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NEW CAR REVIEW
Chrysler 300 AWD, Passat 4-Motion blizzard battlers
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) – Ah, wintertime. Having previously reviewed the Chrysler 300 in various forms, and the Volkswagen Passat, I found both of them smooth and satisfying sedans with large-car comfort and room, and current high-tech road handling manners.

The whole project came together nicely, and underscores one extremely important fact about cars. While most driving in the Upper Midwest is done on pavement, those moments when we drive on ice or snow, or both, cause us to rank our cars as good or bad in snow. Usually we do so with bottom-line performance in treacherous winter storm circumstances, without considering how big a difference the right tires can make.

Since the 300 can be obtained with a Hemi V8 and a fire-breathing SRT8 high-performance version, it also comes standard with rear-wheel drive. The Passat, on the other hand, starts out with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine – one-third the displacement size of the Hemi V8 – the difference is significantly made up with the Passat’s turbocharger, and all-season traction gains considerably from the Passat’s standard front-wheel drive.

Still, I was hoping to get the chance to drive the all-wheel-drive versions of both cars in good-ol’ Minnesota winter. And not JUST Minnesota winter, because the Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been no more snow-struck than Chicago this winter.

But Northern Minnesota, up around Duluth and northward, has been a true winter wonderland. Because I spend part of each week up on the North Shore bluff overlooking Lake Superior from the North Shore, my timing couldn’t have been better.

On the same mid-February week, I got two test-drive cars – a Chrysler 300 AWD, and a Volkswagen Passat 3.6 4-Motion.

Ideally, since I had already road-tested both cars in their other forms, I could focus specifically on how they worked in the Great White North.

But a lot of Upper Midwest locations haven’t gotten a lot of snow this winter, and generally don’t get a lot of the heavy stuff, but even when a driver faces even rare storms that can make driving treacherous, the heart-in-the-throat/white-knuckle moments make the security of good winter-drive cars priceless in their security.

Checking out the patches of green – OK, brown – grass in the Twin Cities, we knew that the Duluth region had been hit with a couple of 6-inch snowfalls, so my wife, Joan, and I headed north. Admittedly I was a lot more enthusiastic about the weekend than Joan.

We each drove one of the vehicles the 150 miles to the North Shore, so I got to drive both of them while we were up there, then we swapped for the return trip.

We couldn’t have scripted it more perfectly, because on our first night, it started to snow.

 

And it kept snowing, throughout the next day. Our neighbor, who is our local hero, showed up with his Polaris All-Terrain Vehicle and its sturdy plow, and did a quick job of shoving the snow aside.

I asked him if I should move the cars, and he said not to bother, because, as he glanced upward into the fast-falling feathery flakes, he bypassed alliteration to say: "I’ll be coming back later."

Sure enough, it kept on snowing. Downtown Duluth got 11 inches, we got 14.5, and for parts of the day, it fell at a rate faster than 2 inches per hour. When I went out to try the cars, the snow was already back up to bumper-height in the driveway, and on our road.

The cars both looked surreal, with snow piled on every flat surface, completely encasing everything, including the grilles, and the headlights, which had an eerie glow through their own personal shrouds.

This was the kind of snowstorm where sane people stay home and listen to the event closings on the radio, and in which borderline sane auto-reviewers go charging out to see how the car works.

Checking out the Chrysler 300, I noted that the tires mounted were enormous, on 18-inch wheels. They were Continental tires with an "M+S" notation on the sidewalls.

That means mud and snow, and it means the tires are designed for the next-best thing to severe-weather, on a scale that goes from performance, to all-season, to M+S, to severe-weather, to all-out snow tires.

So I was confident as I backed the Chrysler 300 out the long driveway, although it slithered a little through the heavy snow, before it burst through the snowplowed ridge to reach our main road. After checking to make sure nobody was coming either way, the 300 spun a little as I backed onto the road.

  I drove on down the road, letting the accumulated snow fly off the roof and rear deck to form a whiteout trailing the car for a hundred feet or so – a beautiful sight, through the rear-view mirror.

The steering felt OK, but a little light considering that there was a slippery base under several inches of snow on the roadway. But the car handled pretty well, and in my mind, the security of all-wheel drive gave me some confidence.

More confidence than I should have had, perhaps. Going up some of Duluth’s steep hills was OK, but on the snow-covered ones, the car wanted to grope for grip.

At one point on our snow-covered road, I stopped to return to the house. I backed carefully into a plowed driveway, and when I was crosswise in the road, trying to finish my turnaround, the car spun and slithered considerably before I got it around. I got back underway gingerly, but effectively, and made it up our final hill without any undue hassle.

