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Dodge/Chrysler's Test Drive Event.

Sam P

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You've probably noticed that automobile manufacturers have begun a new trend of organizing large scale, outdoor marketing events to promote their products. Involved are usually information seminars, small, parking-lot sized ?racetracks? marked by cones for test drives, and ?thrill rides? led by professional drivers. I went to Dodge?s Gold Medal Event and had a good time.


Following a quick registration (to sign liability waivers and show proof of Driver?s License), I was whisked away to a large tent with the other guests. A PowerPoint presentation was already positioned and in standby. I braced for a long, boring lecture on the benefits of Chrysler products, but was pleasantly surprised by a very succinct summary of events by not a marketing rep, but the chief test driver. Off to a great start!


The group was then led outdoors, where we witnessed a turbo-diesel powered, full-sized Dodge pickup pull a 15,000 lbs semi (with trailer) from a standstill. It looked completely effortless! They assured us that the semi?s engine was off by starting it after the demonstration. The quick demo certainly put into perspective what 600lb-ft of torque is capable of.


The next stop was the ESP tent. ESP is just Daimler-Chrysler?s nomenclature for their stability assist program. It works exactly like any other stability system ? meant to curb wheelspin, understeer and oversteer. Drivers lined up to try either their new 300 or the Magnum on a tight, tarmac track that consisted of one loop of the circular skidpad, followed by a tight left hand turn, an S-Curve, and finished by a long, sweeping 180 degree curve. My buddies and I took the Magnum. The hemi engine was lovely. It?s not velvety and hushed like a Teutonic V8 and it?s not rip rorty ferocious like a Mustang?s. It?s muffled, but it still has a very badass, very American demeanour. And it?s torquey. But regardless of how sweet the motor, the car was big, heavy and every pound was felt. The steering was pinky-finger light ? as if it was designed for 90 year old women with arthritis. And one arm. And this wimpy helm didn?t disguise its weight, especially not on a tight, abrupt course like this one. Of course, with 2 other buddies in the car, each taking turns to flog the hell out of someone else?s machine, I had a great time. I just wasn?t impressed. The ESP didn?t curb the inevitable understeer (the car still ploughed very readily) but it did back off the throttle when you pushed too hard. Perhaps if I took another lap with the ESP switched off, and this Hemi-V8, rear-drive monster bit back, sending me spinning into a smoky oblivion, I would see the benefit of the system. But unsurprisingly, turning off the electronic-nanny was strictly forbidden. I suppose the organizers knew what big power and rear-wheel-drive meant.


It was amusing hearing the response of other attendants after the ESP test. Some guys were obviously impressed ? coming away with comments like, ?the electronic system makes it impossible to lose control!? or how much they loved the 300 or the Magnum. They are good cars, no doubt, but a tight track like this one isn?t the place for them to shine. It?s like putting an elephant in a pig pen and asking it to do tricks. It can?t stretch its legs. And I can?t help but think what impression this is giving to potential lead-footed customers. Stability systems come with the same caveat as ABS. ESP won?t bend the laws of physics. Momentum is still mass times velocity and when you have a car this heavy, this torquey and sending all of that to the rear wheels, overwhelming grip isn?t a problem. And braking individual wheels (what ESP does to correct slides) when you have no grip to begin with isn?t going to save your ass. It might help, but it may not.


Next stop was another course, which was primarily for test drives. It?s similar to the first one in that it was very tight, with a quick S-Curve, followed by a sweeper that ends very abruptly. It?s a decreasing radius corner, and those are horrible for inducing understeer. The rules? No squealing tyres, don?t knock over the cones, and take it easy. Yeaaahhh, right. You give me your cars, a tight ?racetrack? and only one lap and you expect me to go slow. Of course, the strict, mean-ass attitude of these track marshals wasn?t really upheld. This one guy did a neutral dump on the PT Turbo, leaving a trail of burning rubber and proceeded to haul, tyres-squealing around every corner. He wasn?t hassled, and neither were we when we did the same. Except. When we took the Caravan for a drive, this stranger decides to come with us. He was very obviously the geeky, socially inept, scarce-in-friends type and wanted to tag along. After a stellar (yeah, right) lap by me, he starts jumping up and down in excitement and wants to drive next. We obliged, but what happened next was nothing short of a disaster. Of course, we were egging him on before he left the line, as we had been doing to one another the entire day. It?s part of being a young male. You cajole, you berate, you pressure in the hopes that your buddy does something amusing, preferably at his expense. And that?s exactly what happened with Mr. Stranger. He took off the line, balls-to-the-wall, and headed like a stampeding rhino with his ass on fire into the S-Curve. No brakes, no throttle lift-off, just a lead foot and not even enough steering input. He basically drove straight through the cones. My buddies and I caned their cars, but not at the expense of hitting course obstructions. Anyway, the guy drove back to a crowd filled with jeers and a marshal that asked whether he had forgotten how to drive. We, of course, were choking with laughter, but in between gasps of air we denied any connection with this fellow. He was so embarrassed he got out of the car and literally ran away. Probably in tears.


Anyway, we followed the Caravan drive with a stint in the PT-Turbo convertible, which, surprisingly, wasn?t any better than the soccer-mom van. It steered just as poorly, rolled like a marshmallow into corners and worst of all, the turbo-lag was atrocious, especially coupled with an automatic transmission. Imagine yourself mid corner, trying to make attitude adjustments with the throttle only to have them come a second later, abrupt and in full force. If the ultimate goal of driving is the seamless symbiosis of car and driver then this car fails miserably. It?s like trying to control an angry, temperamental animal with a long, loose leash. Just doesn?t work.


