The Crossfire coupe's debut in the American marketplace a year ago could hardly be called a "launch," in the sense that the word connotes a speedy and direct projection from one place (the factory) to another (consumers' garages). No, for the little German-American hybrid, it was not so much a launch as a gentle, six-month slide off the recliner. This year, though, the boattail hatchback has sprung to its feet with freshened zeal, as it enjoyed its best-ever sales in February, an incentive-fueled 1052 units. The new roadster model ought to help continue that momentum, because it looks terrific.
Sports cars sometimes stumble stylistically when they go from a steel roof to a canvas one. The Nissan 350Z coupe and roadster are perfect examples of this unfortunate automotive truth. The Crossfire, on the other hand, is far more convincing as a roadster than as a coupe, and its handsome profile is equally appealing, to our eyes, with its roof up or down. Chrysler retained the coupe's styling theme, including the boattail rear end, while tidily incorporating a retracting top, tonneau cover, and trunk.
There are virtually no mechanical differences between the Crossfire coupe and the roadster, since both utilize the same powertrain, chassis, and safety components from the outgoing first-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK. The new Chrysler roadster's body is solid and free of cowl flex, thanks to a bulkhead behind the seats and underbody reinforcements. Body control is not what we'd call terrific, but the double-control-arm front and multilink rear suspension eventually interprets the driver's intentions. These cars are surprisingly good when you push them, helped by excellent grip from the hefty, high-performance rubber (Continental SportContact 2 on our test cars), good brakes, and sufficient punch from the 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter SOHC V-6. Unfortunately, this engine, especially when mated to the five-speed automatic, lacks charm, with nerve-grating induction noises and an uninspiring exhaust note. The six-speed manual is preferable, but the gearshift lever has all the tension of a bowl of tapioca pudding. And the steering doesn't feel much better.
Inside, the roadster offers the predictable array of amenities, but it seems that the cost cutters made off with the insulation for the canvas roof. Road noise, tire noise, and wind noise are your constant freeway companions. Better simply to put the top down, a twenty-two-second, power-operated procedure that begins with the manual loosening of a handle at the windshield header. Just note that doing so reduces cargo space from 6.5 to 3.6 cubic feet.
The Crossfire roadster might stretch the limits of how much people will pay for a Chrysler, with the base model (black paint and gray cloth only) checking in at a reasonable but not insubstantial $34,960. The well-equipped Limited (pictured here) costs a cool $38,920. The ultimate test for the Chrysler brand/price relationship will occur this fall, when the Crossfire SRT-6 models arrive with Mercedes AMG-sourced, supercharged, 330-horsepower V-6 engines under their hoods and stickers reading $45,695 (coupe) and $49,995 (roadster) on their windows.
The cynic in us has a hard time seeing the Crossfire program as little more than a case of the troops in Auburn Hills being handed sloppy seconds from the chiefs in Stuttgart, a feeling magnified by our recent drive in the all-new, second-generation, vastly improved SLK. Ignore the Crossfire roadster's mixed provenance, however, and you'll conclude that it is a fine American ragtop that many people will be glad to park in their garages. Keen drivers, though, might want to wait for the SRT-6 or even the new SLK.