The Chrysler 300M
Demand for nonminivan Chryslers jumped 25 percent in calendar 1998, and a dramatically redesigned Concorde was one reason. Wheelbase was not changed, but most everything else was. A wide, Ferrari-like eggcrate grille announced handsome new cab-forward styling that added 7.5 inches to overall length, making a roomy trunk even more so.
Yet despite that and a much stiffer structure, the new Concorde weighed about the same as the old, thanks to the use of aluminum for the hood, some rear suspension components, and two new Chrysler-bred V-6s. The base LX model used a 2.7-liter with dual overhead camshafts and 200 bhp, the uplevel LXi a related single-cam 3.2 with 225. Engineers worked hard to reduce the noise, vibration, and harshness criticized in previous LH models, but didn't entirely succeed. And workmanship, though visibly improved, still wasn't up to snuff.
Prices held steady, but only with skimping on the quality of some materials, especially inside. Overall, though, the '98 Concorde was an impressive effort -- enough that Consumer Guide® named it a Best Buy each year through 2003. But though sales jumped more than 67 percent for calendar '98 to nearly 65,000, buyers seemed to lose interest after that, and volume steadily declined, skidding to under 26,000 by calendar 2003. An increasingly rough market was partly to blame, but so were some new public-relations gaffes described further on.
A new Concorde implied a redesigned LHS, and it arrived as an early-1999 entry. But the big surprise was a sportier sister audaciously reviving the famed letter-series 300 line after nearly 35 years. Called 300M, it wore specific front and rear styling that made it 10 inches shorter overall than the LHS. And instead of being a luxury cruiser, the M presented itself a serious "driver's car" of the European sports sedan school. It was even designed for sale in Europe, where regulations dictated the trimmer size.
Both models came with front bucket seats and an automatic transmission married to a new single-cam 3.5-liter V-6 with 253 bhp (basically a big-bore version of the Concorde's 3.2), but the 300M added the AutoStick manual-shift feature and was even more athletic than the LHS off the straight and narrow. An optional $255 Performance and Handling Package made it even more so, providing higher-effort power steering, firmer damping, uprated all-disc antilock brakes, and stiffer 16-inch tires vs. comfort-oriented 17s (also standard for LHS).
Despite all this, the 300M was nothing like the "beautiful brutes" of old. Not only was it slower -- a so-so 7.7 seconds 0-60 mph in Road & Track's test -- it was a sedan, not a glamour-puss convertible or pillarless coupe. But the M could "out-stop" any of its forebears and leave them gasping on a twisty road. It was also built miles better, if nowhere near as well as the Eurosedans it sought to challenge. Then again, it didn't cost like they did, delivering for a reasonable $30,000 or so, about the same as a like-equipped LHS.
The 300M immediately outsold the LHS, by more than 2-to-1 in calendar '99 and 2000 with some 107,000 units combined. Heeding the market, Chrysler dropped the LHS after 2001, though it gave '02 Concordes a similar nose treatment, plus a top-line Limited model offering most LHS features at a lower price. The 300M maintained its sales pace into calendar 2000, then fell nearly 28 percent in '01.
That suggested buyers might like something even sportier, so 2002 ushered in a 300M Special with slightly more power, a few extra frills, the Performance/Handling option as standard, and high-speed tires on chunky 18-inch wheels. But that was no help, and calendar-year sales showed double-digit losses through 2004. The cab-forward Ms then stepped aside for very different 300s that we'll come to in due course.
For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:
- Chrysler New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chrysler Used Car Reviews and Prices