Next in line was the new Crossfire, the Mercedes SLK twin. It certainly looks very attractive (the pale pastel yellow ones notwithstanding), but the build quality was questionable. While typical German cars have doors that close with a solid, bassy thud, these doors were like a bag of loose bolts. Bank vaults they were not. Cabin design closely reflects the SLK, but with cheap-looking silver-painted parts (I don?t recall the SLK?s trim). The instrument cluster was clear and attractive, though. Anyway, it was hard to assess the drive. With such meager seat time, and having to readjust from the PT Turbo, I couldn?t give a good evaluation. It didn?t accelerate like I expected, and it wasn?t on-rails the way a Boxster is. Sport-luxury was how it felt.


They also had an off-road course with their SUV line-up available for drives, but it was pretty underwhelming. Those with no off-road experience would?ve been impressed with the 45 degree ascents and descents (where you look straight into the sky at the top of the ridge) and 45 degree lateral banking which showed off the Jeeps? off-road poise. But having done much more gnarly driving in a Land Rover Discovery I was underwhelmed and resorted to tailgating and high-beaming the person in front, who was abiding by the 7km/h speed limit that Mr. Angry Track Marshal stated. Come on buddy, it?s not your car. Those bumps don?t break it and even if you flipped it, you aren?t liable.


The best was for last. Each guest was entitled to one thrill ride in each of Dodge?s performance car lineup: the Viper, the Neon SRT-4, and the SRT-10 Pickup. I had to start with the Viper. It?s hard not to become excited as you approach the long, sexy machine. The side-ported exhausts, the slashes in the hood, the sheer size. The dimensions make it very American - no BMW, Mercedes, or Porsche coupe comes close in terms of sheer space displacement. I strapped myself in, sinking deeply into the grippy bucket seat. The tall door sills, the low seating position, the rising, endless hood, and the tiny rear opening all conspire to create a very cocooning effect, like being squished in with 6 other people on the log ride in the amusement park, except this log has 500 bhp and eats fire dragons for breakfast. Also, strapping in has much more of a super-car grade experience than any modern Porsche. You know the visibility sucks, you know the ergonomics suck, but you love it because you don?t give a damn.


Before he fired up, I made a very modest request. Never content with just knowing that he had the title of ?professional driver?, I wanted him to prove it. I asked him to tweak the car into power oversteer (a powerslide) at the final, long corner and hold it for as long as he could. His response? ?Your wish is my command.? Before I could celebrate, he had the throttle mashed and had me planted assertively in the seatback. 2nd gear came momentarily, the Viper breathing fire and making wild noises as he moved the gearlever firmly into the next slot. I was playing with the shifter on the showroom model earlier, and noticed a very notchy, heavy throw, which was reflected by the driver?s deliberateness in his shifts. With the roof off and wind blasting through my hair, the accelerativeness of the Viper was intoxicating. And he braked late for the corner -- I?m talking oh-shit-we?re-gonna-go-off-the-road late, yet turning in smoothly and completely poised. On cue, he had the front turned in hard and as the tail drifted away, he got back on the gas for a long, smoky slide, his steering smoothly countering the outward momentum. And with not much steering input at all (the sign of a good driver). The Viper was impressive in its solidity. It?s very stable, making the transition seamlessly and calmly. I couldn?t help but let out a loud holler, reveling in the experience, relishing the rotational forces and feeling the arc of the slide. He straightened the car smoothly, firing into the S-curves, whipping through them without so much as letting off, cones flying through the corners of my eyes, feeling impossibly close to the car. I was wide-eyed.


I drive hard, and I?ve driven cars that were almost as fast as the Viper, but I?ve never had raw, undiluted automotive fun like this. Being a passenger played a role. Without the necessity of devoting most of my concentration on the actual driving, I was free to relish the experience ? the visual, aural and physical stimuli that gives me the rush. Riding with that driver also opened my eyes. I am now more hesitant to proclaim I can match the lap times of racing drivers and have even more doubt about the enjoyment of supercars on the road (as opposed to the track). They don?t shine until you push them 100%, but you really can?t do that on deserted back roads. And a fast car (as evidenced by my Dad?s Porsche 911 and his modest driving) is really very, very boring at legal speeds. They behave like Corollas. Machines like these belong on the track, shredding tyres and burning brake pads. Yet the majority of their owners keep them pampered and clean, wasted in air-conditioned garages and low yearly mileages. What a tremendous shame.


After the Viper (and the very skilled, very flamboyant driver), the SRT10 and SRT4 were both very ho-hum. The SRT4 especially, because I was chauffeured by an ass who looked at me like I was crazy when I made my trademark request. The SRT10 pickup driver at least tweaked the tail out for me a little during his trail-braking. That Neon driver doesn?t know how to spell fun.


So that was my day. And after spending all that time driving and riding in various Dodge vehicles, I was pretty happy to drive home in my mildly tweaked Subaru Impreza. It sure handles way better than anything I drove today (my ride in the Viper notwithstanding). Whatever Dodge presented to me, as entertaining as it was, it just didn?t make me want to become a buyer. If I drove them in a wider, less confining, more flattering course, or on the road, even, then things might be different. But as it stands, the only Dodge I want is a Viper.

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Originally posted by adamsappel@Jul 11 2004, 11:26 PM

Thanks for the write-up, Sam. Sounds like fun!

Thanks for reading. I looked back and realized I went overboard. That is one long-ass read!!


For those that would rather not waste their time on my mutterings, just skip to the Viper ride part (and catch the stranger geek kid bit) on the way. Those were the most entertaining to me.

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