Embargoes stink. A few months ago we flew to Detroit, Michigan, to get behind the wheel of virtually every vehicle Chrysler makes. It’s called a “full-line preview,” or more correctly, what’s new for 2013 from Chrysler. But because of the embargo, we weren’t allowed to share it with you — until now.
The event took place at Chrysler’s Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, which covers 3,800 acres of testing areas. Those areas include durability roads, evaluation and handling roads, grade roads for hill testing, ride roads, off-road trails, an oval track, a splash trough, skid traction, straight roads, and buildings hiding secret future products from prying journalist eyes. The Chrysler Proving Grounds started in 1954, and has continued to grow over the past half century, adding test areas as required by new products.
The available products to drive included vehicles from every brand: Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, SRT, Fiat and even Mopar. When we got off the bus and saw the more than 75 vehicles begging to be driven, we were as giddy as a 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert. The only snag was we had to share the cars with about 100 other journalists. But since there was plenty to do and plenty of vehicles, we didn’t mind. The only question was, where to start?
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Being no dummies, we ran right for the autocross course, which was hosting some of the choicer vehicles, such as the Grand Cherokee SRT8, our first ride of the day. In hindsight, we should have ramped up slowly, but this started an adrenaline rush that lasted for hours. Being early in the morning, we were brave, but not stupid. We allowed the SRT Grand Cherokee chief engineer Marco Diniz to whip us through the autocross course before we got behind the wheel so we could experience what the vehicle was capable of almost at its limit. I say almost because Marco said he wouldn’t drive it at the limit with passengers, even though it felt as if it was going 10/10ths to us. We recalled the grin on his face as he talked about how hard it was to reach this SUV SRT’s limits. On our own, after seeing what the Grand Cherokee could do, we had our own grin-filled laps through the cones to prove that the SRT Grand Cherokee drove more like a sports car than an SUV. The SRT8 not only is the most powerful Jeep vehicle ever (470 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque from the 6.4-liter HEMI V8), but also the fastest with a 4.8-second 0-60-mph time.
But it’s not the power that makes it so much fun to drive, it’s the adaptive damping suspension that allows you to literally throw it around the corners without a hint of body roll or chassis upset. Adaptive damping allows the driver to control the ride dynamics depending on the situation. There are five modes: Auto, Sport, Track, Tow and Snow, with Track mode providing the firmest ride with the most rebound and damping stiffness. This setting also turns off traction control but leaves partial stability control programming to save your butt when you get in too deep.
What we love about the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is that you can autocross it one minute, then hook up a boat and load all your friends into the cabin for a great weekend at the lake. Talk about a sport utility vehicle, this one pegs that description. All this fun and utility, however, doesn’t come cheap; open your wallet and remove $60,000. When you do, we promise that the pain will vanish quickly as soon as you get behind the wheel.
Fiat 500 Abarth
While it may sound absurd to go from the extreme of the Grand Cherokee to another extreme of the Fiat 500, Chrysler put them both on the autocross course, so we weren’t going to fight the idea. And we’re glad we didn’t.
If Chrysler had made us choose one car to stay in the rest of the day, this would have been it. CarBuzzard’s 2012 Abarth review said the little dynamo was “the life of the party,” and it really is. While we found the Fiat 500 to be a pleasing subcompact, it probably wouldn’t be first on the list of purchases in the segment. Add a scorpion sticker on the hood, however, and it moves right to the top.
Because we were at the autocross course so early, we didn’t have to share the Abarth right away, so we took advantage of the free time by doing lap after lap after lap through the cones on the wide-open blacktop. As we pushed harder and got faster each lap, the Abarth, making 160 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque from its 1.4-liter Multi-Air turbocharged engine, seemed to be enjoying the ride almost as much as we were. The car sits lower for a better center of gravity, the front brakes are larger, and the 5-speed transmission makes it easy to flick through the gears.
Cone-to-cone, left-to-right transitions delivered no drama, especially with the Abarth’s stiffer rear springs and quicker steering ratio. The extra good news is that the level of fun you have in the Abarth is almost as much as in the Grand Cherokee SRT8, for about a third of the price, at $22,000. This car has set a new standard when it comes to bang for the buck.
Dodge Challenger SRT8 392
Our last vehicle at the autocross was the Challenger SRT8 392, the middle road between the Grand Cherokee SRT8 and the Fiat Abarth in size, but certainly not in performance or handling. While the performance specs remain the same as last year (392-cubic-inch HEMI V8 with 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque), what is new for 2013 is an expanded adaptive damping suspension with three modes, a new standard launch control feature, and paddle shifters. There’s also a new heated steering wheel and an available 18-speaker Harman Kardon sound system with GreenEdge technology and 900 watts of power (the HEMI of audio systems) for times when you want to break the sound barrier inside as well as outside the vehicle.
We’re big fans of the Challenger, as it gets prettier every time you look at it, and because it’s actually a great daily driver. To get into the SRT8 392, cough up and additional $20K on top of the $25,200 starting price. Dodge has become the leader in the “too many models/trim levels” race, with eight Challenger versions. Don’t know how the dealers can stock them all. And don’t even get us started on the Dodge Dart’s a la carte listings. But we hope the dealers stock at least one SRT on the lot because customers will be sold the minute they get behind the wheel. It rewards a good driver with excellent feedback from the steering, and the handling delivers what muscle-car enthusiasts are looking for: grip, control, and responsiveness.
The adaptive suspension features Auto, Sport and Track like the Grand Cherokee, but the feature we loved was launch control. When stopped, just push the ESC button twice, depress the clutch, and then apply full throttle. The system will hold the engine at the desired rpm, waiting for the clutch to be released. It also minimizes wheelspin via engine torque management to give the optimal launch for straight-line runs. You can also do this with the automatic transmission by holding the brake then releasing instead of the clutch.