A muscle car gets a classy touch

For drivers who have grown tired of aerodynamic jellybean-shaped sedans, check out the Chrysler 300. From its scowling headlights to its narrow windows to its high, short tail, the 300 stands out in today's crowded automotive market.

Chrysler hopes its bold and brawny design will appeal to drivers seeking to relive the glory days of the American muscle car.

The 300 also finally answers the question about how the merger with Daimler would help Chrysler build better cars for less. The 300 uses a hand-me-down Mercedes platform from Daimler's last mid-size E-class sedan.

As a result, this Chrysler gets a world-class chassis on which to mount its bold styling as well as several powerful engine options. One of those engines, a redesigned version of Chrysler's famous Hemi V8, can be found on the 300C. (The Hemi's name is derived from the tops of the combustion chambers, which look a little like half globes or hemispheres.)

Unlike its fuel-swilling forebears, this Hemi turns off four of its cylinders when not needed - for example, when the car is idling, or gliding down the street with no pressure on the gas pedal. But put your right foot down and the 340-horsepower engine kicks in for quick getaways. The innovative Hemi boosts fuel ratings to 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 m.p.g. on the highway.

For those seeking better fuel economy, the 300 also offers two smaller engines: a high-output 250-horsepower V6 (18 m.p.g city/28 m.p.g. highway) from last year's top-of-the-line 300M, and a base 190-horsepower V6 (21 city/28 highway).

While many automakers are trying to bring back the passionate styling of the 1950s, many of their retro machines are rip-offs of earlier models, such as the VW Beetle and Ford's Thunderbird and Mustang. Few are practical and most soon fade.

The 300, by contrast, evokes the muscle-car past without copying it. Its blend of German engineering and American styling makes it distinctive.

For example, with much of its suspension and steering from Mercedes parts bins, the 300 doesn't drive like those bargelike muscle cars of the 1950s. The 300 grips the road with fluid, predictable steering and eager response time.

Behind the wheel, the first sensation you feel is just how wide this car is. Many Americans may have forgotten what it's like to look down such an immense hood after 20 years of driving tall SUVs or front-wheel-drive cars with short, sloping hoods.

Once you become used to that change, the 300 is plenty comfortable and effortless to drive. The 250- horsepower V6 I tested is potent enough for all but the most extreme maneuvers. The suspension is surprisingly stiff compared with most American luxury sedans - it skipped over a few bumps in one hard cornering test.

Inside, the back seat offers plenty of room to stretch out and won't squeeze a third passenger in the middle.

Despite its Mercedes influence, the 300 represents a unique proposition in today's car market: A spacious American rear-wheel-drive sedan with enough room for five people and a reasonable amount of luggage. Perhaps its roominess will convince a few SUV owners to trade in their lofty vehicles for a practical but muscular sedan.

While the 300 has been available with rear-wheel drive since spring, an all-wheel-drive option has just been introduced. The 300 starts at about $23,000 and tops out around $37,000 for an all-wheel-drive Hemi 300C.

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