No Foolin' 

Chrysler capitalizes on roadster rage with seductive, powerful Crossfire convertible

Chrysler capitalizes on roadster rage with seductive, powerful Crossfire convertible

One year ago in this space, readers learned about Chrysler's first-ever bid to field a sports car, the Chrysler Crossfire. The car was the love child of the recently merged Chrysler and Daimler (a.k.a., Mercedes-Benz) corporations, and it was a beautiful baby. Swaddled in slinky, Art Deco sheet metal, this fastback two-door coupe sported Mercedes' 3.2-liter single-overhead-cam V6. If you bother to check, you'll find that I complimented the car; admired its under-$30,000 base price; and fretted only a little about its ability to attract finicky buyers.

One year later, the Crossfire coupe is holding its own—posting a personal-best of over 1,000 sales in February. What's more, as you read this, its baby sister is being delivered unto Chrysler showrooms throughout the U.S. The Chrysler Crossfire roadster confirms the company's determination to offer a two-seater convertible that's comparable to European and Japanese drop-tops enjoying better name recognition. Despite the irony of the Crossfire roadster's April 1 debut, Chrysler is not fooling around.

It can't afford to. This "premium" roadster category is stacked with rivals like Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, Nissan 350Z and BMW Z4. As with its delicious-looking coupe, Chrysler's severest challenge is to induce potential buyers of $40,000 playthings to give its upstart roadster the time of day. After all, Crossfire may have "speed strakes" embossed into the hood, but as a rank newcomer into a snooty club of elite ragtops, it hasn't yet earned its stripes.

Judging by some sporty driving through Southern California foothills followed by a little posh cruising along the Laguna Beach seaside, I suspect the 2005 Crossfire roadster will earn field promotions quickly. It has three things in particular going for it. It's priced right; it turns heads; and driving it is fun.

Starting at $34,960, Crossfire arguably "out-values" similarly priced rivals like the TT, 350Z and Z4. Even in upscale "Limited" trim—bearing prices of $38,920 for the six-speed manual transmission and $39,995 for the five-speed auto with AutoStick—Crossfire undercuts a base-model Boxster by at least $3,000. Crossfire's standard equipment list boasts dual-zone automatic climate control, four-wheel independent suspension with anti-lock disc brakes, computerized stability control and radio/in-dash CD audio. Its top furls and unfurls via pushbutton in about 20 seconds, and it hides under a stylish hard cover.

The roadster retains much of the signature styling of its coupe counterpart. The aforementioned strakes and a boattail crease in the trunk lid are elegant and subtle. The massive 19-inch rear wheels, complemented by 18-inch fronts, are shamelessly brash by comparison. This tiny car exudes a large, iconoclastic personality. In the bumper-to-bumper coagulations that define Orange County traffic, the Crossfire roadster is a rolling conversation starter. At least once per block, my co-driver and I held impromptu Q&As with California's car-loving commuters, answering "What is that!" and "When's it available?" types of queries from the sanctity of our open-air pulpit.

Once unleashed into the Southern California hinterlands, the Crossfire showcased its powertrain and suspension tuning to good effect. Plucked from Mercedes' E-Class sedans and M-Class SUVs, the 215-horsepower V6 seems to exult in its new "cut-weight" environment. That is, the Crossfire's curb weight of just under 3,200 lbs. is hundreds of pounds lighter than those of the Mercedes sedan and sport/ute. As a result, Crossfire's output—particularly its 229 ft.-lb. of torque—is urgently responsive to driver demands. With the six-speed manual, Crossfire laces through switchbacks, favoring third gear in particular.

Only slightly nose-heavy, handling is predictable and unthreatening. When the rear wheels step out a bit during energetic cornering, it is elating. When they step out too far, computerized "ESP" stability control tucks them back where they belong with the driver rarely minding—or even noticing. On an autocross course, the Crossfire roadster leapt and squealed through corners like a purpose-built slalom racer. Its coupe sibling felt a bit more solid owing to its hardtop rigidity; but the roadster was so admirably stiff that there was no sense of dreaded "cowl-shake" during an entire day of backroad, freeway and autocross driving.

Perfection—can it be that easy? No, of course. For all its external elegance, Crossfire's interior incorporates some quirks. It's a tiny two-seater and comfy enough for a 5-and-a-half-footer. Anyone inhaling the 6-footer's atmosphere will likely feel cramped, particularly as the steering wheel telescopes only and doesn't tilt at all.

I'm no fan of the silver-paint-plastic design scheme, moreover; and I can only hope that the roadster's console panel won't pop out of place as a similar one did in a recent road test with the coupe. Mercedes' damnable cruise-control stalk continues to drive me batty with its impersonation of a turn signal.

Perhaps my chief complaint concerns the trunk. At 6.5 cu. ft. maximum capacity, it's large for a two-seat roadster—even though one 300-lb. gawker over my shoulder gassed on about "no room for two golf bags." ("What were they thinking?" he lamented, as I contemplated golf's stunning abdication before fitness in this loutish instance.) Even at 3.6 cu. ft. in "collapsed mode" to accommodate the folded roof, the Crossfire's cargo appetite is tolerable. What irks me, though, is the necessity of deploying manually a special partition in the trunk before being allowed to lower the roof. This prevents smashed groceries—or worse—I admit; but it's a little too do-it-yourselfer for my taste in a car that's aiming to impress.

I happily concede, on the other hand, that Chrysler now fields a legitimate luxury roadster at an attractive price. It is America's sole status car in this competitive class, and I predict it will tempt many aficionados to cast aside their import pretensions and decide instead to get caught in a Crossfire.

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