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.
This is particularly aggravating because pre-facelift SRT8s, back when they had the 6.1-liter 425hp unit, looked just fine at the front – as does every other current model Charger. The current R/T (ABOVE), for example, looks like a mean, nimble middle-weight boxer compared to the glammed up, muscle-bound WWE wrestler styling of the SRT8.
And to be honest, this less-powerful brother is the SRT8's biggest problem. While the 6.4-liter/392 cu.in. SRT8 has 470hp and 470lb-ft of torque (just like the 300 SRT8), the 5.7-liter Hemi of the R/T model produces a more than adequate 370hp at 5250rpm (a useful 750rpm lower than the 392cu.in unit) , it's more economical (although all Hemi-powered cars have fuel-saver technology which cuts four cylinders while cruising), and it's a more benign companion.
For example, on a long incline, the throttle pedal travel is long enough that it gives you a choice of whether to kick down and drop a cog, or use the engine's 395lb-ft to tow you up, whereas an SRT8 is all too ready to drop to fourth. This, too, doubtless contributes to the fact that the R/T is more economical than its official 16/25 city/highway figure suggests, whereas the government gas-mileage estimates for the SRT8 Charger and 300 – 14/23 – seem about right.
All of them are let down by the clunky 5-speed automatic transmission. If, as rumored, Chrysler/Dodge are due to drop their 8-speed into the Hemi-powered cars next year, it can't come soon enough. The SRT8 engined cars currently suffer most. Under flat-out acceleration – fully auto or using the paddle shifters – the gearchanges are short-ish but jerky – inevitable when the power is supplied at 6000rpm and there's such a gap between ratios compared with the relative seamlessness of modern 8-speed autos. Changing down using the paddle shifters – using engine braking – is also far from smooth. This is unfortunate because the Chrysler's braking distance is startlingly short given its size. Again, though, the R/T is smoother than both.
Between the Chargers, then, there is no contest. Our test cars were $10k apart, (they're $15k apart on base price) but unless you need the SRT8's 100 extra horsepower, the ability to go from 0-60 in 4.5 rather than 5.5 seconds, and the “look at me” styling, save your money. A Charger R/T is one of the great bargains on sale in the U.S. today – swift in a straight line, faithful handling, good accommodation for four tall adults, good trunk space, and an ability to switch between cruiser and bruiser according to the driver's mood. With new transmission, it would make a compelling case even against most GTs of similar price. The R/T's base price is $29,995, but even adding the “29R” package – check out the Dodge website for the full list of goodies – and Super Track Pack should keep it under $35k, still around $12k less than the SRT8.
The Chrysler 300 SRT8 has a greater breadth of ability than the Charger with the same engine – it's less frenetic and more opulent. Yes, its handling is more ponderous, too, but it communicates to you more convincingly, gives you a chance to be involved, warns you in advance where its limit is, and therefore allows you to play a little. Pressing on in the Charger SRT8 with traction control off, it felt like I was getting ready to catch it; with the 300's slightly better steering and more instinctual throttle behavior, I was happy to provoke it. I'd also be willing to bet that a driver of average ability like myself could lap a wet track faster in a 300 SRT8 than a Charger SRT8. Considering their identical mechanicals and their near-identical prices ($45-47k), it's therefore an easy win for the also far more handsome Chrysler. It's a fun beast that can take your GoPro down the dragstrip or take your grandmother to church.
But it's the Charger R/T, I'm sure, that will be on my shortlist when it's time to change my own car.