrysler.
The 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corporation was the brainchild of Jürgen Schrempp, Daimler’s ambitious CEO. Schrempp was on a mission to drive up the profitability and shareholder value of the group, following the disastrous early-1990s acquisitions spree of his predecessor, Edzard Reuter. Reuter had tried to turn Daimler into a broad-based global technology conglomerate, but instead oversaw a collapse in profits and share price that precipitated his sacking in 1995.
Schrempp believed that there was enormous untapped potential in Daimler’s automotive division, Mercedes-Benz. He wanted to leverage this to achieve a step-change in sales and market share for the traditionally conservative and upmarket automaker. This could (and indeed would) be achieved organically by extending the company’s traditional range downwards into mainstream territory, but this would take time and Schrempp was a man in a hurry, driven at least as much by quarterly financial reports as long-term strategy.
At the time of the merger, Mercedes-Benz’s US market share was less than 1%. This might have been regarded as respectable, given the relative narrowness of the company’s model range(1) and the fact that, thanks to the persistent strength of the Deutschemark, the cars were conspicuously expensive in the US. Although finely engineered, they were also rather austere looking and lacking in glamour, certainly in comparison with the Cadillacs and Lincolns with which they competed.
Schrempp saw in Chrysler, by some margin the smallest and weakest of the US Big Three automakers, an opportunity to achieve that step-change. Backed by Mercedes-Benz technology and Daimler’s financial muscle, Chrysler would at last be able to compete on equal terms with General Motors and Ford. Although presented as a merger of equals, it was nothing of the sort: in 1998, Daimler purchased a controlling 80% stake in Chrysler and took over the management of the business.
As we now know, the merger was largely an unmitigated disaster, at least for Daimler. There was an ongoing clash of corporate cultures. Moreover, much of Mercedes-Benz’s technology was either too expensive or perceived to be of little attraction to consumers in the ultra-competitive, feature and deal-driven US automotive market. The failure led to the departure of Schrempp in December 2005. In a delicious twist of irony, his replacement was Chrysler President and CEO, Dieter Zetsche, who immediately began the process of dismantling DaimlerChrysler. Chrysler was sold to Cerberus Capital Management in a deal that required Daimler to pay Cerberus a net $650 million to take Chrysler off its hands.
If the DaimlerChrysler era was a disaster for Stuttgart, the verdict on its impact in Auburn Hills is more nuanced. One conspicuously bright spot was the development of the 2005 Chrysler 300(2) full-size sedan, a car that was an immediate hit and remained a perennial strong seller for Chrysler, at least in its first generation.
The 300 was previewed by a concept unveiled at the New York International Auto Show in April 2003. The styling, by Ralph Gilles and Freeman Thomas, under the supervision of Chrysler design chief Tom Gale, scored a bullseye and the 300 was undoubtedly the star of the show. It was a superficially simple design, a three-box saloon with a high waistline and shallow DLO, but the details were resolved masterfully. These included smoothly curved flanks containing large muscular wheel arches and suitably large diameter wheels, a broad flat bonnet, upright front end with a deep egg-crate grille flanked by dual circular headlamps under a single glass, wide C-pillars and a tapered rear end with upright tail lights flanking the smooth boot lid.
Taken as a whole, the 300 had an unmistakable air of brooding menace. While in no way retro, it was not difficult to imagine it being driven by a latter-day Al Capone and his cronies. The 300 was far removed from most people’s perception of a typical ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ car, and that would prove crucial to its appeal and success.
Chrysler realised immediately that it had a potential hit on its hands. Wisely, the styling was immediately frozen for the 2005 model-year production car. The 300 was based on Chrysler’s newly developed LX full-size RWD platform. It employed a rear subframe and five-link independent suspension derived from that of the Mercedes-Benz W211 E-Class. The double-wishbone front suspension came from the W220 S-Class. The German automaker would also supply the car’s four or five-speed automatic transmission, differential and driveshafts, as well as steering gear, ABS and ESP modules and numerous other items of mechanical and electrical equipment, all expensively developed and proven in Stuttgart.
The standard power unit in the US market was a Chrysler 3,518cc (215 cu in) 60° V6 petrol engine producing either 190 or 250bhp (142 or 186kW) depending on whether it was fitted to a base or Limited model. The option of 4WD was available, utilising Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic system. The top-of-the-range 300C model was fitted with Chrysler’s 5,653cc (345 cu in) Hemi(3) V8 engine producing 340bhp (254 kW). This engine featured two spark-plugs per cylinder and the ability to run on just four cylinders under light loads, to improve fuel consumption.
