March 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

2015 Chrysler 200: A contender is born

Historic Hermitage Farms outside Louisville, Ky. is a thoroughbred nursery where experienced horse hands raise promising foals into sleek, athletic stallions. These yearlings are the product of expensive bets by racing enthusiasts that the right partnership of mare and stallion will breed the next Kentucky Derby champion.

How appropriate that Chrysler chose Hermitage this spring to launch its all-new, 2015 Chrysler 200.

The offspring of Chrysler design and Alfa Romeo engineering, that thoroughbred is Chryslerís hope for glory in the highly-competitive midsize sedan segment. A winner would reward shareholders who have patiently waited for a worthy midsize car bringing more customers to Chrysler showrooms.

Is the 200 worthy? I strapped myself into its stirrups, grabbed the reins of its 3.6 liter, V6 Pentastar engine, and held on for dear life. Actually, I dialed the dual climate control to 70, turned on the Sirius radio, and sipped soda from the sliding cup holder while blitzing the Kentucky countryside. When I was done, the 200 parked itself into a perpendicular parking space.

Where the previous generation stallion is headed for the glue factory, the new 200 runs with the classí best studs. Galloping over twisty roads, the Sterling Heights-manufactured car instantly exhibited its Italian DNA. The Chrysler is built on the athletic Alfa Giulietta skeleton ó what Chrysler calls its CUS-wide architecture ó built of 65 percent high strength steel. With a best-in-class 295 horsepower, coupe-like styling and all-wheel drive, the premium 200c edition signals the brandís intent of being a performance leader. Let Toyota Camry win the science fair for best sewing machine; the 200 wants to win the Derby.

Though shy of the class-leading Mazda6 and Ford Fusion, the 200ís handling is above average ó putting it neck-and-neck with the Honda Accord. And with more ponies than the Accord or Fusion, the Pentastar will outrun them down the back stretch.

This stallion is not only fast ó it is comfortable, fuel efficient and easy to use.

The midsize 200 carries a lot of brand responsibility on its back. Unlike crosstown rivals Chevy and Ford, the 200 doesnít benefit from entry-level compact sedans. Like your peppy Ford Fiesta or Focus? Let me show you the gorgeous Fusion or Taurus under the same dealer roof.

Chryslerís menu, meanwhile, is a dogís breakfast. Fiat does subcompacts, Dodge the Dart compact, Jeep makes SUVs. The 200 is Chryslerís midsize hauler and entry-level sedan all wrapped into one. Ranging in price from $22,695 to the mid-$30,000s, the 200 is a one-car buffet of sandwich options. From the base, FWD, 4-cylinder LX to the AWD, 6-cylinder C, the 200 offers two drivetrains, four trim levels, and an army of safety features.

ďThis car is a vital piece,Ē says Chrysler North America CEO Al Gardner. ďItís our first touch point. The first connection to the brand.Ē

Please, Papa Marchionne, you can hear Chrysler marketers begging, can we build a compact 100? Have an Espresso and Iíll get back to you. Meantime, the 200 must wow cost-conscious youngsters as well as performance-hungry elders.

It makes its sales pitch with an elegant exterior hailed as the ďnew face of Chrysler.Ē By contrast, the 200ís big brother 300 loudly arrived on Americaís doorstep last decade with a Rolly Royce mug and ripped muscles like a warrior in the movie that shares its name. Its masculine pose has made it an icon among rappers and pro ballplayers. Will the 300 follow the 200ís new, softer design direction? Chryslerís designers are mum.

If the 300 was Rolls Lite, then the pretty 200 and Lincoln MKZ appear separated at birth. Like the Ford luxury brand, its thin, swept front grille is inspired by the wings in its company logo. Its rhythmic, organic lines ripple across the carsí flanks, tapering into a stepped rear end that is very MKZ.

But just as the MKZ shrinks in the shadow of an Audi A6, the 200 may get lost amid the bold stylings of the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata. They light up the stage with big pouty lips and grinning grilles. Chrysler wants the sexy new 200 to rock your world, but she comes on like Sade, not Beyonce.

Form follows function, however, and the 200ís slippery lines give it a best-in-class .26 drag coefficient ó part of Chryslerís comprehensive theme of power and fuel economy. To save fuel the 200 boasts an innovative 9-speed transmission and AWD system that only engages when needed.

But where this thoroughbred really shines is in the saddle.

Like Chryslerís legendary minivans, the 200 brings innovation, style, and meticulous attention to detail to the cockpit. At its center is a rotary e-dial shifter and electronic parking brake. With no linkage to house, the center console is liberated as a multi-use piece of furniture with huge storage space (decorated with Detroit skyline artwork) under the shifter perfect for my wifeís stuffed purse. Sliding cup holders reveal a pass-through to more space behind the shifter where she can recharge the smartphone in her purse via a USB port.

Her smartphone effortlessly syncs with Chryslerís UConnect touchscreen, the planetís best infotainment system. It anchors a sweeping, two-toned dashboard that is as elegantly designed as the carís exterior. Its intuitive display and climate dials are a refreshing contrast to the Accordís madhouse stack of screens and buttons. Its high-grade buttons shame the Fusionís rubberized controls.

The 200ís backseat is less friendly. For a 6-foot-5-inch freak like myself, rear seat entry is a calisthenics class of deep neck bends and leg tucks. So scarce is knee-room that Chrysler designers carved recesses into the back of the front seats. This is by design. Chrysler marketers calculate that 80 percent of rear, midsize sedan passengers are kids. Got teens? Buy a Chrysler minivan. The 200ís marketing sweet spot is 35-year-olds with no kids who crave the 200ís sporty, coupe-like lines.

I asked 200 marketing chief and unreformed motorhead Andy Love if Chrysler would entertain an SRT performance version. His answer: With Subaru WRX-like all-wheel drive and horsepower, 200 is already there.

The pairing of Chrysler mare and Alfa stallion has bred a promising foal. Raised by 1,000 shiny new robots in Chryslerís historic, revamped Sterling Heights assembly plant ó call it Pentastar Farms ó this stallion deserves a look in the midsize Derby.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

With a best-in-class 295 horsepower, coupe-like styling and all-wheel drive, the premium Chrysler 200c edition signals the brand's intent of being a performance leader. / Chrysler Group LLC
Though shy of the class-leading Mazda6 and Ford Fusion, the Chrysler 00's ... (Chrysler Group LLC)