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Chrysler needs more hot rod, less hoity-toity
Concentrate on horsepower, leave class to Mercedes

David Booth
National Post


Friday, December 05, 2003

The entire Chrysler division, thinks Motor Mouth, needs to return to its heady days as king of brute horsepower. The Dodge SRT-10 Ram demonstrates.

CREDIT: Brian Harper, National Post


"No problem, Tom, I'll take it easy," I shouted through the open window of the little Dodge SRT-4 to Chrysler's media flack, a man not normally given to protestations of caution. But it's pissing rain, threatening to snow, the turbocharged little compact is wearing three-season Goodyear "Baldini" performance radials and he is just recovering from yet another Viper getting scrunched by one of my autojournalist confreres. So he has earned his Nervous Nellie-ism.

"The proverbial little old lady from Pasadena, that's me, Tom. Like it's my own, right? My right foot will but fairly brush the throttle, never once to become one with the floorboard. I shall shift before the boost gauge has even a chance to stir, spinning tires are indeed the work of the devil and, on my daughter's grave [he doesn't know I have no daughter], I swear, Tom, I will not even contemplate anything remotely as heathenish as dumping the clutch."

Being a natural-born hooligan, a back-sliding, redlining recidivist, if you will, as soon as I'm out of sight, the clutch is in, the revs are up and I'm mashing the throttle like a mobile squat rack, trying to push said pedal through the floorboards.

I must say, though, that the first time I plumbed the depths of the SRT-4's performance I was a little disappointed. After all, I had heard through the motor scribe grapevine that the little Dodge was tire-squealing heaven. A big turbo, 235 rompin', stompin' horsepower and barely able to stay in a straight line when the tires were spinning.

This one seemed fairly tame. The front tires didn't threaten adhesive anarchy, Camrys weren't disappearing in the rear-view mirror like the Conservative party from political relevance, and what's this about maximum boost being limited to a measly five pounds per square inch? Hell, the water pressure in my rent-controlled, top-floor apartment is more forceful than that.

I needn't have fretted. Convinced I was doing something wrong, I waited until I happened upon an on-ramp to the 401 and then mashed the throttle, verily trying to send the SRT-4 flying forward with the force of my right quadricep. And a miraculous thing happened. The boost gauge shot to 12 psi faster than a broken Liberal promise and the SRT-4 rocketed ahead like the little subcompact that could. "Now, that's more like it," thought I while nervously scanning the mirrors for any sign that Tom had sent agents out to monitor my lack of reticence.

As it turns out, Dodge has wisely limited the turbo's boost before the engine reaches full operating temperatures, a remarkably restrained attitude for a company that is making outrageous horsepower its calling card. And a card I'm thinking the entire Chrysler corporation should adopt more forcefully.

It is no secret that the American arm of DaimlerChrysler is struggling to find its focus, its automotive chakra if you'll permit another pitiful metaphor. Auto marketing these days is all about finding a niche, one specific trait your cars all offer that the competition doesn't. And it's obvious that, for Chrysler, turning the entire brand into a somewhat upscale, pseudo- Mercedes isn't going to work, at least not in the short term.

Certainly, the company's initial attempt at redefining itself -- the Pacifica -- has so far been a bust. A more-than-decent product, it's received a decidedly tepid response from the public simply because Chrysler tried pricing a minivan like a Mercedes.

But judging from the positive press Dodge is receiving about its muscle-bound product these days, perhaps the entire Chrysler division should return to its heady days as the king of excess horsepower. Besides the stonking SRT-4 (which, by the way, the company's performance-oriented PVO division can boost all the way to 300 horsepower if its torque-steering ways aren't silly enough for you), there's the 500-hp Viper and the equally endowed, twice-as-silly Ram SRT-10 pickup. There are also rumours of a lavishly leathered, four-door Quad Cab version of the Ram SRT-10 on the horizon. If it's at all as outrageous as the original, Chrysler will have to build another plant to meet demand. Heck, Texans are taught to fantasize about just such a beast from the crib.

So what if these cars and trucks are not sophisticated? Who cares that other performance cars have more camshafts, or that the SRT-4's front tires hop like the Energizer bunny every time you drop the clutch? This stuff is fun, people like it and, most of all, Chrysler is good at it.

So forget about gentrifying the brand into a low-rent Mercedes. Hurry up with the 300C already. Get the supercharged AMG V6 into the Crossfire as soon as possible. And shoe-horn that new 5.7-litre Hemi engine into anything with four wheels. Emblazon them all with six-inch-tall, gold-plated HEMI badges. Turn the whole trunk into a "Hemis rule" bumper sticker. Offer the first one-million customers free Hemi tattoos.

I even have the perfect advertising headline -- Loud, Proud and Well- Endowed. Oh, wait, I see someone else on Driver's Edge thinks the same way.

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