Guilty pleasures: riding in two big bangers

By David Linklater

Chrysler 300C vs Ford Falcon EcoBoost.  Photo / David Linklater
Chrysler 300C vs Ford Falcon EcoBoost. Photo / David Linklater

Say what you will about the Chrysler 300, but when it came along in 2005 it introduced an alternative engine technology to the large-car segment.

Class kingpins Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore couldn't see past their petrol V6s and V8s, but the 300 showed that a nice 3-litre V6 turbo diesel (courtesy of then-partner Mercedes-Benz) could deliver on performance and refinement - and up the ante on fuel efficiency.

Not that the Chrysler transformed the large-car landscape. It was always a niche model and conventional big cars were booming back then, accounting for more than 20 per cent of new-car sales. Things are very different now, with the big boys seemingly sitting on borrowed time - a market share of less than 7 per cent.

At some stage back there, as large-car sales started to tumble, the Aussies decided alternative powertrain technology was a good idea. In 2009, Holden introduced a badge called Ecoline, which is now attached to Commodores with direct-injection, LPG, bioethanol or cylinder deactivation technology.

It took Ford Australia longer with its Falcon, but then it made a change in a very big way by adding the latest global EcoBoost engine technology to the car: in 2-litre form, creating a four-cylinder Falcon. If you'd told me five years ago.

As environmentally responsible large cars go, the Chrysler 300 diesel and Falcon EcoBoost look like two pretty interesting options.

Neither are short on performance and both offer impressive economy: the 300C CRD boasts 177kW/550Nm and achieves Combined economy of 7.2 litres per 100km. The Falcon EcoBoost offers 179kW/353Nm and returns 8.2 litres.

They make for an interesting conceptual comparison.

They're not direct rivals, although they could be. Falcon EcoBoost is offered only in entry-level $48,490 specification; because Ford NZ eschews the luxury/sports-oriented versions offered in Australia, there's nothing in the lineup that reaches up to 300C thanks to eco-boost.

The 300 diesel opens at $61,990 in Limited form, but is also available in even more upmarket 300C and Luxury versions.

So if you want to confound people's expectations about large-car economy but be kind too, it looks like an early lead to Chrysler.

Here's the thing: in second-generation guise, the Chrysler 300 is not quite as good to drive as it used to be. There are remnants of Mercedes-Benz's influence (mostly in the ex-E-class platform), but when the German maker left it took that smooth turbo-diesel engine with it.

In its place is a new powerplant from Italian specialist VM Motori. It delivers on paper but isn't as refined or flexible as the previous motor.

The 300 diesel also makes do with a five-speed automatic, when the petrol versions get a new eight-speeder.

The 300 is still an adept cruiser with a lot of road presence, but the chassis has lost its edge. Ironically, while the old car looked very American it felt quite European to drive. This new one has a more European look but a very comfort-oriented gait on the road.

The Falcon just seems to get better with age. The EcoBoost engine is a marvel: linear, refined and seldom short of breath even in this large-car application. It's matched to a six-speed automatic gearbox, the steering is communicative and the chassis beautifully balanced. Almost sporting.

In terms of interior build quality, it's a different story.

The Chrysler is overwhelmingly blingy but far superior in terms of fit/finish.

The Falcon has always had a bit of a garden-shed ambience and still does. But that matters less in the entry-level model and does not detract from the fact that it is a sparkling car to drive.

The large-car market is dwindling in New Zealand and will continue to do so. But if you want to enjoy one while you can and not feel the pangs of eco-guilt, the Falcon EcoBoost is an impressive vehicle.

- NZ Herald

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