There are a few things the domestic auto industry seems to do better than the Asian and European makers can ever hope to, one of which is building reasonably priced large cars. After pickup trucks, these are the vehicles that have the ability to really help the sales numbers for Ford, GM and Chrysler.
A case in point is the Chrysler 300, now soldiering on in its sixth year of production. The car will get a makeover this summer for the 2011 model year, but even though the current car has been labeled as a little outdated, it’s still a heck of a ride. Sure, it’s not perfect, but nothing on four wheels really is, especially when it’s been unchanged for so long.
Along with its sibling the Dodge Charger, the Chrysler 300 represents something that’s distinctly American: a fairly good size car with room for adults in the front and back seats, an engine powerful enough to never feel strained, and tons of trunk space. Ford has reinvented itself as a large sedan player with the new-for-2010 Taurus, and GM is counting on its Buick and Chevrolet divisions to cater to those who still value vehicles like this too.
There are all sorts of trim levels for the 300, starting with a somewhat rudimentary base model called Touring that’s okay, but has the stigma of populating the car lots of Hertz, Avis, National and Enterprise. Looking much less like a daily rental, the 300”C” becomes a more powerful car thanks to the 5.7 liter Hemi V8 under its hood and larger wheels underneath. In between those two is the Limited model, which lacks the V8 but has a lot of the other amenities the Touring model is missing.
And then there’s the 300C SRT8, a true screamer of a luxury sedan. In fact, the original Chrysler 300 from the 1950s was often referred to as a “banker’s hot rod” due to its combination of upscale styling and a very powerful engine. Yes, there are SRT8 versions of other Chrysler products, like the Dodge Charger and Challenger and Jeep Grand Cherokee, but there just something a little naughty about the luxury model with all the performance hardware.
The primary piece of hardware is under the hood, where the 300C’s 360 horsepower engine is supplanted by a larger V8 engine making an impressive 425 ponies, and doing it with aural authority. Thanks to a less restrictive intake tract and exhaust system, the SRT8 bellows its mighty American muscle car song like the automotive rock star that it is.
Other SRT8 upgrades over the 300C include a tighter suspension, massive wheels and tires wrapping around huge Brembo brakes, and even special bucket seats that hold the driver and front passenger in place while still providing comfort. There are also subtle SRT8 logos on the trunk lid and inside the car, along with a speedometer that reads all the way up to 180 miles per hour.
Yes, it can put on some speed when asked, but it’s also a very plush car for everyday driving. The suspension is firm but not overly stiff, and if you aren’t trying to hurry things along, the engine remains whisper quiet for the most part. And even though the design of the 300 is getting on in years, Chrysler has managed to keep some things updated, such as the optional navigation system with its color-coded freeway traffic map.
The upgrades involved in building an SRT8 mean that Chrysler does have to charge a significant premium for the car. Its base price is just over $6800 more than the 300C’s $38,010, and it’s well more than $15,000 above the price of the most inexpensive 300 with its puny 2.7 liter V6. But, you’d never be able to duplicate the equipment of the SRT8 by trying to build your own from a 300C, for example. The wheels and tires alone would probably run half the sticker price premium.
The bottom line total of the car I tested was just shy of $50,000 once all the options and its $1700 gas guzzler tax were added up. (It’s rated at 13 mpg city and 19 highways… yikes.) Yes, I’m aware that fifty large will buy any number of cars from brands that are considered more prestigious. But I can pretty much guarantee that they can’t offer the big Chrysler’s combination of size, comfort and performance.
On one of our recent beautiful sunny days between El Nino rainstorms, I took the 300C SRT8 out at lunchtime to grab a sandwich. The sky was pure blue, the sun was shining, the instrument panel told me it was 68 degrees outside, and I had all the windows and the sunroof open. The satellite radio was belting out a favorite tune from my high school days, and the wonderful V8 was making music of its own.
The car may be “overdue” for a redesign, as many have said. But at that moment, to me, the car felt very much up-to-date. Maybe even perfect.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.