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SRT designation marks a new course at Chrysler

August 05, 2005|by JEFF MELNYCHUK/Wheelbase CommunicationsM

The asphalt is melting, but not from the sizzling noon sun. There's something even a little more powerful on this summer day on the scenic Mt. Tremblant road circuit located just outside Montreal, Canada.

It has three letters: SRT.

"Brake, brake, brake!" the driving coach yells through the face mask of his Bell helmet. I can barely hear him with the wind whistling past the rivets holding the visor to my brain bucket, but I do my best to oblige.

"Now go, go, go!"

OK, if you say so. Foot to the floor and here we go, go, go.

A scary blind hill here, a scarier braking zone there and we're through in one piece. And so is the car: a light blue Chrysler Crossfire SRT6 convertible. Parking in pit lane, there's not much time to enjoy all the fine SRT machinery at our disposal.

What's next? OK, how about the 425-horsepower Magnum SRT8 wagon? Talk about a sinister-looking family hauler. And the 500-horsepower Viper-powered SRT10 pickup? On a race track? Why not? It rides so high you can see just about every corner from behind the steering wheel.

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Yes, one SRT - Chrysler's abbreviation for Street and Racing Technology - model after another. Good thing the name is short since there's barely enough time to say it out loud as the Chrysler 300C SRT8 claws its way down the short main straightaway at 140 mph.

The fact we're here is actually a bit surprising, but not as confounding as where and how Chrysler developed this apparently sudden need for speed.

The imagination that created the Viper has now swollen to include one or two models from every Chrysler division. Soon there will be a 425-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, a Dodge Charger SRT8 and the new Viper coupe.

It's not necessarily a new attitude; it's just that the cat has finally been allowed out of the bag . . . and onto a hot tin roof. The engineers get to run amuck developing powerful engines and the suspensions and brakes to truly make use of that power. Today they sit grinning - sometimes wincing - as their creations blow by, one after another, like a high-speed parade.

In fact, it's clear from the conversations that SRT isn't just about performance, it's about the people with high-octane blood who craft them. It's a rare opportunity to meet and talk to the personalities who burn the candle at both ends, punctuating their hard-charging imaginations with four wheels, big brakes and, the key ingredient, soul.

"This is really an amazing explosion of product," says Ralph Gilles who designed the Chrysler 300.

"For us it's deep religion. These cars are serious automobiles created by serious enthusiasts."

You can even feel it with the entry-level $21,300 SRT4. It's largely based on a Neon, but that's where any and all similarities end.

"These are thoroughly converted, designed and loved machines."

In terms of performance, the SRT4 is the deal of the century with 235 turbocharged horsepower, 17-inch wheels, sticky tires, thickly-bolstered seats and a five-speed manual transmission. Ask anyone here and they'll tell you just how much the SRT4 has injected newfound respect into the Neon line. The spinoff effect is dramatic. From a business sense, SRT makes perfect sense. On the track today, it's put to extreme use.

And this is the entry point to the SRT line of 11 vehicles. They just get quicker and faster.

Although the top-end 500-horsepower Viper is the obvious choice for anyone with a very heavy right foot and deep pockets, the much smaller and lighter Crossfire SRT6 has the gymnastic ability of an Olympian with its 333-horsepower supercharged 3.2-liter V-6. It corners like a rock on a string and will leave you flush with the giggles.

The diversity here is something else. SRT is all about selecting key vehicles from each division and linking them to create cohesion between those divisions. SRT binds them all, even Jeep.

Meshing the SRT hug-the-corners-and-curves methodology with Jeep's drive-over-the-corners-and-curves methodology seems absurd to the extreme. But one look at this tarmac terror with its 425-horsepower V-8 and you quickly realize that, while, like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they don't really mix, they somehow taste great together.

"It's the most radical transformation," Gilles says.

Just like what's happening at Chrysler. "We're just getting our groove on."

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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