DETROIT – The new-for-’12 Chrysler 300 fullsize sedan will “re-establish our legitimacy in the luxury segment,” says the pentastar brand’s president and CEO Olivier Francois.

With the memory of its 2009 bankruptcy fading in the wake of 16 product rollouts, the auto maker unveils the car here today at the North American International Auto Show.

But because of the 300’s legacy as a symbol of Chrysler’s design prowess, the event is as much about “protecting an icon” as it is about charting a new course, says Ralph Gilles, who is credited with penning the original version that launched in 2004.

The new 300, which went into production Jan. 7 at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Brampton, ON, Canada, features greater refinement – in looks and performance.

The flagship sedan benefits from a new V-6 engine, one of Ward’s 10 Best for 2011 that will account for slightly more than half of its sales, Francois says.

The car also will get a new 8-speed transmission, he adds. Availability begins in summer.

On the all-important design front, the 300’s windshield has been raked back 3 ins. (7.6 cm), while the pillars have been thinned. Both changes contribute to a 15% improvement in outward visibility.

Then there is the grille, object of the most noticeable change.

Gilles, Chrysler’s chief designer, says customers begged him not to change it. So the auto maker will make the original grille available through its MOPAR aftermarket products division, along with a “Bentley” lookalike version.

But the car had to “mature,” Gilles says. So the new 300’s factory-installed grille retains cues from the original but adds a more refined, elegant look.

“Bad move,” says Geoff Wardle, director-advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Gilles and his design team “totally nailed the 300” in 2004, Wardle tells Ward’s. “It did its job.

“The 2011 (model) should have been a bold new rendition to emphasize Chrysler’s new lease of life – not hanging on to Christmases past,” Wardle says.

Media buzz from the show floor is decidedly less critical. The car gets a warm reception when it takes the stage.

Marketing will play a key role in the car’s success, Francois says, adding Chrysler will focus on encouraging would-be buyers to test-drive the vehicle. “They will experience a brand-new experience.”

New features include an upgraded suspension, new all-wheel-drive system, forward collision-warning and an 8.4-in. (21.3-cm) touch-screen that delivers infotainment using Chrysler’s UConnect system.

Scheduled to arrive in dealer showrooms this spring, the car starts at $27,995.

Chrysler 300 deliveries dipped to 37,116 in 2010, a 3.9% slide compared with 2009, despite the year’s weak sales industry-wide. The car’s best year was 2005, when it accounted for 144,048 deliveries.

The 300 was the best-selling vehicle in its competitive set until 2008, when it was overtaken by its platform-mate, the Dodge Charger, according to Ward’s data.

The 300 fell to fourth place in 2009, behind the Charger, Nissan Maxima and Ford Taurus. It remained there last year, though the Taurus and Maxima switched places.

emayne@wardsauto.com