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2015 Chrysler 200: Back in the game

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO JOHN M. VINCENT - The redesigned 2015 Chrysler 200 was brought to Portland earlier this year by factory representatives who said the midsize was their most important new car.Shotgun marriage or strategic partnership — call it what you will, Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler has revived the once-bankrupt American automaker. Sales are up on the strength of several new and revised models, and now Chrysler is challenging the affordable midsize market with its completely redesigned 200.

Affordable midsize cars are among the best sellers because they are bought by both families on a budget and those with a little extra cash who aren't willing to buy the higher priced luxury models. This is where many companies make a lot of their money, and Chrysler's last offering, also called the 200, wasn't really competitive. An updated version of the Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Avenger, it was much older and less sophisticated than such newer models as the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Kia Optima, Toyota Camry and Volkwagen Jetta.

But the 2015 Chrysler 200 changes all that. It is a thoroughly modern midsize car that offers tremendous value in its base LX trim level at around $22,000 but can loaded up with desirable options — including all-wheel-drive and an 8.4-inch touch screen — for under $35,000.

Exterior styling is similar to the compact Dodge Dart that debuted two years ago. Both are swoopy and aerodynamic, with sharp noses that flow smoothly toward broader, slightly upturned rear ends. Because the 200 is larger, designers were able to work more interesting shapes into the body, including a grill where the Chrysler logo appears to float in the center, more muscular fenders, and lower side body accent lines. The result is both attractive and distinctive.

If anything, the interior is even more successful, a dramatic departure from the previous 200 that was only serviceable at best. The dash and center console flow seamlessly together, much like far more expensive European road cars. The most radical element is the console mounted dial used to select gears. Although most buyers will be accustomed to shift levers, the dial frees up a lot of space on the console, allowing climate and entertainment controls to be moved off the dash. The resulting set up is both clean and surprisingly easy to use with only a little practice.

Interior materials are also greatly improved over the last generation 200, with much better plastics and — in the case of our S level test car — leather-trimmed seats. Buyers wanting premium touches without bankrupting themselves will opt for the S and even more upscale C levels without being disappointed.

The base 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder engine has been reworked to produce more power and get better mileage. The same is true with the optional 3.6-liter V6, which is mandatory for AWD-equipped models. The only transmission is Chrysler's new nine-speed automatic which increases mileage even more. It downshifted quickly during brisk driving and heavy acceleration in our test car. It was even accompanied by a surprisingly throaty growl from the exhaust.

The 8.4-inch touch screen in our test car was one of the best we've ever experienced. It was intuitive and large enough that we didn't have to take our eyes off the road to use it. Despite its size, the screen was also well integrated into the dash, especially compared to some manufacturers whose screens are still too small or look aftermarket.

Because of its sloping roof line, rear seat head room is not as good in some other midsize cars, but leg room is admirable. For most families, it will easy accommodate the children that usually ride in the back.

Chrysler eliminated the corporate sibling Dodge Avenger and dropped the convertible version of the 200 for 2015. Dodge is stressing performance now and its customers are likely to favor the more muscular Charger and Challenger. And while drop top fans may mourn the loss of one of the few affordable midsize convertibles in the market, there's denying that everything else about the new 200 is better.

2015 Chrysler 200

Base price: $21,700.

Price as tested: $33,470.

Type: 4-door, 4-passenger sedan.

Engines: 2.4-liter 4, 3.6-liter V6.

EPA estimated mileage: 26 city/38 highway (2.4)

Overall length: 192.3 inches

Curb weight: 3,473 pounds

Final assembly: Sterling Heights, Michigan