Next it was the Passat 4-Motion’s turn. I had backed it out first, so it had no advantage of previously broken trail, and parked it on the road while I had retrieved the Chrysler. The Passat stuck very well, churning through the deeper snow and the plowed pile, without spinning.

As I headed down the road, with the snow blowing off behind in similar fashion, the 4-Motion all-wheel drive elicited the same sort of confidence, but it also drove with a more secure road-holding feel as I drove to the same location, turning around at the same driveway.

This time, there was no hesitation, no slipping or slithering, as I got perpendicular in the roadway and finished my turn over the crown of the roadway.

Later driving, I tried some unplowed side streets as well as slippery hills, and the Passat scaled them with ease.

When I checked, I was frankly surprised to see that the car was shod with Michelin Pilot tires – but they were the new all-season Pilots, with about six letters of designation following, and they had all-season designation on 17-inch wheels.

The Michelin Pilot Sport high-performance tires are basically dangerous to drive on ice and snow, but this year’s new all-season version has a stickier compound that worked very well.

Breaking down the cars further, the 300 had Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V6 instead of a Hemi V8, and has 250 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque running through all four wheels. The car weighs 4,300 pounds, and it has the blunt-design exterior which has been a huge success for DaimlerChrysler.  

Inside, luxury touches to the leather seats, the white-backlit instruments, and the added fifth gear to the automatic transmission make it a smooth and luxurious highway cruiser. Its price is an estimated $35,000 as tested, as 300s start at $24,200 and crest at $42,695 if you load up all the top goodies, including the SRT8 power.

The Passat 4-Motion, meanwhile, is similarly luxurious inside, and has Volkswagen’s new-look redesigned body, which is sleek and stylish in the manner of a new Jetta stretched at both ends. Interior room is good, and the safety characteristics are excellent.

The base price of $31,900 went up to a listed $35,280 with a luxury package that includes wood trim and leather, with heated windshield and headlight washers and manual sunshades on the rear and rear-side windows.

That includes the 3.6-liter direct-injection V6, meaning it’s just about the same size as the Chrysler engine, but it has 280 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque because of the direct-injection dosages of more controlled fuel input to each cylinder.

But there’s one aside to the Passat. I got 20 miles per gallon on one tankful, and 24 miles per gallon on a more freeway-oriented second tankful. The 20 was about the same as the Chrysler 300.

However, for my personal taste, the previously tested Passat 2.0, with the exceptional 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder, had more than enough power in front-wheel-drive mode, and I have been able to get over 30 miles per gallon with that engine in the Passat and its cousin, the Audi A4.

Not only that, but the Passat with the 2.0 has a base price of $23,900 and a loaded-up price tag of $31,565.

However, in this test, we return to the 300 and Passat all-wheel-drivers, and the Passat was a clear winner in secure, non-slithering traction. But the difference was clearly in the tires – which is something manufacturers don’t seem to think much about, and which consumers must think more about.

In many cases, if your car’s winter traction seems to be a bit scary, it is possible to rectify the situation by locating a tire dealer that performs tire siping, a process that can greatly improve ice traction inexpensively. Otherwise, a new set of tires is the only answer.

It is obvious that a tire manufacturer can put "all-season," or "M+S" on the sidewall without stringent requirements – or at least without requirements that stress ice and snow driving. There are some exceptional tires on the market now.

Pure winter tires from many tire-makers are good, led by the Bridgestone Blizzaks, which are outstanding on pure ice and heavy snow, although they also wear quickly when driven on pavement – as most days are, even in winter.

Personally, I rank the Nokian WR all-season tires as the best, because their price is not prohibitive, they stick very well in all winter conditions, and they will run 65,000 or more as well as all but the highest high-performance tires if you leave them on year-round.

It would be very interesting to see how the Chrysler 300 AWD would go through snow with Nokian WRs mounted.

Similarly, while the Passat 4-Motion worked better with its Michelin Pilot all-season tires than the Chrysler did with its Continental M+S tires, the Passat also would be improved more with the Nokians.

In most situations, drivers may not give much thought to the fact that the only thing between their cars – and their families – is that little foot-long patch where each of the four tires meets the road.

But when it’s the harshest storm of winter, with ice or hard-packed snow under a foot of fluffy stuff, and you have to get somewhere, the price of a set of $100 tires is a cheap form of security against heart-in-the-throat, white-knuckling.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.