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DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler unit appears certain to be developing a diesel version of its 300C luxury sedan, which goes on sale, in left-hand drive form only to start, in Europe in May, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

While not outright confirming definitely that an oil burner is on the way, officials, including Chrysler USA’s director of international product management, Jim Rickert, and Chrysler UK marketing director, Steve Gray, turn very coy when pressed. They don’t deny the derivative is in the pipeline and smile at suggestions that Mercedes-Benz’s 3.2-litre would suit ‘off the shelf’.

Engines from both Mercedes-Benz (Chrysler PT Cruiser; Jeep Grand Cherokee) and VM  – wholly owned by Detroit Diesel and in turn DC – (Jeep Cherokee/Chrysler Voyager) are already used in Chrysler and Jeep models in Europe; the VM-sourced 2.8-litre turbodiesel makes its debut Stateside under the bonnet of Liberty SUVs in the 2005 model year.

“The question [for the 300C] is which diesel engine?” an insider added, which suggests that one of Mercedes’ V8 diesels or even a whole new engine from either current supplier could be on the cards. Certainly, every Chrysler official grilled on the subject acknowledged the need for the diesel engine if the 300C is to take on Europe, where sales of diesel engined E- and S-class Mercedes models, and BMW’s 5- and 7-series, now account for significant chunks of volume.

Rickert said that every diesel Chrysler model developed for Europe has potential and is seriously considered for the US, where the acceptance of the 5,000 diesel Liberty models initially planned for the 2005 model year will be closely monitored. The challenge for the US maker is meeting a new raft of emissions rules effective for the 2007 model year, for which they have been promised the essential low-sulphur fuel that is currently impossible to obtain.

“European diesel is a very high quality fuel,” he said, noting that even after putting additives in the special stocks held to fuel Chrysler fleet vehicles in Detroit, it is still not up to the standard of the pump fuel available on the Continent.

British buyers, and those in other right-hand drive markets, face a longer wait for the 300C than those who take left-hookers. Sales will not start until July 2005. Chrysler UK’s Gray said this was because the case for RHD build wasn’t made until quite late into the programme, and that led to the inevitable delays, as parts of the car were re-engineered to suit. While the basic 300 package is broadly similar to the cars recently launched in the US, the European models have revised (quicker) steering, revamped suspension for tauter handling and a firmer ride, and new tyres to cope with faster European driving and different road surfaces.

There are fewer changes to the Crossfire roadster, which was also debuted to the UK contingent at the international press launch at Le Castellet, about 40km (25 miles) from Marseille, in pouring rain, hardly the ideal conditions to experience a new roadster perhaps, but more indicative of the conditions in which most British buyers will often have to use their cars. For Europe, the roadster has new tyres and a few equipment upgrades, as well as the usual homologation changes such as revised exterior lighting, but suspensions and steering are essentially as for the US.

Europe sees the Crossfire drop-top in May and Britons get it in July, ideally timed for the height of summer. Prices are being sat on; we expect a £1,000 premium on top of the circa-£27,000 the coupe, launched a year ago, costs.

Chrysler UK says the whole convertible segment into which the Crossfire pitches accounted for 74,000 sales last year and, targeting the Audi TT cabriolet, BMW Z4, Honda S2000 and coming Nissan 350Z, expects to sell about 2,000 total Crossfires a year, split 70% roadster and 30% coupe. Gray said sales will be limited by supply; he does not expect any more allocation from the Karmann factory in Germany than that. Rickert added that the total international markets split was expected to be 55% coupe; 45% roadster and Grey noted that the manual/auto split for the UK was expected to be 30%/70%.

Just-auto has yet to sample the 300C – that’s for later on Friday – but Thursday’s rain-swept trip in the Crossfire revealed a stylish, well-made, competent and powerful roadster with a fine ride/handling balance and plenty of performance – in both five-speed automatic and six-speed manual forms.

Its main bugbear is a lot of aerodynamic roar over the closed hood at European motorway speeds – typically up to 130km/h and often well beyond – that varies according to crosswinds and, bizarrely, with the screen wiper sweep.

Rickert acknowledges the problem but said that the need to package the hood into a tight space meant the engineers had to do without multiple layers of insulation and a headliner. “We did the best with what we could fit into the space,” he said.

For boulevard cruising when the sun (finally) comes out, it’ll do.

Chrysler has a busy time ahead of it in Europe, as it plans to roll out a number of products already shown off in the USA. First up is the revised Cherokee, later this year. Chrysler UK’s Gray is still mulling over launching the more rugged looking ‘wrapover bonnet’ Sport version with its different, more butch looks. “We sell Cherokee into the soft roader market and I don’t want to blur things,” he said, adding that he may launch the regular models first and try the Sport as a limited edition.

Late in the year, the Dodge brand makes its first appearance with the RT/10 (there is currently a copyright issue over the use of the Viper name in the UK), to be followed by two still-secret new vehicles in 2006. As well as the previously-mentioned Chrysler 300C sedan, 2005 will also see the new Grand Cherokee, as launched in New York recently; European versions again will be built in Austria and there will again be a diesel, though it will probably be a different engine than the five-cylinder, 2.7-litre Mercedes unit in the current model line.