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Chrysler 200 S: Retractable hardtop tempered by fire

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Chrysler 200 S: Retractable hardtop tempered by fire

The Chrysler 200 convertible, sold in cloth and tungsten metallic hardtop models, has starting prices that range from $27,325 with the four-cylinder to $32,820 with the V-6.

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POSTED March 28, 2012 6:42 p.m.

All it took was a major minor overhaul and some star power to get the Chrysler 200 some recognition. The car became a battle hymn for Chrysler and Detroit when home-boy rapper Eminem drove a 200 sedan in last year's Super Bowl ad campaign. The "Born of Fire" message from the two-minute spot was, more or less, "Don't Mess With Detroit."

The tone resonated with motorists willing to forgive and give another chance. Sales jumped from 765 last January to 2,365 in February 2011 — and on to 10,000-11,000 per month by fall. Sales last month were holding at 9,717.

The midsize 200 replaced the Sebring and is sold in sedan and convertible body styles, with a fabric top or a retractable hardtop. The new model brought a range of refinements, including new, more pleasing interior plastics and design, acoustic windshield glass, more soft-touch surfaces and softer armrests. There were ride and handling improvements, with stiffened body mounts but a softer ride, a rear sway bar and premium tires (Michelin Primacy or Goodyear Eagle). The new styling has sharper lines and a fresh face and rear fascia.

There are new V-6 and four-cylinder engines, both with new six-speed automatic transmissions. The 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 has fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg city, 29 mpg highway. The 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter World Gas Engine has fuel economy of 18/29 mpg city/highway.

And all this was accomplished in 12 months.

The convertible is sold in three trim levels, Touring, Limited and S (today's test car), with starting prices that range from $27,625 with the four-cylinder to $33,120 with the V-6 (not including a $1,000 incentive). The test car was $35,810 with options, including $1,995 for the hardtop.

Standard equipment is significant, including one-button, power-top operation, remote locking, cruise control, power locks/windows, power heated mirrors, 17-inch aluminum wheels, automatic temperature control, six-way power driver and front passenger seats, and Media Center 130 CD/MP3 audio system.

The 200 S adds Boston Acoustics speakers and "S"-themed features and black trim. There is special leather upholstery with suede inserts, heated front seats, a perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, 18-inch aluminum wheels with black painted pockets, body color mirrors and door handles, black painted bars in the grille, fog light bezels and a unique Chrysler winged badge with black inlay.

Safety features on all models include six air bags, active head restraints, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and electronic stability and traction controls.

The 200 convertible is the only one of its size, and the hardtop option makes it two cars in one, a coupe and a convertible — or at least a convertible that has the safety of a solid roof; it won't feel like an igloo in winter.

It is a heavy, comfy cruiser — 4,000 pounds, plus 80 pounds for the tungsten roof. The doors are long and heavy. The trunk lid, with the hardtop, is heavy, but space is creatively configured; 7 cubic feet with the top down, 13.3 with the top up, which is close to the sedan's trunk space. Sightlines over the shoulder are challenged when the top is up, and a rearview camera is not offered. There is some body shudder over rough road with the top down, but the ride is snug with the top in place.

The V-6 has good cruising power, but it takes a firm foot on the gas and the brakes to get sharp responses. The 11.5-inch vented front brake discs are of adequate size, but they are the same brakes as the ones on the 200 sedan, which is 425 pounds lighter. That weight also seemed to challenge fuel economy in my week of driving, but the Environmental Protection Agency says the sedan gets the same miles per gallon as the convertible.

At 27 seconds up or down, the top, seemingly, takes longer to raise and lower at a traffic light than I'm comfortable with. Heated seats are standard. A heated steering wheel would be nice but isn't offered.

But the 200 has many assets. Airflow with the top down is comfortable, even on the interstate and without using the windscreen. The tilt-telescopic steering wheel, the sliding armrest on the center console and the three blink-to-pass signal feature are considerate extras. The front seats have robust width, and their high seat height makes for easy entry and exit. Having the seat belts built in to the seats means a stronger seat, and the belt is always within easy reach. Headroom with the metal top is 39 inches, compared with 40 in the sedan and 38.7 with the cloth top. Back seat elbowroom is good, and footroom is decent as long as front-seat occupants can yield a little on their legroom.

And you can impress friends and neighbors by standing on your front porch to start the car and lower the top using the remote key fob.

The 200 has about another year before there is a re-engineered model that will be born of fire and imported from Detroit. The current convertible is uniquely American in its roominess and value.

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