When Chrysler Group executives talked about making the Chrysler marque a "premium brand" during the first half of 2003 around the time of the launch of the Pacifica (see: Pacifica: Something Else), the proposition seemed to be primarily predicated on an attempt to increase the price point at which vehicles were being sold. Which, in the case of the Pacifica, didn't go particularly well, so there was an adjustment in that vehicle's build mix such that less purse-lightening models were available. Arguably, in the time since the Pacifica launch, the Chrysler 300 cars have provided a better indication of what is meant by "premium," at least in the context of the company's cross-town rivals. Something well above what has become the accepted Detroit norm. Make no mistake, however: Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler Group president and CEO has absolutely nointention on encroaching upon the "premium" category that Mercedes competes in (he's also a board of Management member of DaimlerChrysler AG). When we asked him about the company's strategy with regard to making the Chrysler brand products more "premium," he pointed out they are using component teams that are working across the array of vehicles that are being developed so that engineering and purchasing know-how can be shared to create a cross-vehicle emphasis on improvement. And he said that they are using engineering developments made by their colleagues in Stuttgart where appropriate (the multilink rear suspension used for the 300, for example, is a thoroughly modified version of the setup on the E Class). Asked whether platform sharing across the ocean (traveling west) might not be an effective way to save significant engineering and development dollars, Zetsche acknowledged that in the short term it would, but that ultimately there would be a problem in that it would cause a dilution of the Mercedes brand: Mercedes customers or prospects wouldn't be particularly pleased if they knew there were Chrysler versions of their products. There's premium and then there's premium.
But Chrysler has a product that Zetsche acknowledges absolutely represents what he means when he's talking about "premium," and a product that shares more than just a bit of genetic material with its Mercedes kin (the SLK): the Crossfire. First appearing in July 2003, this sleek two seater, which has design character and cues that are more thoroughgoing and comprehensive than any other car in the Chrysler stable—and possibly more than any other car coming out of Detroit*—has now multiplied: the coupe is joined by a roadster. (The extremes of the Crossfire can be understood in that this is certainly a niche vehicle: in the first two months of 2004, there were 1,522 Crossfires sold, which can be compared with 12,916 Pacificas in the same period. Of course, it is not as niche-y as the Viper, of which 243 were sold.) The convertible top goes a long way toward the notion of how they're thinking "premium": Joe Dehner, director, Small/Premium/Family Vehicle design, says that more than 15 roof variations were considered before the one that is used was selected, as they wanted to make sure that the profile of the top would be in keeping with the boat-tail design that is the signature of the Crossfire. So, for example, the sew lines on the top angle inward and, on the inside, all of the cast aluminum batons and mechanisms are painted a stealthy black: "Compare that with competitive vehicles," he insists, knowing that these minor details don't match up.
Chrysler is establishing itself as a convertible specialist, with the long-running Sebring Convertible (there has been a Sebring ragtop offered since 1996), the recently introduced PT Cruiser Convertible (see 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible), and now the Crossfire.
Fundamentally, this is the coupe with the top removed and the chassis reinforced via brackets and the shape of the stamping that's used for the periphery of the trunk (there is a curve to the flange where the lid seals to the body). The resulting body torsional stiffness is 29.2 Hz. Of course, there are some changes to the body panels and the addition of a mechanism. As for the latter: there is a hard tonneau. The top can be retracted and covered in 22 seconds. (Karmann, the manufacturer of the Crossfire, is world-renowned for its work on cabrios.) And as for the panel changes, the rear quarter panel has been retrimmed as has the side glass, and the decklid and spoiler are new pieces. And, of course, to accommodate the top, there were modifications to the inside of the trunk. The coupe's trunk measures 7.5 ft3. The new vehicle's is 6.5-ft3, but when prepped so that the top goes down, it provides 3.5 ft3, which happens to be enough to accommodate three pieces of special Crossfire luggage. Although there is the change of top, many other things stay the same. The 3.2-liter SOHC 18-valve V6 that provides 215 hp @5,700 rpm and 229 lb-ft of torque @ 3,000 rpm, remains as an unquestionably premium powerplant that features a high-pressure die-cast aluminum alloy block with Silitec alloy liners and cast aluminum alloy heads. There is the six-speed manual or the five-speed automatic with AutoStick (a transmission, incidentally, that was developed with a chief engineer named Zetsche). The Roadster has 18-in. wheels in the front and 19s in the rear (with the rubber running on cast aluminum wheels). The interior amenities continue, with comfortable leather seats and interior trim that combines brushed aluminum components with a high-quality assortment of plastic surfaces. In fact, the whole thing just says "premium," which is exactly Chrysler's point.
*Actually, the Crossfire is produced for Chrysler at the Karmann plant in Osnabrück, Germany, so it isn't exactly "out of Detroit."