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Reinventing the SRT Brand

The 'car guys' are now running Chrysler - and it shows Add to ...

There are nine turns at the Willow Springs International Raceway, all of them with late apexes and one, Turn 6 (Monroe Ridge), is a slight right-hander on the other side of a blind rise. Yes, the circuit calls for patience. Those late apexes penalize you for turning in early, throwing you off line. Not good.

Not good because not only is Willow Springs an up-and-down affair, it’s also a fast, 4-km (2.5-mile) track with a 0.8-km (half-mile) straightaway in front of the pits and another mostly straight stretch called Wings Leg at the far side of the course.

With this in mind, you have every reason to ask why am I doing 190 km/h down Wings Leg in a Jeep Grand Cherokee? A Grand Cherokee with a 2,268 kg tow rating and a fire-breathing, 470-horsepower 6.4-litre Hemi V-8 under the hood?

Because the Chrysler Group wants you and me to take seriously the relaunch of its SRT brand – SRT for Street and Racing Technology. The way to establish the bona fides of the four SRT models Chrysler is turning loose this month is simple: air them out, all of them, on a race track. Preferably one with plenty of challenges and lots of run-off areas – just in case.

Willow Springs, about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, is a good one and popular with car companies for this sort of thing. This staging screams something else about the Chrysler Group, too: as SRT brand CEO Ralph Gilles says, the “Dark Ages” of private equity are over, and this once-taken-for-dead car company is now being run by “car guys.”

Accountants and leveraged buyout artists and investment bankers generally don’t “get” the visceral appeal of burning rubber and howling tires and on-the-edge cornering. They’re all about buying low, selling high and cutting costs. To borrow the title of the new book written by former Chrysler president, Bob Lutz, in the battle of Car Guys Versus Accountants it appears the gearheads are winning at Chrylser.

Chrysler’s chief designer, is one of them, too – a gearhead. His job at SRT is to ignite some fire in the loins of buyers who had all but taken SRT for dead once the Cerberus private equity owners had finished the job of driving Chrysler into bankruptcy – a task started under Daimler of Germany, who itself managed a wonderful job of value destruction.

Not that I’m thinking too deeply about all this right now out here on the track. We’ve been let loose to do our best – or worst – helmets on our heads, chin straps cinched tight, waivers in the hands of marshals and on their way to lawyers. I am slowly growing bolder in the Grand Cherokee SRT8, pushing deeper in the braking zones before getting on the binders, driving more and more aggressively out of the corners. The Grand has legs and plenty of guts.

Yes, it’s tall and that’s obvious in the turns, especially Turns 3, 4 and 5, which form a horseshoe at the top of the track – a track carved out of the side of a dusty mountain in the middle of the desert. In this little section, Turn 3 sends you up a steep rise, 4 comes at a crest and goes to the right, and then Turn 5 throws you downhill at the end of an chicane set up by track organizers to slow us all down and keep the insanity marginally in check.

By the middle of my third lap, I’m sweating bullets. This is what happens behind the wheel of a Jeep with a top speed of 256 km/h. Yes, the 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT8 runs with some big dogs but it won’t punish you here or out on the highway. That’s the story, says Gilles of all the latest 2012 SRT models joining this Jeep in the stable – the 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8, Chrysler 300 SRT8 and Dodge Challenger SRT8.

“These are all very livable vehicles,” says Gilles, his usual track-side grin in place.

Huh?

Well, take the Grand Cherokee SRT8. This is the second version and, unlike its predecessor, the highway ride in Auto mode is compliant enough to give the BMW X5 pause. Oh, yes, this Jeep has a suspension with adjustable settings that allow you to dial in the proper ride quality for the circumstance. Most importantly, though, is the fact this hottie Jeep has the new platform derived from what will soon be the new Mercedes-Benz M-Class. (To give credit where it’s due, the last remnants of Daimler in the form of this platform are helping to save the company.)

On the track, the Grand C is confident and sure-footed, though it’s obviously tall with off-road-like suspension travel. Mainly, the height forces me to be patient, to learn how the body movements will affect handling and performance.

Smart use of the throttle comes in handy and slowly I figure out what it means to have 65 per cent of the available torque going to the rear wheels. This is what happens when I’m dialled into Track mode. I’m learning to play with the throttle ever-so-gently in the big, sweeping corners that are the hallmark of Willow Springs.

Gilles insists the SRT gearheads inside the company are serious about what these four new models offer. Take the Grand Cherokee SRT8. The factory alignment includes 1.6 degrees of negative camber up front and 1.3 degrees out back. You might even know the implications of all that, if you like your cars – or Jeeps – hairy-chested and angry.

The brakes are 15-inch rotors and six-piston Brembo calipers up front. Those are big brakes. The 17.5:1 steering ratio is much quicker than what you get in a standard Grand Cherokee. As for power, the V-8 grinds out not just 470 ponies, but an impressive 465 lb of torque – 50 hp and 45 lb-ft more than the old 6.1-litre V-8. The transmission is managed automatically, or through paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

The obvious question for Gilles, as I climb out of this beast and peel off my helmet is a very basic one: Why bother with SRT?

“SRT vehicles are very profitable and they are an entry point for customers who might never enter Chrysler otherwise,” he says.

Truth is, Chrysler had played around with SRT vehicles for nearly 20 years, though the modern era of SRT began with the 2002 unveiling of the Dodge Viper. By 2005-2006, Chrysler was offering some 10 SRT nameplates, though Gilles says 10 would be too many now. Look for a Viper to return, along with a very fast small car of some sort, and then perhaps one more SRT model. My bet would be a small coupe or sports car.

Meanwhile, the marketing plan is to mine the brand’s history. Going back to 1992, Chrysler has sold 145,000 SRT-branded vehicles. The current owners are going to be chased down by Gilles and Co. using the latest social media tools, live events, Twitter and the like.

The idea here is to give the ongoing Chrysler resurrection a boost, to show that there is enthusiastic life at headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. – that unlike in the private equity days, when a hardware salesman ran the place, Chrysler now has people in charge who have gasoline coursing through their veins.

It’s bold and it’s fraught with risk at a time when auto makers are spending most of their time and much of their resources concentrating on fuel efficiency, gasoline-electric hybrids and electric vehicles designed help meet fleet-wide fuel economy regulations. Gilles, for his part, makes no apologies for what SRT is doing.

“Performance is a constant,” he says, adding that “technology finds a way” to make SRT-like products compatible with the current social climate. With that, Gilles also points out that these new SRT models are about 25 per cent more fuel efficient than their predecessors.

Technology finds a way. Will SRT prove to be a way for Chrysler to regain its full mojo?

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

 

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