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Chrysler's all-new 2004 Crossfire is a two-seat coupe that combines American design with German engineering. Look underneath the Crossfire and you'll find a lot of Mercedes parts, including the V6 engine, multilink suspension, and steering setup.
Not surprisingly, it runs like a Mercedes. No Mercedes looks as stylish as the Crossfire, however. Chrysler says the Crossfire is not a red-blooded sports car and is intended to be more of a boulevard cruiser, but we think it's somewhere in between. The Mercedes engine isn't up to the output of that of the BMW Z4 roadster or Nissan Z or Infiniti G35 coupe. But the Crossfire's rear tires are bigger than those seen on some race cars, and its performance is thrilling because the car is acceptably light at just 3060 pounds.
The Crossfire originally appeared as a show car at the 2001 Detroit auto show, and Chrysler decided enough folks liked the design then. We think it's still fun to look at even after its conversion to a real production car. It is being built at the Karmann factory in Germany, which is the same place the Mercedes SLK and CLK are built, at a rate of nearly 20,000 per year worldwide.
The Chrysler Crossfire is not a car someone will buy because they need a car. It's actually a retro-mobile like a Mini Cooper, PT Cruiser, or New Beetle. Unlike those other cars, however, Crossfire is patterned after parts of classic French Bugattis and Talbot Lagos from the elegant pre-war period of auto design. The world's top classic car collectors can recognize the shape of the rear hatch, the curve of the fenders, and the subtly bubbled roof from designs they covet, although the Crossfire is a blend of many lines, not a copy of any particular beauty of the golden age. Chrysler says the name Crossfire is derived from the crossed lines of the front and rear body sections.
On first sight the Crossfire impressed us with all this copied elegance, and we think the car looks terrific. Spectators gazed wherever we went during our test drive around San Diego. We don't think all cars should look like this, however, and we think the "speed strakes" that dimple the hood, as well as the non-functional vents behind the front wheels, are kind of cartoony.
For a while after we first saw the Crossfire we kept thinking of the post-war 1959 SL Gullwing, and we kept trying to look for similar lines of this classic copied onto the Crossfire. Finally we realized that it was the custom three-piece luggage set that fits in the rear cargo area that reminded us of the Gullwings of the past. Because of the boattail shape of the rear compartment, the custom luggage is almost a necessity to make use of the tiny seven-square-foot cargo space.
Inside the Chrysler Crossfire is the familiar Mercedes adjustable wheel and pedal arrangement with a low seating position similar to the SLK roadster's. It's tight inside for a six-footer, yet the driver's seat slides back far enough for an NBA hopeful. The seats feel as if they're missing some lumbar support and we would prefer more bolstering on the sides, but they feel plenty adequate for an all-day cruise.
Also inside are bins and cubbies even more prolific than you'll find in the Mercedes SLK or even the top-dollar SL two-seater. The Crossfire cockpit is tight and coddling like a sports car's. It's reminiscent of the SLK, yet has curiously tiny sun visors. We think it will take some time for us to warm up to the bright metal trim on the center console.
We found the Crossfire accelerates with strength and force even though the output of 215 horsepower is ordinary these days. The three-valve engine sounds mildly sporty, and feels smooth as a luxury car's. It sounds louder and more purposeful than the same engine in the Mercedes E320 sedan. We particularly like the quick throttle response, which gives the impression that the engine is stronger than its 215 horsepower would suggest. Chrysler claims the Crossfire will get to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, and our test car felt like that would not be a problem. But that's significantly slower than sports cars such as the similarly affordable Nissan 350Z and pricier Boxster S.
The Crossfire does not overpower its chassis, in fact it feels just the opposite. The A-arm front and multilink rear suspension and the monster tires feel like they can cope with more speed than the engine is capable of providing.
We drove the Crossfire over winding mountain roads east of San Diego, smoothly paved with lots of combinations of tight bends and fast sweeping curves. The chassis of our Crossfire felt stiffer than the Mercedes SLK roadsters, likely because the coupe body of the Chrysler has a structural advantage. The Crossfire shares its floorpan with the SLK, but in the Chrysler it's modified with extra tie bars and frame gussets that prompt Chrysler to proclaim class-leading chassis stiffness. The Crossfire corners as flat as a sports car. Given that our drives were limited to the nearly perfect pavement of California, we're curious to find out if the Crossfire will soak up the third-world potholes lurking in the Midwest rust belt with as much grace.
At the limits of its cornering ability, the Crossfire will begin plowing sooner than a 350Z or BMW Z4. Chrysler says this is a function of the car being tuned for more relaxed cruising than all-out sport driving. The Crossfire sports huge 225/40 by 18-inch front and 255/35 by 19-inch rear tires. Two tire designs are available, a Michelin Pilot Sport 2 and a new Continental Z-rated (high-speed) all-season. The tires are relatively large for a car that is not intended to be an uncompromised sports car, such as Nissan's 350Z, but we suspect the Crossfire's large tires were specified for styling appeal.
The six-speed manual gearbox, a Mercedes unit, somehow didn't seem to feel as direct and quick shifting as we remember from previous Mercedes roadsters. We actually preferred the Crossfire with the five-speed automatic, which worked flawlessly and felt perfectly matched to the 3.2-liter engine. This automatic has an adaptive function, which learns how you like to drive by measuring how quickly you apply the accelerator in each gear. It has a manually shifting gate, too, which Chrysler calls AutoStick on its cars. Manual shifting automatics are not something we take great pride in learning to shift smoothly, but we felt we could warm up to this unit given the time an owner would have with it.
The brakes are sensitive and responsive. The Crossfire can stop like a sports car, a result of its large 11.8-inch vented front and 10.9-inch solid rear rotors matched with massive tires. Our drives took us up and down 4,000-foot elevations, and the brakes gave us confidence charging downhill as quickly as we drove uphill. Like the SLK, the Crossfire makes use of a comprehensive stability and traction control system. It's the first time the Mercedes system has been used on a Chrysler. When engaged, this system makes the Crossfire nearly impossible to upset in tricky conditions.
At 60 mph a rear spoiler pops up just under the rear window, and it cuts slightly into rear vision, but at least the noise from the spoiler's motor was not intrusive. What we did notice was that the sporty exhaust note was still audible while we cruised on the highway. It sounded distant and came from the rear of the car, which tells us there's very little noise from the rest of the car on the highway.
Chrysler Crossfire, with its custom matching luggage, speaks to drivers seeking long tours and major road trips. We really like driving the Crossfire, and we like looking at it, and those are by far the two most important things you can say about any car.
Its manners and drivability are the best part about the Crossfire. It doesn't offer the performance and handling of a true sports car, such as the Nissan Z, and there's no V10 planned, so Viper owners should feel safe with bragging rights. But the Mercedes V6 offers quick throttle and the Crossfire accelerates with force. It corners flat, its Mercedes suspension always feels controlled and it has the latest in Mercedes anti-skid technology.
The Crossfire could nearly be called a special edition. It's built in Germany and shipped here in relatively small numbers. The maximum number that will come to the U.S. will be about 11,000 cars per year.
At a time when Audi is discounting its TT coupe, you might wonder why Chrysler decided to build another two-seater. What Chrysler is doing, however, is building a car of its own with well-proven parts from its partner and owner of four years, Daimler-Benz, which builds Mercedes cars. What the company learns from this low-volume Crossfire will transfer to mainstream Chrysler sedans in the future. In any case, we like the Crossfire's unique shape and the evocative design.
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