New 2012 models add more power plus utility
By the year 2016, the U.S. government has mandated that automakers will have to meet a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) of 34.1 mpg. By 2025, there is talk of boosting that number to 56.2 mpg. These regulations have spurred automakers to offer smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles in recent years.
We're Americans, after all, and that means we want what we want, when we want it and a lot of it. Enter Chrysler Group's SRT lineup, which is fully refreshed for the 2012 model year.
To last year's Dodge Challenger SRT8 392, the range adds the Dodge Charger SRT8, the Chrysler 300 SRT8 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. With seating for five, ample interior space, and in the case of the Jeep, standard all-wheel drive, each of these new SRTs retains its family utility while adding passion, power and performance.
Five Pillars of Performance
All of the SRT models start as standard line vehicles, but the SRT team, now considered a brand within Chrysler Group, injects performance in five key ways. Most notable is an updated Hemi engine. That takes care of the straight-line speed, but SRT wants these cars to look cool and attack corners as well. With that in mind, SRT designers and engineers strive to provide outstanding ride and handling, benchmark braking, aggressive and functional exteriors, and performance-inspired interiors.
The loudly thumping heart of every SRT is Chrysler's 6.4-liter Hemi V8, which now makes 470 horsepower in all models and 470 pound-feet of torque in all but the Jeep, which is ever-so-slightly detuned to 465 pound-feet of twist. This engine replaced a 425-horspower 6.1-liter Hemi last year in the Challenger and now it's being rolled out across the line.
While fuel economy won't match the base versions of these vehicles, it is improved this year thanks to some new technology. Most notably, the engine gets Chrysler's multi-displacement system, which shuts down four cylinders under light load conditions to save on gas. EPA ratings are yet to be released, but Chrysler says fuel economy should be up 25 percent. That would put the Charger and 300 SRT8s at roughly 16 mpg city/22 highway and the Grand Cherokee at 13/17. Those numbers aren't going to help Chrysler's CAFE number, but they are significantly improved over the last generation of SRTs.
A major development for all of the SRTs is the addition of adaptive shock absorbers with Auto and Sport settings. The steering is also updated this year with a heavier duty pump and revised gearing. Underneath, the 14.2-inch front and 13.8-inch rear slotted and vented Brembo brakes carry over from the last Charger and 300 SRT8. The Grand Cherokee gets bigger binders, with 15-inch front rotors and massive six-piston calipers that cover almost three times the area of the Charger and 300 brakes.
Each vehicle also gets down and dirty looks derived from functional scoops and ducts, aggressive front and rear treatments, 20-inch wheels, lower body cladding and unique rear spoilers. The look extends to the inside, where each features an SRT-exclusive flat-bottom steering wheel with standard paddle shifters, special trim (real carbon fiber in the 300 and Jeep and a dark machine-turned aluminum in the Charger), Nappa leather sport seats with suede inserts, and an updated version of SRT's Performance Pages (more on that later).
Chrysler invited journalists to drive the new SRT8 lineup on the canyon roads of Southern California and on the high-speed circuit at Willow Springs Raceway. The drive revealed that each of these vehicles has true performance cred but they don't lose their family utility. Let's see how each performed.
Dodge Charger SRT8 - Starting Price: $45,795
SRT CEO Ralph Gilles calls the Charger SRT8 the extrovert of the bunch, and it's certainly no shrinking violet. It announces its presence with authority thanks to a blacked out grille and the most aggressive rumbling exhaust note of the three. The car features all of the interior and trunk space of the standard line models, but doesn't give up much comfort to become a performance sedan.
SRT has tuned the adaptive shock absorbers to be firmer in the Charger than in the 300, but the car still offers a comfortable ride. The Auto setting is best for everyday driving, and the Sport setting, which changes the shock valving to be firmer, improves handling. We found the Sport setting to be fine on the street, but drivers might not like that much road feel, especially on the highway.
On the track, the Charger SRT8 proved to be the most buttoned down of the bunch. It gathered its weight quicker than the 300 SRT8 to change directions and felt a tad more stable through turns and over rises. The job SRT has done with the steering is outstanding. In both the Charger and 300, the steering is nicely weighted, pleasingly quick and direct, and it offers excellent road feel. It reminds us of the equally responsive steering in the Cadillac CTS-V. The brakes are also impressive, even with new less aggressive pads. A group of journalists put the Charger SRT8 to the test for four hours on a rather fast Willow Springs Raceway and we never experienced warping or fade. That bodes well for the street performance.
