As an automotive journalist, attending a 2014 full-line preview event is akin to the World Series for a baseball fanatic. At the Chelsea Proving Grounds, there were cars to drive as far as the eye could see. The only thing that stopped us from getting behind the wheel of everything was time. We already reported on the new lineup of engines for the 2014 Ram trucks. Now we can talk about what we did in Chelsea, Michigan, for six hours. All of the Chrysler brands were represented: Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep Ram, Fiat, SRT and Mopar. We could drive off road, on the “street,” around a track, and on a variety of test surfaces. If you didn’t have a good time at this event, there’s just no pleasing you.
With so many cars to choose from, it was hard to decide how to fill the short time we had. However, having been experienced since we did the event last year, we made a beeline to the autocross course to see what goodies awaited us. The autocross course is a coned area that allows the driver to go from flat-out straight acceleration to tight skidpad-type corners to slalom testing. The autocross fills up fast with people, so being first means getting to drive all the vehicles there.
What we encountered when we hopped out of the shuttle van at the autocross was the new Viper, a handful of Fiats including the Abarth, the Jeep SRT, a Challenger SRT, and more. Being the first lap of the day, it’s better to start small (horsepower that is) and work our way up to the Viper. It’s a one-lap course, and you need to come in to swap cars and go again. To call the autocross course fun is like calling Angelina Jolie “cute.” The more you learn it, the more you can push the car and the more fun you have. Plus, driving on a closed track without fear of police intervention allows you to experience the vehicle’s power and handling sans retribution.
So while we didn’t get into the Viper until the third or fourth loop, it’s mere presence demands that we discuss it first.
You have to love the SRT Viper for it’s stunning design, raw power, and Polident grip. However, it’s a unique car that isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of sports cars with long snouts, you need long legs to feel comfortable reaching the clutch and sitting back far enough in the seat. Sitting in the Viper is like getting a full body wrap at the spa; you are encased inside and become part of the ride. While it was a thrill to drive on the short circuit, for our vertically challenged disadvantage, it would be difficult to feel comfortable on a longer cruise.
Hard to imagine that the Viper has been around for two decades and is now in its fifth generation. The 512-cubic-inch 8.4-liter 640-horsepower V10 is fast enough to make you swallow your tongue, and can outrun most motorcycles from 0-60 mph. Around the slalom, one lap isn’t enough to really understand how to finesse the handling. What you do learn is how fast it is (part throttle is almost rated at air speed), how precise the steering is, and how you should take a driving course with it before you are allowed on public roads. Or you can just park it in your driveway and have the satisfaction of knowing this is truly something special.
Fiat 500(s) — $19,600 – $26,000
We say 500s, because we drove the 2013 Abarth and the Cabrio (500c) models through the cones. (The 2014 model is virtually identical to the 2013.) There are maybe only a handful of cars that can provide this much enjoyment for the price. The Abarth is a little giggle maker thanks to its 160 horsepower/170 lb-ft of torque performance from the MultiAir I4 engine. It’s hard to upset this little chassis through the skidpad or the slalom, and being limited to only one circuit made us sad. In the Cabrio, the suspension is tuned a bit softer, but wasn’t that noticeable during the course. The little 500 is the kind of vehicle that inspires you to move to Texas, buy a couple acres, and build your own racetrack so you don’t have to share seat time with anyone else.
Fiat 500L — $19,100 – $24,195
The 2014 Fiat L is the longer-wheelbase version of the Fiat 500. While the L model adds practicality, it definitely loses the charm that is inherent with a micro-type vehicle. The L offers 160 horsepower from the MultiAir I4, with 184 lb-ft of torque. Following in the footsteps of the MINI, where you have to keep creating models for the brand, the 500L will be successful with those who love the little car, but need more space. It feels big, and has a nice road feel to it with the longer wheelbase, but we wish it had shoulder height adjusters to give us a more comfortable driving position.
Dodge Challenger SRT — $39,995
One of the best-looking vehicles on the road today, the Challenger is the perfect blend of crazy performance with everyday drivability. In SRT clothing, it just takes it all to the next level. There’s only one engine: the 6.4-liter HEMI V8 that makes 470 horsepower and the same amount of torque. That’s just fine with us, thanks. Few vehicles sound better or possess that level of snarkiness than the Challenger SRT. You don’t even need to start it to scare away lesser vehicles. The SRT badge does that all by itself. But if you don’t start it, we will come and take it away from you because the thrill comes with feeling the power under the hood, slapping the paddles through the gears, and pushing it hard enough to understand what SRT really means. If we had more time with the Challenger we would have set the suspension differently for each autocross lap, but we only had one chance to go around, and set it on Sport mode. This would be an excellent choice if you wanted to have fun at the track on weekends yet still enjoy the daily drive during the week.
This may be the one Chrysler product you do not want to spend any time in. That’s because it’s the Dodge Charger in police trim. Because we were on the proving grounds, and weren’t out on the streets terrorizing motorists, we were able to drive this specially modified four-door with lights flashing, sirens wailing, and loudspeaker blaring. The market for police vehicles is highly competitive, and each manufacturer spends a lot of time and effort with federal, state, and local police departments gathering information to help them create vehicles to make law enforcement easier.
For 2014, the Dodge Charger Pursuit includes all-wheel drive (V8 only), large 14.5-inch hi-po brakes, efficiency and durability features, and even forward-thinking items like Secure Park, which prevents an idling vehicle from being driven without the keyfob present inside the vehicle.
The Pursuit comes in either V6 or V8 performance, with the V8 being the 5.7-liter HEMI. This engine offers 370 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. It can run 0-60-mph in less than six seconds, and it still can get over 25 mpg. The 3.6-liter V6 makes 292 horsepower/260 lb-ft of torque, and up to 27 mpg. So you can chase the bad guys and save the world at the same time!
We drove the Charger Pursuit around the street course, and spent most of the time with the pedal to the floor and swapping between the different siren sounds. Chrysler notes there are about 14,000 units in production, with a product mix of 70 percent V8s and 30 percent V6-powered vehicles. If impersonating an officer wasn’t a felony, we’d love to have one of these in our driveway.