At the Track with DaimlerChrysler’s New SRT Models: DaimlerChrysler Kicks Asphalt with the New Dodge SRT

The acrid scent of melting rubber is an aphrodisiac to some of us (although our asthma-plagued editor could do without)–and these days, DaimlerChrysler is doling it out all across the country. Those old Mopar boys have been quietly building up quite a stable of high-powered stallions over the last couple years, and their lineup now rivals that of any manufacturer for pure, rip-snortin’ action. They all wear the SRT badge, for ‘Street/Racing Technology;’ which is DCX’s official moniker these days for the in-house skunkworks team that’s responsible for turning out hotted-up versions of the various brands’ deserving platforms.

DaimlerChrysler’s SRT division gives a ‘halo effect’ to the rest of the brand’s offerings. In corporate terminology, “the passion for the SRT program goes into everything we build” at DCX; in reality, these hot models with the huge rims and heady horsepower figures serve to lure customers into dealerships, where, the idea goes, they’ll walk out with something from the Pentastar brand, even if they decided to forgo the 20+% premium SRT cars command. It’s a bit of the old “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra, except there’s no actual racing involved in the SRT program (and that makes sense; even NASCAR rides these days share not a single component with production models, so who needs to invest millions in a racing program when you can simply build halo cars that *look* track-ready?)

Like any good dealer would, though, the SRT guys don’t stop at just selling you the first dose; they let you run the cars through their paces to see to it that each and every buyer gets totally hooked… Thus the genesis of the SRT Track Experience program, whereby buyers of any SRT-badged hot-rod get a day of instruction and hair-raising fun at a local racing venue.

Conscientious reporters that we are, we went out and attended one of these events for you, so our beloved readers can know what it’s like to be the new owner of an SRT machine–and flog it at a local track. Of course, since we don’t own an SRT’ed version of each DCX product (and unh-uh, no way were we flogging our new long-term Charger RT amid this bunch), we got to play in the press cars–actual owners get the “run whatcha brung” deal.

It was a beautiful sight; all those horsepower-injected machines lined up, keys at the ready & helmets in the driver’s seats. We were allowed three laps of the Summit Point road track per car, although there was enough time that multiple sessions were no problem–and there was nary a car that wasn’t being flogged pretty much continuously throughout the day (the Viper even needed a fill-up at lunchtime).

Approaching this menagerie logically would lead you first to the Crossfire SRT. With 330 horsepower and 310 ft.-lbs. of torque, it’s the tamest ride on the lot (although no slouch when compared with the 215-hp regular version). Wedging yourself inside (it was a tight fit for the less-fit and/or freakishly tall members of our staff), you are greeted with plenty of familiar Mercedes switchgear, but nothing screams “hot car” here either. On the track, though, the coupe’s driving experience belies its diminutive nature–and finally begins to earn that sexy Crossfire name. It feels eminently tossable (although some of that might be body roll), and grip is great, thanks to gargantuan tires (225/40 front and 255/35 rear) and 18-19″ rims that you could melt down and make shoes for three normal cars. Although based upon the last-gen Mercedes SLK–a car few enthusiasts considered serious in any sense of the word–the SRT Crossfire ((actually AMG-tuned)) feels as modern as it looks. Motivation comes courtesy of a supercharged V6, and power delivery is quick and sweet, if not entirely linear. Excepting a few subtle cues and a half-moon spoiler that looks somewhat out-of-place, the Crossfire SRT-6 looks like a tame boulevardier–yet it goes like a baby Benz on the juice. For some of us enthusiasts, there’s nothing sweeter than that–a sleeper with class.

Smaller but hotter, like a baby habanero next to a burrito-sized jalapeno, is the Neon SRT-4. (Well, okay, it’s *not* the Neon SRT-4; for reasons that essentially boil down to vanity, the “hi!” car’ moniker is dropped entirely when the compact makes its way thru SRT’s skunkworks.) An entirely different animal than the ultimately civilized Crossfire, the turbocharged, 230-horse SRT-4 is like some sort of frisky pup on steroids. On the track, the SRT-4’s own torque steer is this pup’s own worst enemy, however. It’s all but impossible to counter the result of so much power running through the front wheels, but still, the engineers coulda saved a few bucks by eliminating the steering’s entire ‘right-turn’ function–why bother cranking the wheel when an overzealous stab at the throttle will net the same result? Stiffer shocks might alleviate the situation somewhat. The only other problem we could find with this pocket-rocket was the lack of a passenger-side grab handle (commonly called an “Oh shit!’ bar’), in a car that spends as much time pulling g’s–intended or not–as this one does, that’s a grave mistake.

SRT’d versions of DCX’s hot new LX-platform vehicles were preset as well, of course. On paper, each of these midsizers looks about equally matched; their 6.1-liter HEMI V8 making 425 horsepower and 420 lb./ft. of torque, and not a one of them weighing more than 200 lbs. on either side of two tons. However, subtle differences were evident. Some were stickier on the track, for instance–and some were more sporting in character. Still, the SRT boys (and the folks who made these rides just *have* to be boys, don’t they?) are most proud of the fact that each is an order of magnitude or two above the 345-hp normal HEMI LX machines.

