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First Drive: 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8 & Dodge Charger SRT8

A 4300-pound sedan should not look appropriate on a racetrack. Yet here we are, at the fittingly named Big track at Willow Springs, with the new SRT8 versions of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. These gloriously wide, big, bold, and heavy mechanical twins drip with unabashed swagger. If there’s one truth, it’s that they’ll never be mistaken for anything plebeian.

Another truth we must discuss: These two still rely on the same five-speed automatic as their predecessors, and with this transmission come the complaints we’ve repeated in this space — delayed response and disappointing shift quality. In its defense, the inexpensive transmission is a proven, hardworking unit, handling heavy power loads without limiting torque in lower gears. A newer unit is on the way — we’d estimate in about two years.

2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8 Cockpit

Let’s get back to driving. We arrived at the track after spending more than an hour on the mountain roads north of Los Angles and an endlessly straight freeway leading north to Mojave. Both cars feel ill-suited for the unpredictable nature of tight mountain roads, with their size doing little to aid confidence. The steering wheel feels precise and comes off center nicely, but it lacks a crucial bit of resistance, making it easy for your line to wander. More than once, the heavy-handed blind spot monitoring system rang its alarm because it didn’t like how quickly we were approaching a guardrail. These two vehicles feel more comfortable on the straight and long; I couldn’t help but long to cruise down a boulevard dimly lit by street lamps.

2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 Front Three Quarters
There, in brief moments, I could exercise the new muscle under the hood, a pushrod 6.4-liter V-8 whose output is a happily square at 470 horsepower and lb-ft of torque. Its delivery isn’t lumpy or surprising — the power is simply everywhere, such that a dyno chart could be drawn with a straightedge. You don’t wait for a sweet spot in the powerband or a turbo to get on boost. No, you step on the throttle and get shoved forwarded by a guttural warrior call from the dual exhaust pipes, whose mufflers, under heavy throttle load, run straight. One complaint: The Charger’s tachometer has an indicated redline, but the gauge is beveled in way that makes it nearly impossible to see.

 

2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 Front Seating

I frequently see the limiter on the long and fast straights between Big Willow’s nine turns; the SRT8s gobble up the 2.5 miles of track with glee. These straights do end, right as I’m reaching 125 mph, and here I start to think about weight. At a claimed 4300 pounds, these heavy cars ask much from their tires and brakes. Standard rubber is all-season Goodyear Eagle RS-A 2s, but our drive time was limited to the optional three-season Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar. Rotors are sized 14.2 inches front and 13.8 inches rear, both vented and slotted, and both capped with four-piston calipers wearing a Brembo badge. The combination works amenably, but wear will defiantly be an issue during extended use. The SRT folk may try, but you can’t fight physics.

2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8 Front Three Quarters In Motion
You shouldn’t try to fight the car, either. At speed, the SRT8s demand patience and respect. New to the control arm front and multilink rear suspension are Bilstien shocks with adaptive dampening. In automatic mode, the shocks adjust themselves based on responses from a variety of sensors (speed, steering angle, throttle position, etc.). When you enter Sport mode, through the car’s infotainment system, the dampers set to their highest rates. The suspension also contains the sole mechanical difference between the two cars: The 300 uses slightly softer spring rates and damping. The Charger’s tuning is closer to the stiffer Challenger.

 

2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 Rear Three Quarters

Initially, it feels as if you don’t so much control them around a turn as you attempt to guide them, but once you’ve learned to be patient, they deliver deceiving velocity. You can carry more speed through corners than you anticipate, you can hold a higher gear. You have to build trust in these cars, but they don’t bite when you ask too much. Thankfully, a sport mode in the ESC system, accessed by tapping the traction control button once, allows for heroic (and fearless) oversteer.

Buyers should still take note: The one-day lesson from the Richard Petty Driving Experience included with the purchase of your new SRT8 is time well spent. Against my expectations, time with a 4300-pound sedan at a racetrack was, too. Once you’re accustomed to the size and potential, the SRT twins are a blast. Piloting a cruise missile is too, for a bit. 

Previously posted on Motor Trend, July 15, 2011; Article by Carlos Lago  

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