Chrysler V8 muscles in on big-car market

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Although the Chrysler SRT8 CORE has its faults, it remains thoroughly appealing. Photos: David Thomson

The Chrysler SRT8 is a modern take on that most classic of automotive themes, the American muscle car. David Thomson ponders its significance as a car of the future as well as a car of the past.

With FPV's highly tuned Falcons and HSV's massively tweaked Commodores headed for extinction as Ford and Holden close their Australian operations, the world of V8 muscle cars Kiwi-style is poised to return to its all-American roots.

Ford has already confirmed that its response will include reintroducing the Mustang on both sides of the Tasman. Holden's parent General Motors will, almost certainly, follow suit by shipping its classic muscle car, the Camaro, to our part of the world.

In the meantime, it is Chrysler which already has a local foot in the door of what will become a reinvigorated market niche, courtesy of the SRT8 version of its 300 saloon.

The standard SRT8 carries a $87,990 price tag, but is tested here in $74,990 ''entry-level'' CORE guise, which represents Chrysler's most determined effort to deliver serious performance bang for your buck.

Even with styling that has been softened compared to its predecessor, the SRT8 is a solid block of car. Chunky looks emphasise its size: measuring up at 5089mm, the SRT8 is some 160mm longer than the current Commodore, and 120mm lengthier than the current Falcon. Its wheels - 20-inch alloys shod with 245/45 tyres - look like they have been shoehorned into place.

Aft of the front-wheel arches, the badging ''Hemi 6.4'' provides a massive clue as to what nestles under the bonnet: yes, a 6.4-litre engine, in which the Hemi (a trademarked Chrysler term) refers to the hemispherical combustion chamber that features in each of its eight cylinders. The engine musters mighty peak outputs of 347kW at 6100rpm, and 631Nm of torque at 4150rpm, and responsibility for delivering all that power to the rear wheels is entrusted to a tried and true five-speed automatic transmission.

The sense of XXL scale apparent from the outside and under the bonnet carries over into the cabin: generous front seats (power-adjusting, and with SRT logos embossed into their cloth trim) are separated by a broad centre console and massive central storage bin; the back seat is similarly proportioned, and the trunk (that's American-speak for the boot) is huge.

Soft-touch surfacing on the top of the dash and doors underscores Chrysler's ongoing efforts to lift the quality of interior finish in its vehicles. A mix of carbon-fibre highlighting on the dash and centre console and a brushed metal finish on the spokes and lower portion of the large steering wheel help give the SRT8 CORE's cabin a sporting feel.

A fair amount of kit has been stripped out from the standard SRT8 to bring the CORE in with its sub-$75K price tag. The deletions include adaptive suspension, leather trim, a comprehensive active safety package and reversing cameras. However, dual-zone climate, cruise control, parking sensors, full electronic stability programming, an array of airbags, Bluetooth, voice activation, satellite navigation and remote keyless entry with push-button start are all retained.

So too is the prominent 8.4-inch centre display screen. As well as enabling the usual everyday functions such as phone, audio, and sat-nav, this is the access point for the SRT performance menu that allows (and perhaps even encourages you) to indulge in the bad-boy side of the car.

Separate screens on this menu call up such delights as stopwatches that automatically calculate acceleration and braking times and terminal speeds, lateral and longitudinal G-force and steering angle monitors, and power and torque gauges. The screens provide an easy route to answering certain essential questions such as: how quickly can this large, heavy car manage a 0-100kmh sprint, how quickly can it stop from speed, and what G-forces can it endure under hard acceleration, braking or cornering?Judging from the state of the tyres, the answers had been sought - repeatedly - by many of those who drove the test car before me.

Punters who find this type of car appealing probably won't mind that the SRT8 doesn't show a huge amount of subtlety in its high performance endeavours; it's all down to the 6.4-litres of brute V8 force bellowing hard to propel almost two tonnes of mass.

The driver, on the other hand, needs to show considerable initial finesse with the right foot to get the SRT8 away from a standing start for a quick run. Once that's been done, it's pretty much a case of putting the pedal to the floor, and allowing the mighty V8 to do the rest.

When everything comes together as it should, the SRT8 CORE accelerates from rest to 100kmh in a shade more than 4.5secs. That's an absolute cracker of a time for a sub-$75K car, and one that could only be matched by the current hot Holden stable with a six-figure spend.

It's also possible to generate something over 0.9G under cornering, though serious twists and turns are not the SRT8 CORE's favoured habitat. The car's sheer size and weight impose limitations that count against it on really demanding roads, and are particularly apparent on initial turn in, or when a series of rapid directional changes are sought.

Chrysler could also sharpen the SRT8 CORE's dynamic act by reducing the level of power assistance to the steering. That said, it is likely that the standard SRT8, with its adaptive suspension, will thread its way through demanding corners with greater composure.

On the other hand, the SRT8 CORE handles the open-road haul well enough, and the ability of the engine to drop seamlessly to four cylinders when cruising is a neat feature that reigns in the V8's naturally hefty appetite for fuel.

Ultimately though, the SRT8 CORE is not a car buyers are going to acquire to save the planet. It's a car they will purchase in order to enjoy some raw, uncomplicated and politically incorrect V8 fun.

Chrysler V8 muscles in on big-car market
At a Glance
CHRYSLER SRT8 CORE

Rating: Three stars

For: Powerful engine, straight-line performance, spacious interior.

Against: Five-speed gearbox behind the game, lacks handling finesse.

Verdict: An imperfect but thoroughly appealing rogue.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (as tested): $74,990.

Engine: 6424cc V8, maximum power 347kW@6100rpm, maximum torque 631Nm@4150rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive.

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, EBD, BA.

Safety rating: Five-star Euro NCAP.

Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 245/45 R20 tyres.

Fuel and economy: Unleaded petrol, 13 litres per 100km on standard cycle.

Dimensions: Length 5089mm, width 1902mm, height 1478mm.