By Charles Krome
Frankly, I had my concerns when I heard the Chrysler Group was going to reconstitute its Street and Racing Technology group as its own individual brand. It didn’t seem like the best use of the automaker’s resources to me, especially when you consider that Chrysler is still in the process of getting its regular lineup sorted out—remember, the only Chrysler Group subcompact currently on the market is the low-volume Fiat 500, while its entries in the compact and mid-size sedan segments remain way behind the times. And beyond this, the automaker is already trying to support another new brand, Ram Trucks. But while the left side of my brain still had some questions after I attended the recent kickoff of the SRT High Performance Tour at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich., the gray matter in the right side of my skull came away more than satisfied with what’s going on.
Although you have to take what you hear at automaker events with a large dose of NaCl, Ralph Gilles—president and CEO of the SRT brand as well as the noted designer behind vehicles like the 2005 Chrysler 300—offered a strong take on the division’s genesis. Candidly admitting that he’s “inventing it as he goes along” to some extent, Gilles positioned the SRT brand as something like a community-based outreach program, but one in which the community in question is made of unabashed enthusiasts who are looking for superior performance across the entire ownership experience.
Thus, the SRT group will rely on grassroots efforts like the High Performance Tour to spread the word about the brand, and also put in significant effort to take care of its customers.
As Gilles said, he had spoken to many current SRT customers who “came for the cars and stayed for the people,” and maintaing that kind of relationship with new owners will be a key to the SRT brand going forward.
That customer-focused approach also clearly informed the extensive upgrades that went into the 2012 SRT lineup. A few choice examples:
- The exhaust outlets on the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 were moved to allow easier access to its trailer hitch, because research shows that owners actually do use the vehicle for towing—in fact, the Tour uses a Grand Cherokee SRT8 to tow its (small) media trailer.
- All four vehicles get a nifty adaptive suspension, but it’s uniquely tuned in each to meet the differing expectations of target owners.
- Much was made of SRT work in tuning the vehicle’s exhaust notes, which included efforts to mute the usual V8 rumble when the vehicles are cruising the highway in sixth gear.
- While SRT owners understand these vehicles will never be gas-sippers, they are still sensitive to fuel-efficiency issues. Chrysler’s ability to milk 23 mpg highway out of a massive HEMI V8, thanks to technology like cylinder deactivation, was both noticed and welcomed in early feedback.
So, what about the vehicles? Gilles said that the new generation of SRT products was developed to meet world-class benchmarks in five separate areas: Performance, braking, exterior design, interior design, and ride and handling. Helping today’s fearsome foursome accomplish this goal is hardware that includes the all-new 6.4-liter HEMI that makes 470 hp and 470 lb.-ft. of torque and a high-tech, quick-reacting adaptive suspension with multiple driving modes (two in the cars, five in the Jeep thanks to its pre-existing four-wheel-drive setup) and extensive use of industry-leading components (like Brembo braking systems and Bilstein shocks).
The bottom line is that all four can get from 0-60 in under five seconds and from 60-0 in under 120 feet, while the Challenger, Charger and 300 can rip off quarter miles in the 12-second range and do 0-100-0 in under 16 seconds; the Grand Cherokee can handle the same performance tests in the mid-13’s and mid-16’s, respectively. And all four boast top speeds north of 175 mph.
There were limited driving opportunities at the event, but I was lucky enough to enjoy a roughly 15-minute loop in the Challenger SRT8 392 with Adam Forte, the car’s vehicle development manager, in the passenger seat. This was no kind of on-track experience, but we spent time on both the highway and some relatively winding roads around Chrysler’s HQ, and the car was a very, very impressive package.
Acceleration was top-notch—once I figured out the difference between first and third gears in the Challenger’s six-speed manual transmission—and that was to be expected, but the adaptive suspension was a nice surprise. The regular driving mode smoothed out the road to deliver the kind of livable ride that would make the Challenger a fine daily driver, yet without numbing road feel to the point where you forget you’re in a performance coupe. Switching to “Sport” mode aggressively tightened up the chassis and flattened out any of the relatively minimal body motion you get in the regular setup, and while I wouldn’t recommend it for commuting, the ride still wasn’t impossibly harsh.
Forte provided some fascinating insight here, too, explaining how the suspension relies on some unique Chrysler-only technology to get the job done. This includes using in-vehicle accelerometers to help sense unwanted body motion and leveraging one of the fastest-reacting shock setups to limit said motion. Although he was careful not to diss the much-lauded magnetic ride control used by GM in certain Corvette and Cadillac models, Forte said the SRT setup was less complicated (and hence more durable) as well as quicker to respond.
I also had a much shorter run in the Chrysler 300 SRT8, which pointed up just how different an experience you get in the different SRT models. The Challenger and 300 are at the opposite ends of the SRT aggression spectrum, with the former much more focused on on-the-road performance and the latter specifically tuned to target European E segment sedans. As a result, the cabin of the 300 was much more luxurious, with a striking use of carbon-fiber accents and a heavier reliance on touchscreen controls. The problem was, driving it back-to-back with the Challenger made the 300 seem unexpectedly lethargic and ungainly. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: For pure driving excitement, a full-size sedan configured with an automatic transmission simply cannot compare to the thrills you can wring out of a better-proportioned coupe with a six-speed DIY gearbox—regardless of what it might say on their spec sheets.
Now, I do have to say I noticed the occasional fit and finish issue, but I’m going to let most of that slide because these were early vehicles. However, I am going to have to call out Chrysler for its performance on the ol’ Krome Roof Seal Test. The Charger, 300 and Grand Cherokee were all up to snuff, as the cars did without a roof-rail seal and the Jeep’s was finished off adequately. Yet the Challenger’s roof-rail seal had an ugly, hacked-off appearance that wasn’t adequately covered up.
But that’s just a small part of the SRT story, and folks will have plenty of chances to check the vehicles out for themselves during the SRT High Performance Tour, which will hit more than 40 stops across the country this fall.
For more info, visit www.DriveSRT.com.
(Some notes on the photos: Mouse over them to see the caption if you’re not sure which model you’re looking at. Also, don’t waste too much time trying to figure out what’s wrong with the steering wheel in the Challenger’s interior; it’s just “upside down” because of how the wheels are turned.)