Just to check if we're on the same wavelength, are these the kinds of things you would do? 1) Spot a third-gen Camaro far away across a large parking lot and walk over to see if it's an IROC-Z model. 2) Utter an “Oh yeah!” if you see a picture of Trans-Am racing circa 1970. 3) Gaze in wonder every time you see a BMW 3.0CS (that's the 1968-'75 E9 model to Bimmer geeks) and realize again that it may be one of the most perfect three-box shapes of all time.
There are a lot of us who have that sort of passion for cars, but it's rare to find such enthusiasm for a new car, especially a new car that costs only around $50k. The one exception is American muscle cars. On a road trip in a Challenger SRT8 last year, a guy at a gas station in Albuquerque N.M. yelled across to me, “That's my dream car right there!” before muttering something inaudible that I believe started with the word “lucky.” And given that it was the 2011 model and thus had the handling and power to match its sinisterly sexy looks, I empathized.
But forget the coupe muscle cars, what about the four-door full-size sedans? Do they evoke the same passion? Well, apparently the Mopar brands do when they have a Hemi under the hood.
Soon after parking a Charger SRT8, I was asked by the driver of a V6 model if he could take a look under the hood. And a kid in a Civic did a U-turn to come back and check whether “my” Chrysler 300 SRT8 was the real deal or a lesser model with cosmetic upgrades? When he saw that it was indeed pumped rather than pimped, a barrage of questions ensued. The one that stuck with me though, was rhetorical: “Don't see many of them, do you?”
He's right. Since the well-executed facelift, not a single new 300 I've seen has been the SRT8 (ABOVE). Is it because at $50k, people are looking at different brands? Well, in Orange County, Calif., probably that's true. If so, they're missing a trick. The 300 SRT8 has a supple, settled ride but can throw itself at the horizon from standstill to 60mph in around 4.5sec, and completes the quarter-mile (according to Motor Trend) in 12.8sec at 110mph. So you may not have quite the all-around competence of an equivalent Audi or Mercedes, but to match it for straight line performance in the same-size car, you have to be spending tens of thousands more dollars.
Perhaps predictably, the price to pay for the 300's supple ride is in terms of body lean; there's no disguising that the 300 has a curb weight of 4000lbs, but when it settles it stays settled, rewards smooth, progressive steering inputs (doesn't every car?) and with traction control off, can be steered on the throttle in a reassuringly progressive manner.
The Charger SRT8 (RIGHT), by contrast, despite the same powerplant, same platform and similar weight and height, feels a little more skittish, its rear-end breakaway more sudden. In its favor, it feels lighter on its feet – sudden direction changes don't cause any lurching motion and it's easier than the 300 to place in a corner.
But as an every day car, the Charger feels less plush, geared toward the guy looking to be a dragstrip hero, rather than take his family across the country in fast luxury. The interior of both cars felt solidly built – there wasn't a rattle to be heard in either interior – but the 300 felt more relaxing, for all those times when you just want to cruise. Yet the 300 inspired more confidence on twisty roads, behaved more naturally with its traction control off than on and I'm convinced this was down to its more progressive throttle travel. The Charger SRT8 didn't build confidence in my own skills, and the t.c. was left on more often than not.
And, I've got to be honest, I'm not impressed with the styling of the Charger SRT8. Only one part of the 300's shape bugs me, and that's the rear bumper which droops too low considering it's flared out at the same angle as the trunk lid. That leaves it trailing like a Victorian lady's whalebone skirt. But the Bentley-esque tail-lights, the high waistline and the more sloped front of the latest 300 harmonize well.
The Charger on the other hand…. Well, the dramatic swooping lines pressed into the doors don't look out of place on the Hemi-powered cars (whereas they look a little over-the-top on the V6 models), and the taillights, aping the 1969 Charger, are way more charismatic than the dull square units found on pre-2011 models. But the front of the SRT8 is slightly ludicrous. If you can't see the texture of the grille or the blacked out bumper where it crosses the grille, the Charger SRT8 looks as if a half-scale Mini has driven through it, in the same way that cartoon characters running through walls leave behind their exact outline.