Ralph Gilles is a young car designer with DaimlerChrysler. In early 2003, he presented a concept car to a small group of automotive writers that would be displayed at the New York auto show. It was a big hit with the handful of writers, and I mentioned to Gilles that it would be great if Chrysler built and sold his car.
“They are,” he said.
“Looking just like this?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said.
I congratulated him, but thought: Sure, kid; when they get through with it, your car will look like a Dodge Intrepid.
Of course, I was wrong, and Chrysler built the 300. It was an immediate smash hit, and essentially became the gift that keeps on giving: The car’s basic platform is used on the Dodge Charger, Dodge Magnum and soon, a modified version will be used for the Dodge Challenger sports coupe, the company’s Ford Mustang-fighter. This car is one reason why we are hearing fewer gloomy forecasts for Chrysler than we are for Ford and General Motors.
Though the car was offered with two V-6 engines, including the comparatively tiny 2.7-liter, it was obvious that there would be a performance version of the 300; after all, the car’s sinister stance cries out for a large V-8 engine. And that’s what it got: The 300C SRT8 has a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 that has a heady 420 horsepower, mated to a tough five-speed automatic transmission.
Perhaps more than any current car I can think of, this SRT8 reminds me more of the big V-8-powered cars from the 1960s, such as the Plymouth Road Runner and Pontiac GTO. Unfortunately, every time you fill the SRT8 with premium gas, you are reminded that it isn’t the ’60s. The SRT8 is EPA-rated at a grim 14 miles per gallon in the city, 20 mpg on the highway. That’s thirsty enough to earn it a $2,100 federal “gas guzzler” tax, so you’re paying for that fuel mileage before you even leave the dealership.
Apparently, though, there are plenty of customers willing to pay that price for the SRT8, and I can see why: It’s a big five-passenger sedan, with a cavernous trunk, that’s equally at home at the drag strip or carving through twisty backroads as it is at the country club. It’s remarkable how well this package works: Handling is excellent, the ride is supple but never punishing, and aside from the burble of the big Hemi, it’s quiet. The 1969 Plymouth Road Runner was never like this.
Of course, it was a tenth of the price: The SRT8 starts at $39,920, but with several options, including a competent DVD-based navigation system, an upgraded stereo, a rear-seat video entertainment system and, of course, that guzzler tax, the bottom line was $47,895.
The interior of the SRT8 is handsome but unexceptional, though very comfortable. Present are most of the safety features you would expect, including stability control, anti-lock disc brakes, brake assist, a rear parking assist system and traction control, which is helpful. The engine comes from Mexico and the transmission from Germany, but the car is built in Canada.
If you like raw muscle, and the price and fuel mileage don’t scare you, the SRT8 is a potent package.
Base price: $39,920.
Price as tested: $47,895.
EPA rating: 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway.
Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sedan with a 6.1-liter, 420-horsepower V-8 and a 5-speed automatic transmission.