The updated Hemi engine is a revelation. While the last version was certainly powerful, this one provides better response across the rev range. SRT quotes a 0-60 time in the high four-second range, which is a few tenths quicker than the last model. Getting all that power down to the pavement can be a problem, though, as the car tends to spin the tires when floored. We have no complaints about the engine, but we do wish SRT would offer a manual transmission in addition to the five-speed automatic. Well, at least the steering wheel paddles work well.
In a nutshell, the Charger SRT8 is a hoot to drive. Its more aggressive shocks make it the choice over the 300 SRT8 for true performance enthusiasts. The car is still docile on the street, though, making it a viable choice for families who need to get to soccer practice really fast.
Chrysler 300 SRT8 - Starting Price: $47,170
The Chrysler 300 SRT8 is the other side of the same coin. It offers the same engine, steering and braking performance as the Charger SRT8, but features slightly softer tuning for the adaptive shock absorbers. The ride fits with the car's luxury-sport mission, making it a bit more comfortable on the street and a bit less capable on the track. SRT hasn't gone too far toward soft, though, as the 300 SRT8 is plenty fun to toss into corners.
Another major difference comes inside. Like base versions of the 300, the SRT8 has one of the highest quality interiors on the market. The mix of leather, carbon fiber, and metal is impressive and worthy of a car costing thousands more.
Both the 300 SRT8 and Charger SRT8 come standard with a new 8.4-inch display with an updated version of SRT's Performance Pages. Like the previous iteration and the version in the Jeep, it shows 0-60 mph, 1/8-mile, and 1/4-mile times, as well as G forces and braking distance. However, it also shows real-time information on G forces and power and torque usage. We found it fascinating to monitor these screens during regular driving.
Like the Charger SRT8, the 300 SRT8 is a blast to drive. It's a bit less responsive, but more luxurious and a tad easier to live with every day.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 - Starting Price: $54,470
The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is like Charles Barkley. Something this big shouldn't be so athletic. The Jeep employs a lot of technology to harness its 5150-pound curb weight. It features the aforementioned adaptive shocks, as well as an electronic limited-slip rear differential and Jeep's Quadra-Trac electronic all-wheel-drive transfer case. These systems, as well as the stability control, cylinder deactivation, transmission and throttle control, all interact with a new Selec-Track system to tailor performance to the situation. Selec-Track has five settings: Auto, Sport, Tow, Track and Snow.
The transfer case sends 38 percent of the power to the front wheels and 62 percent to the rears in Auto and Tow modes. The Snow mode locks in a 50/50 front/rear torque split. Turn Selec-Track to Sport or Track and it sends slightly more power to the rear. The electronic limited-slip differential allows rear power to be apportioned to the wheel with grip, so the vehicle can send all of the power to one rear wheel. More importantly, though, this helps the vehicle rotate through turns.
On the track, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is an impressive beast. The AWD gets the power down immediately, so 0-60 mph actually comes quicker than in the cars. Engine tuning is slightly different, so the redline is lower and shifts come a little quicker. The brakes are unbelievable, stopping quicker and with more stability than the cars, which weigh almost 800 pounds less.
Track mode helps the suspension handle all that mass quite well, making the vehicle feel lighter than it actually is. In fact, in one particularly tricky portion of Willow Springs with a turn following two uphill crests, I felt more confident in the Jeep than the 300 SRT8. I was even more amazed when a skilled driver in the Jeep caught up to me on the track when I was driving the Charger. Not many 4x4s would be capable of that kind of performance.
But the Jeep retains its street-ready character, too. It boasts a 5000-pound towing capacity, something the last version lacked. It also has a useful rear seat and a 68.7 cubic foot cargo area. Combine those traits with track-ready performance and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is one highly over-engineered grocery getter.
None of the SRT products is cheap, and the sub-par fuel economy will also eat into the family budget. But for the family that wants some spice with its utility, each will work as the coolest family hauler on the block … provided the neighbors aren't too green.
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