LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- Our first encounter with the new pop-top version of Chrysler's racy two-seat Crossfire takes place on the lawn of a rocky cliff along the California coast overlooking a washboard of Pacific waves.
This spectacular setting -- a cobalt blue sea, the rugged sandstone shore bathed by golden sunlight, a manicured lawn sheered putting-green smooth and so much car metal and chrome forged into a sculpture of automotive art -- could easily serve as the movie set for a car commercial where the lens of a steadicam camera, swirling in circles around the low-slung vehicle, zooms into Crossfire's chiseled flanks to highlight fender gills scored by bright streaks of chrome.
No movie camera appears on this cool cliff-top set, however.
There's only this writer, presumptive driver for a subsequent romp across nearby coastal mountains, to chronicle Crossfire's stunning sheetmetal design.
Cast low to the ground on big wheels with sharp-edged lines strafing across an exaggerated hood and out to a boat tail rump, Crossfire looks at first blush like a car designer's homage to streamlined automobiles from the Thirties in the artistic era of Art Deco.
Shapely shoulders wrap around exaggerated wheelwells with 18-inch rollers up front but 19-inchers in the rear for a rump-high stance.
Fenders sheltering those larger rear wheels swell wide to form a muscular ledge and wrap rearward around the oversized taillamps in a scheme that isolates the bulbous back end for emphasis.
Two squarish tailpipes coated in satin-finish chrome anchor the back bumper in the center spot, while above the bumper the trunk deck curves gracefully up to a rigid tonneau cut in angular patterns of two nacelle blisters trailing behind rear seatbacks like ones once worn by vintage race cars.
Also posed behind rear seatbacks are loop-like round tubular bars that could work for head protection in the event of a roll-over accident.
From the top of a rear-canted windshield, the prow projects forward dramatically while tapering to a low-cast nose with louvered front grille pinned between corner sets of projector-style headlamps.
Side panels undulate with chiseled lines highlighted by those fender gills scored by the slashes of chrome, which resemble streaks on a daring 1954 300SL gullwing coupe of Mercedes-Benz, one of the most distinctive car designs from the last century
Design cues perhaps lifted from a vintage Mercedes and applied to a contemporary Chrysler roadster may be explained with the understanding that DaimlerChrysler is the parent of both Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, and Crossfire carries components from cars that wear the tri-star Mercedes badge.
Actually, Crossfire is assembled in Germany at the Osnabruck coachworks shop of Wilhelm Karmann, a car-crafting partner of long standing with Mercedes-Benz and DaimlerChrysler.
However, styling for the package, a clever two-seat cockpit design plus suspension tuning come directly out of Chrysler in North America.
Crossfire debuted last year as a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) sports coupe stocking a six-pack engine with a notchy six-speed manual gearbox or optional five-speed automatic combined with Chrysler's AutoStick selective shifter.
For 2005 the drop-top Crossfire Roadster rolls out with similar mechanical components as the coupe, but it's followed by special powerhouse issues of coupe and roadster badged as the Crossfire SRT-6.
The initials of SRT -- signifying "Street and Racing Technology" -- mark high-performance vehicles for Chrysler, while the digit at the tail indicates the number of cylinders in the engine.
For Crossfire SRT-6, that means a hand-built six-cylinder engine with supercharger attached to blow the muscle up to 330 hp.
For Crossfire Roadster, the single-cam 3.2-liter V6, with a die-cast aluminum alloy block and aluminum alloy cylinder heads, delivers 215 hp at 5700 rpm plus robust torque numbers of 229 lb-ft at 3000 rpm.
Noteworthy mechanical tools aboard Crossfire Roadster include power steering out of a recirculating-ball device (which transmits less road shock to the steering wheel and feels more luxurious to the driver), plus power-assisted disc brakes tied to anti-lock (ABS) and all-speed traction control (TCS) systems, even a non-skid device -- called electronic stability program (ESP) -- that integrates brake and throttle intervention to maintain lateral stability.
And to enhance Crossfire's sticky traction action at higher speeds, a retractable spoiler integrated into the tail deploys above a designated speed of 60 mph to exert more aerodynamic force on the big back tires.
Steering a Crossfire Roadster on the Ortega Highway, California's route 74, which runs from the Pacific Ocean near Laguna Beach to Lake Elsinore in the Santa Ana Mountains, we discover playful road manners that make the car exhilarating to drive.
Hunkering low to the pavement with wheels pushed to corner points for keen stability and all torque from the up-front engine flowing to those massive rear treads, it asserts itself along the winding road with predictable and controllable traction.
And tires seem to dance on the road due to the isolation of an independent suspension with upper and lower A arms up front tied to coil springs, gas-charged shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar plus at the rear a five-link arrangement with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar and gas-charged shocks.
Crossfire's cockpit is a snug space divided by a central spine and console cap and a bolstered bucket seat on each side clad in leather.
Satin silver metallic trim lines the top of the console and crowns the stubby shifter stick as well as a grab bar across each door. White-on-black gauges with metallic bezels fill the instrument panel and the metallic theme continues in bright rings wrapping spokes of the steering wheel.
A cloth top, in multiple layers draped over a metal frame, tucks beneath the metal tonneau lid by motorized means in 22 seconds. The convertible conversion is controlled by a one-touch switch mounted on the console.
Crossfire Limited trim adds luxury gear, such as power controls for seats and heat elements, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, twin zones for climate controls and a premium stereo system.
The MSRP for Chrysler's roadster begins at $34,085.