Of course, these large capacity petrol engines would be pretty unattractive in European markets, but Mercedes-Benz was able to supply a more appropriate power unit, its excellent 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6. Cars equipped with the diesel engine would comprise the vast majority of European sales of the 300.
There was also an estate version of the 300 called the Touring. This variant had the unusual feature of a tailgate that was hinged far forward into the roof, to increase the size of the opening that would otherwise have been very shallow, thanks to the car’s low roofline, falling towards the rear.
Autocar magazine tested the 300 saloon fitted with the turbodiesel engine when it arrived in the UK in September 2005. The reviewer described it as “charming, rather than convincing” and summarised its prospects as follows: “Buyers charmed by the 300C’s distinctiveness will chop in their 4x4s and coupés, rather than E-classes and A6s.”
The magazine was rather more taken by the Touring version, tested in May 2006. The reviewer described it as “Big, bold [and] little brash.” He preferred its styling to that of the saloon and conceded that it had “loads of kit” and a decent amount of room, with 603 litres of boot space with the rear seats up, increasing to 1,602 litres with the seats down. The Mercedes V6 turbodiesel was “nicely smooth and very appropriate for the car, especially as it’s mated to a (standard) smooth-shifting five-speed auto ’box.” Dynamically, “The handling’s okay rather than brilliant, and the ride is too harsh, the car failing to deal with poor road surfaces.” Overall, the car was considered “surprisingly charming” and “good value for money…a more individual alternative to the usual load luggers.”
Had the 300 looked like a typical US large sedan and station wagon (and without the diesel engine) it would most likely have proved of little interest in Europe, where it was up against some formidable opposition. But the 300 had an ace up its sleeve, styling that made it look highly distinctive, which drew in customers that would never before have considered a Chrysler. That it became a favourite of US rap artists and featured prominently in music videos merely added to its bad-boy appeal.
Moreover, there emerged a perspective that the 300 looked like an alternative-reality Bentley, the sort of car the storied British marque might be producing if it had not been creatively stifled by its more buttoned-up sibling, Rolls-Royce, for so many years. Aftermarket kits containing mesh grille inserts and winged ‘B’ badges made real this re-imagining and became very popular. The 300, in the UK at least, gained something of a geezer-ish pub landlord done well image, but that seemed to do it no harm.
Surprisingly, the 300 lasted just six years in its original form, during which time a total of 684,265(4) found buyers in the US and a further 49,808 in Europe. From 2004 to 2009, the 300 was also sold as the Dodge Magnum in estate form only and this accounted for an additional 169,080 US sales.
Chrysler was then faced with the dilemma of how to update what had quickly become an iconic design, and it flunked the test: the replacement model, based on the same platform and a similar mechanical package, was broadly comparable in appearance, but the details that made the car so distinctive were all toned down. The new 300 was not a bad looking car but, in comparison to the original, it looked like a tepid facsimile.
Worse was to come: Chrysler’s brief period of post-Daimler independence had been followed by a bankruptcy filing during the 2008/09 Global Financial Crisis. Following its restructuring, Fiat bought a 20% stake as a prelude to a full merger to create FCA(5). Bizarrely, in 2011 Fiat management came up with the wheeze of rebranding the 300 as the Lancia Thema in continental Europe(6), an insult to the heritage of both marques. The faux-Lancia deserved to fail and duly did so: just 5,103 found buyers over six years.
The second-generation 300 has now been on sale for over a decade but has never come close to replicating the success of its predecessor. Over ten years from 2012 to 2021 inclusive, US sales were 448,378. In Europe, only 631 were sold before the model was discontinued in 2018. The 300’s protracted demise is a sad end to what was, for a time at least, a very characterful if flawed car.
(1) The A-Class had only recently been launched and had suffered a difficult first year, thanks to the notorious Elk Test fail that had raised legitimate concerns about its safety.
(2) Most people refer to this car as the 300C but, strictly speaking, it was called the Chrysler 300. The ‘C’ suffix was originally reserved for the 5.7-litre ‘Hemi’ model.
(3) Short for ‘hemispherical’ which originally described the shape of the combustion chambers in the cylinder heads.
(4) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com
(5) Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
(6) The smaller Chrysler 200 convertible was also rebranded as the Lancia Flavia for continental European markets in 2012.