The 300C SRT-8 is the king of the bunch. At under forty grand, the interior is positively opulent. We like the ‘regular’ 300C (heck, we can even dig the 300 Touring, with its’ 250-horse six–you know, for your wife), but this car takes the ‘gentleman’s hot-rod’ theme to a whole new place. The official line be damned, this is the tightest of the LX bunch (especially with the grippy tires on this example). Turn the ESP off, and it gets remarkably tail-happy–and happy is good, right? Left foot braking is a joy in the 300 and its platform-mates, nevermind the (admittedly excellent, Mercedes-sourced 5-speed slushbox). We did notice some slight warping in the brake rotors in one of the 300C SRT-8 test cars, however, belying the fact that the brakes are in general superb in this car. The bottom line? Hustling 4,000 pounds of American iron around the track at these speeds, coddled in leather and suede and accompanied by a sweet nav and stereo system, is simply tremendous fun.

At $2,000 less, the Magnum SRT-8 is available for speed freaks on a bit of a budget (and who maybe still to haul some kids around now and again, or perhaps use the long load area for work supplies–now that’s a commute!) White-faced gauges are the sportiest interior touch, although the seats hugging your thighs and shoulders are a clue, too. On the track, you can feel the extra weight in back trying to swing you around like a pendulum; but it’s not much different than the sedan and also not entirely a bad experience–as any old-school Porschephile will tell you, oversteer is *fun!* This is quite a toy–station wagon, yes, but kick-in-the-ass fast.

And for those who feel that 70+ decibels of V8 pipe music and 20″ rims aren’t enough of a statement, there’s the Charger SRT-8. Coming to a street-race near you soon, we didn’t get to sample one of these; but we’ve seen the bestriped model, and it looks hot. Assuming it drives like it’s platform mates, this’ll be the favorite of outgoing types.

Probably the big surprise of the day was the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Conceived to go head-to-head with Ford’s now-defunct Lightning, this big-engined rig has no direct competitors right now–it did its job too well; nobody could compete with the 500 horses the Viper-sourced V10 pumps out. It comes in two flavors; a quad cab and a regular, 2-door model. Either iteration wears steamroller-like 22″ rims shod in 305/40 tires; the first of many visual clues to the powerful truck’s prowess (you might also catch on to the revised front fascia, the massive hoodscoop, or the thick spoiler running across the tailgate–the fact that this partly cosmetic add-on restricts cargo loading and thus somewhat negates the utility value of the vehicle just goes to show you where the SRT boys’ priorities lie). Inside, it lets you know it means business by means of a push-button starter, a hefty Hurst shifter, and a full gauge package. As it’s a good sight taller than anyone short of Yao Ming, you don’t expect this to be much more than a straight-line machine–but here’s where the real shock comes in (assuming the looks and exhaust note of this beast haven’t already put you into cardiac arrest). The power is, of course, phenomenal–but the handling amazes as well. It’s not just grip, either; this truck is as balanced as you could imagine a vehicle with 100/0 weight distribution to be, and the excellent view of the track that sitting just below what’s technically Federal airspace allows is a real advantage. The only downside is the mongo pedals–they seem to be sourced directly from plebian Rams–that don’t allow heel-and-toeing. One other suggestion to the SRT engineers (who are surely reading this awaiting their instructions): this truck, like the SRT-4, could really use a short shift kit; it is easy to miss a shift in track conditions in these vehicles–or so says my editor, at least, who ground a few gears more than average on his runs. As it stands, this has to be our number-one recommended vehicle for contractors, carpenters and landscapers who can only own just one vehicle, yet still enjoy the occasional day at the track.

And then, there was the Viper. Legendary, and with good reason. Five hundred horses gallop under that tapered red nose, ready to fling you through any turn on the track (and if you’re a certain editor with more guts than grip, it’ll happily explore the bordering grassland with you, too). Not practical by any means, the two-seat roadster is cramped and hot–those 3,000” exhaust pipes running by your leg could roast pork. But this car isn’t about passengers, anyway, unless you’ve got them chopped into pieces and stuffed into the one-and-a-half-cubic-foot “trunk.” … Tires are 345/30 in back–fatter than your average McDonald’s fan (and probably heavier, too). This is one hot momma, and she’s all about the drive; finding ways to use its god-like power and great gaping gobs of grip to subject your body to more g-forces than anyone short of John Glenn is used to. Don’t worry too much about exceeding the car’s limits; yours are likely to break far sooner–unless you miss a shift, which is a little too easy to do with the somewhat balky unit in this ride. The Viper is one of those production cars–think Z06 or Elise–that’s really more for the track than anything else. At $85,745 that’s either a very expensive toy or a rather good deal, depending on what else you compare it to. And that’s really what the Viper boils down to; not so much a car as a thrill-machine–and with that as its goal, it’s a roaring success.

In fact, all of these SRT cars are a little over-the-top for the average driver. They’re overpowered as far as most folks are concerned, and you do pay for that–although they’re a bargain compared to the competition. They sacrifice things like space, solitude, or serviceability–depending on which model you’re looking at–but supply supreme excitement. And in that, Dodge and Chrysler have real successes on their hands–which we can only hope will eventually imbue the rest of the model line with their attitude. We can thus pretty much infer that the average buyer of an SRT vehicle–be it an $85,745 Viper or $21,295 (Neon) SRT-4–is willing to make that tradeoff of utility for the love of the drive, in the same way we can infer from their cars that the SRT engineers love the drive. We thereby decree the SRT Track Day events that DCX provides for every SRT buyer a stroke of marketing genius–how better to make a direct manufacturer-to-customer connection than to reinforce that common bond over the love of performance? We appreciate what DCX has done with these cars–and their customers will in turn appreciate the ability to hit the track, on DaimlerChrysler’s dime, and enjoy the capabilities of their new cars to the fullest.

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