On the Road Review: Chrysler 200S vs. Volkswagen Passat SEL

For the first time in many years, Chrysler has built a competitive midsize sedan capable of challenging the industry stalwarts in what is the largest selling automotive category in America. Often left with also-ran cars that quickly became rental-fleet mainstays, Chrysler has worked with new owner Fiat to create the third product from the CUSW platform that also underpins the compact Dodge Dart and midsize Jeep Cherokee crossover wagon.

To provide some perspective, we have matched the new 200 — in mid-level S trim here with optional V-6 engine and AWD stickering for $34,065 — up against the Volkswagen Passat SEL, equipped with the new 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic and a retail of $31,000.

{gallery}200vs{/gallery} If the Chrysler is to be successful in the midsize class, representing the sales of the former Sebring/200 sedan as well as the departed Dodge Avenger, it will have to siphon sales away from cars such as the Passat, the Fusion, the Malibu, the Sonata and Optima as well as the three top sellers in this competitive class — Camry, Accord and Altima. It is a formidable task, but one Chrysler must succeed at if its revival is to be complete.

Several pieces stand out with the new 200. The styling is very attractive and gives the sedan a credible presence in a class where innovative designs have clearly swayed buyers — take note of the Sonata and Fusion’s recent successes with their extroverted exterior designs. The rakish roof profile, the taut lines of the 200’s face, the tight arches around the wheelwells — all of these pieces tie in together to create a handsome car.

The 200 extends the visuals by offering a comprehensive interior as well, a premium look and feel interior that could have come from Audi. A rotary control for your transmission shifter is the notable highlight, yet all other controls, switches and buttons form a complete presentation that should please many a viewer. The simplicity as well as the elegance of the interior shouts volumes about how much Chrysler has worked on these designs.

Under the rotary shifter knob is a new nine-speed automatic transmission — the only transmission available in all four 200 trim levels, no matter which engine — standard 2.4-liter four or the 3.6-liter V-6 of our test car. Given that last year’s 200 sedan came with a four-speed automatic, one could assume that Chrysler reached for the stars with this design, a transmission that debuted last fall in the Jeep Cherokee. With many competitors using new CVT technology, many eyes will be watching the performance of this transmission.

Last, but not least, the 200 comes with an optional AWD drivetrain. Only the Fusion and Subaru’s Legacy are available with AWD, so Chrysler is certainly going after drivers who want foul weather traction. In S trim, the sportiest of four, you also get tighter suspension tuning and different weighting of the electric steering rack. Composed and agile, the 200, however, ‘feels’ heavier than several rivals, an impression derived from both the scales but also from intimate reactions over twisting tarmac. Better handling than some, not as good as others, the 200 is a middle-of-the-pack midsize sedan in the driving dynamics arena.

The Pentastar V-6 need make no apologies, as it delivers robust acceleration. With 295 horses under the hood, the 200 boasts the highest horsepower rating in the midsize field. The exhaust note is lusty too when the engine is pressed. Unfortunately, the AWD system is only available with the V-6 engine currently; a mid-cycle change is expected to make this system available with the base motor next year.

Fuel economy was respectable; a realized 25-28-mpg during a protracted visit bests the EPA estimates of 18/29/22-mpg combined. The AWD worked seamlessly, the nine-speed did not disappoint and the 200 established itself as the most impressive of the three vehicles that share this platform.

{gallery}vwvs{/gallery} Slipping into the VW Passat is a different experience from the Chrysler. Although both sedans share almost the exact same dimensions, 192 inches long, 72 inches wide and 59 inches tall, the VW rides on a 2-inch longer wheelbase, 110 vs. 108 inches, plus it has the larger, more usable trunk space. The Passat also ‘looks’ larger and definitely feels roomier inside. Where the Chrysler’s sleek profile creates visual drama outside, the interior is more intimate and personal. The Passat, distinctive in its own way outside, offers much more interior space — especially in the back seat, where three across seating is spacious. Not so much in the Chrysler. Visibility outward also is markedly better in the VW than it is in the 200 sedan.

