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The 2011 Chrysler 200 could make you forget the dreeadful old Sebring.

It’s been a busy year for the folks at Chrysler.  Almost exactly a year ago, new CEO Sergio Marchionne outlined an aggressive plan to turn the once-bankrupt company around.

And if anyone doubted him, the proof will soon start rolling into showrooms – starting with a new compact car called the 200 that took less than one calendar year for the Chrysler design and engineering teams to create.

After spending an afternoon in the new 200,  the much-needed replacement for the dreadful Chrysler Sebring, we came to see that the maker finally has found a credible new competitor for the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry.

The new 200 looks very much like a sedan version of the 2011 Town & Country minivan, with many of the same visual cues in the grille, headlamps, air intakes and front bumper.

Compared to the old Sebring, the 200 is much sleeker and more rounded at the nose, and carries a better aerodynamic drag coefficient thanks to steps such as lowering the front end 12 millimeters and the rear end six millimeters.

At the rear, there’s a cross-car chrome bar between the new LED taillamps and another chrome bar down between the exhaust outlets that serve to widen the look of the car.  All Chrysler models will have a new “wing” logo in brushed metal and blue paint to replace the old traditional wing logo and signify the birth of yet another version of Chrysler.

The roof and doors of the 200 came from the Sebring, but the entire nose, decklid, rear fascia, interior and chassis have been replaced with better and more modern stuff, and the old V-6 engine has been tossed in favor of the new corporate 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which puts out 283 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque, coupled to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Nose-on it's difficult to believe this is the same underlying platform as the old Sebring.

For those on a budget, or looking for better mileage, the standard powerplant is the 173 horsepower, 166 foot-pounds 2.4-liter “world” engine that Chrysler shares with two other car companies, Hyundai and Mitsubishi.

To make the car handle better, the engineers widened the rear track one inch, and retuned nearly every piece, part and system in the front and rear suspensions.  They revalved all the shock absorbers, stiffened the front springs by 15 percent, added a rear stabilizer bar, and stiffened the front and rear subframe mounts by 400 and 70 percent, respectively.

The logo is all new for Chrysler, this year, as is the satin-finish grille with its chrome surround.

The tires have been upgraded to the new quiet-running Michelin Primacy and upsized from 215 to 225 size.  The 200 has much-improved noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) behavior, with a new acoustic windshield, laminated side glass, reshaped mirrors, and a retuned exhaust system.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is the look of the interior, especially the new instrument panel, which takes a light-years jump ahead of what was offered in the old Sebring.  The maker has adopted a new, one-piece dash with soft touch elements that are not only a tactile improvement but also help improve the visual appearance.

There will be three models of the 200 to start with, the LX, the Touring, and the Limited. A critical part of the Chrysler revival strategy is to deliver an unexpected amount of content for a surprisingly reasonable price.  That’s immediately obvious with the “base” LX, whose starting price has been dropped $800 to $19,995, despite the added features.  The LX is designed for folks who want basic transportation and good value, and Chrysler projects that it will account for only about five percent of sales.  The LX comes only with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a 4-speed overdrive automatic transmission, and there are no options available on the LX. It will also be sold to rental fleets.

New LED taillamps distinguish the 2011 Chrysler 200, especially at night.

The Touring version starts at $21,995 and comes with a whole lot more standard equipment than the LX, including the 2.4 with a 6-speed automatic, 17-inch wheels, 8-way power seats, satellite radio, automatic temperature control, automatic lamps, and the option of the new 3.6-liter V-6 engine coupled to the 6-speed automatic.  The V-6 Touring starts at $23,790.  Chrysler says the 4-cylinder version will get 31 mpg on the highway, and the V-6 is expected to get 29 mpg

The Limited version adds to the Touring content and starts at  $24,495 with 18-inch wheels and tires, fog lamps, heated leather seats, a new touch-control AM/FM/CD satellite radio with a 30-gigabyte hard drive for music storage and record/replay capability of up to 44 minutes of programming, UConnect telephoning and more.   Interestingly, there will be no decklid badging on any of the 200s to indicate which model is which.

Chrysler has decided to maintain one of the plants it expected to close after its emergence from bankruptcy in order to build the 200 sedan.

Later in the model year, there will be an S version of the 200, with the V-6 engine standard, the 6-speed automatic standard, its own front and rear appearance, its own interior design, and an S instrument panel package.

And according to Olivier Francois, the head of the Chrysler brand, a convertible version will make its appearance at the 2011 New York Auto Show.  That’s no surprise, of course, considering that the drop-top take on the old Sebring was the only relatively successful version of that compact line.

The new 200 will be in showrooms in volume shortly, and Chrysler dealers are already accepting orders for the car.

That means we should soon get a good sense of how Chrysler has addressed what may be the most significant issue it faces — quality. Company officials insist that is their top priority, and well it should be considering the brand’s poor showing in most studies. The 200 will get its first test, in the coming months, as independent arbiters like J.D. Power and Associates surveys new buyers.  If Chrysler lives up to its promise, a big jump in quality, along with a hot design and greater value for the dollar could make the Sebring a real contender in the competitive compact passenger car segment.

(Chrysler hopes to emulate Hyundai’s turnaround. Click Here for more.)

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