The most visible stepchild of the failed DaimlerChrysler marriage was the Chrysler Crossfire, a car that matched the styling of a Chrysler concept car with proven Mercedes-Benz mechanicals from its SLK. Thirty years from now, will the Crossfire be like the Plymouth Superbird, unloved in its day, but ultimately a cherished collector car?
The early part of the decade was ripe for a new type of enterprise, the newly formed German-American car company that merged the historic brands of Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler. It was the promise of having the best of both worlds, the old-world craftsmanship of Mercedes-Benz combined with the cutting-edge design that was Chrysler’s hallmark. And one of the by-products of this joint venture was the Chrysler Crossfire. It incorporated a Mercedes-Benz SLK platform with the flair of a Chrysler concept car. Unfortunately, by the time the Crossfire reached showrooms in 2003, the technology was almost a decade old and the styling to some was rather ungainly. Was the car doomed to failure?
The production Chrysler Crossfire was introduced to the American public in the autumn of 2003 as a slick, two-seat, closed sports car, and the first ever to wear a Chrysler badge. Based on the well-received Chrysler Crossfire concept from 2001, it was built upon the donor platform of the first generation SLK introduced in 1997 which was roughly the same size. Although reworked for this application, the mechanicals were all borrowed. The interior was recycled from the SLK as well, then restyled to provide a unique appearance. With complex stampings and projecyrf production numbers of only 20,000 per year, manufacturing was farmed-out to German Coachbuilder Karmann. If you ever wanted to own a concept car, the production Chrysler Crossfire is probably as close as you’ll ever get.
The Crossfire’s wheelbase is only 94.5 inches and both the front and rear overhangs are minimal. The small dimensions are apparent inside; this is a true two-seater. A high bulkhead immediately aft of the front seats precludes tossing anything behind them, and there are only 7.6 cubic-feet of cargo space under the rear hatch. The interior’s SLK pieces are obvious, despite the Chrysler designers’ restyling. Still, the Mercedes starting point gives the Crossfire hands down the best-quality interior of any Chrysler during this period. The surfaces are attractive and the silver trim brightens things up compared to the SLK.
At the time, the eighteen-valve, 3.2-liter SOHC V-6 was a staple of the Mercedes lineup, and in this application it makes 215 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. There was a choice of two transmissions, the Mercedes Touch Shift five-speed automatic that Chrysler badges with its AutoStick label, and a six-speed manual, whose stubby shift lever promises short, slick shifts, but whose linkage doesn’t really deliver. And the clutch’s long travel makes shifting feel more like work than play. Almost every reviewer took the six-speed manual to task, suggesting, as they did with the SLK, to opt for the automatic.
Chrysler tuned the suspension to be firmer than the SLK and specified larger wheels with lower profile rubber: 225/40ZR-18 up front, 255/35ZR-19 at the rear. The high-performance and available all-season tires were Z-rated. Unfortunately, the Mercedes recirculating-ball steering unit can’t hope to match the feel of the best sports cars like the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4, and the Nissan 350Z.
In 2005, Chrysler added a roadster model as well as a powerful new SRT6 model available in both coupe and roadster body styles. The SRT6 features a supercharged version of the V6 rated at 330 horsepower, a huge jump from the standard 215 horsepower engine. (It was a slightly detuned version of the SLK’s AMC motor.) Chrysler claimed the SRT-6 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5 seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 155 miles per hour. The suspension and brakes were upgraded. The big rear wing that comes on the SRT6 models detracts from the Crossfire’s styling, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Sales of all Crossfires were lackluster at best, although Chrysler’s marketing people were quick to point out that they exceeded the sales of the Audi TT. There were two very good reasons. First was the fact that the buying public was made aware of the borrowed bits from the first generation SLK. Mercedes was about to introduce the second generation model right about the same time the Crossfire went into production. Second, the price point for the Chrysler Crossfire was very optimistic (starting at $35,000), a price point that the general public could not accept from their local Chrysler retailer. This is exactly what happened to the new Chrysler Pacifica (a new six-crossover carrier that went into production at the same time the Crossfire did).
It only got worse with the introduction of the roadster version (priced at over $40,000), and the SRT6 (starting at $46,000). Sales of the pricey two-seater never reached capacity. In fact, there were no production 2007 models produced, and many 2006 models were sold off at the web retailer overstock.com.
So was this re-worked Mercedes SLK as bad as its sales numbers suggest? Actually, with the closed coupe style, the Crossfire was more civilized than the hardtop/convertible version of the original SLK, with a very rigid body and better handling thanks to the larger tires combined with the stiffer structure. Of course, the asking prices of these cars took them out of the range of the average Chrysler consumer, and anyone looking for a German performance car would never step into a Chrysler showroom no matter how compelling the value proposition might be. However, used car values for the Crossfires have dropped dramatically, and are quite a bargain, especially compared to their SLK cousins.
If you are looking for a great-looking car with a lot of German engineering and the Chrysler badge on the hood instead of a three-pointed star, this may be the bargain of the decade. With Chryslerre-emerging from bankruptcy, there may never be a better time to put the most visible remnant of the failed DaimlerChrysler marriage in your driveway, and remember this; Chrysler-Plymouth dealers had a hard time moving their remaining Plymouth Superbirds back in 1970, some going so far as to remove the aero package and selling them as plain Jane Road Runners. Will lightning strike twice? I’m not sure, and that’s my parting shot. Read my Retrospective and Recently Deceased articles over at Automotive Traveler.