The Passat has similar controls to the Chrysler — simple, efficient buttons and knobs for the audio and climate are roundly applauded — plus, there is the optional touch-screen for navigation and entertainment. Where the 200 earns points for crisp, colorful detailing on its screen, the Passat’s upgraded effort revealed equal amounts of information. The VW’s Sirius satellite radio also performed better than any other automaker’s unit seen recently, pulling in clear uninterrupted satellite signals where others have failed, miserably. Kudos to VW.

VW fans will appreciate the modest upgrades to the Passat’s simple, Euro-inspired interior. Shoppers looking at the VW for the first time will be seduced by the Chrysler’s more premium look. I wished that the VW’s tilt and telescoping steering wheel had more reach, and the tiny controls on the stalks for wipers and cruise functionality are apparently geared toward smaller, more adept fingers, yet the Passat’s elevated outward visibility compared to the 200’s constrained views balances any shortcomings here.

The Passat comes with four engine choices; the older 2.5-liter four is the entry level motor for base S models, the 2.0-liter TDI diesel (reviewer here earlier this year) is available in all trims, while the ‘new’ 1.8-liter direct injection gas engine, with 170-hp, will be the volume engine. A 3.6-liter V-6, like in the Chrysler, also is available and packs 280 hp. Teamed with either six-speed manual transmissions or six-speed automatics, like our front-drive test car, the Passat seems to have an uncanny ability to exceed the EPA mileage estimates. With every jaunt, the Passat’s trip computer hovered in the high 30-mpg range, often touching on 40 mpg. Throw in the urban travel that accompanies all our use and net mileage worked out to a consistent 34 mpg — better mileage than our recent Honda Civic. More impressive is the VW’s edge in range; it was common to see 300 miles of travel and still have half a tank of fuel left.

Throttle response is crisp and the lighter Passat feels eager. Peak power and mid-range power delivery are down to the V-6-powered Chrysler sedan, yet the VW is faster on the top end. Don’t ask how I know.

A speedy drive down Aroostook County’s infamous Route 11 helped to reveal many of the Passat’s handling strengths. Steering control, body cornering and overall chassis compliance were a tick ahead of the Chrysler in similar driving circumstances. Where the VW felt agile, light on its feet, the Chrysler was stable but more deliberate in its responses. With both cars sharing European design roots, these chassis designs reflect the philosophies of their respective manufacturers more than any particular advantage.

The Passat SEL has one-touch power windows all around, the 200 had laser guided cruise control. In heavy rain, the Chrysler’s rear window was clear and dry in just a few miles, a sign of the car’s aerodynamic profile. The Passat’s rear window could have used a wiper, as many other sedans could too. While both cars were very quiet on the highway, the VW gained an edge when the velocity increased.

The Chrysler earns attention with attractive styling, all around, great features and content, plus the AWD option. With pricing starting at just under $23,000, the 200 is a solid player.

The Passat, starting at $21,700 with a manual transmission, offers better visibility, a larger rear seat and trunk and slightly better road manners. Neither car has anything offensive enough to derail any buying decisions against a competitor.

Through the end of June, Chrysler had sold 45,178 units of the new and old 200 sedans, which was a significant drop in sales over the previous year. Dealers have been holding fire sales on the previous 200 model, to clear the lots for the new sedan. Factory changeover intervals slowed productivity, so the mass supply of new 200 models are just reaching dealerships.

For the same time, VW dealers had sold almost 50,000 Passats, a 10 percent decline from 2013. Diesel model Passats continue to sell well, plus VW has just announced plans to add a new midsize crossover wagon to this assembly plant in Tennessee.

The new 200 has the look, and the hardware, to make an impact in the midsize class that should surpass the previous design. The Passat, going on three years old in this design, is still a very viable offering. It will be interesting to see who suffers lost market share as the segment continues to expand, evolve and dominate the sales races.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.