A Chase Car to Lure Private Eyes Out of Retirement

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When I think of people who'd fall hard for the Chrysler 300 SRT8, names come to mind: Kojak, Mannix, Rockford, Starsky and Hutch.

Trivia lovers will note that the private detective Jim Rockford was a Firebird man, and that Starsky and Hutch favored a white-striped Ford Torino. And it's the 300's sister car, the Dodge Charger, that's been recruited for actual police work.

But on the gritty streets of Brooklyn and New Jersey, the broad-shouldered Chrysler always seemed a step away -- specifically, a step on the gas pedal -- from a tire-burning cop-show chase. Or, alternately, a video game appealing to characters on either side of the law.

And there is nothing virtual about Chrysler's new Performance Pages, which engages drivers in real-life competition. Displayed on the 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment screen in the center of the dash, this computer animates and records this Chrysler's feats of acceleration, braking and handling. My best score was a fleet 4.8-second run from 0 to 60 miles per hour, accomplished without the aid of the electronic launch control, which is standard on this 2013 model, though I didn't engage it.

The 300's name can be traced to the C-300 of 1955, the first American sedan whose V-8 engine produced 300 horsepower. The father of that car was Virgil Exner, the industrial designer and lover of tailfins. But the modern 300 can claim two daddies: the car is perhaps the most successful melding to emerge from the shortlived union of Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, and it is still genetically related to the Mercedes E-Class. The 300's combination of American street style and German breeding made it a cultural and showroom hit.

Now, a reworked line of 300s help to carry the torch for the post-bankruptcy Chrysler controlled by Fiat. The 300 is one of several models whose cabins suggest that Chrysler -- after decades of cheap-plastic eyesores -- is finally turning the corner with competitive, attractive interiors. A touch of Italy never hurts: the car I tested was outfitted with $2,500 worth of Poltrona Frau leather on its upper doors, instrument panel and center console.

Even without the fancy Italian hides, the handsome cabin breathes new life into a big sedan that feels more rewarding than pedestrian front-drive cars like the Toyota Avalon and Ford Taurus. It helps that the 300, like the Mercedes, was designed as a rear-drive car despite an all-wheel-drive option (though not for the SRT8).

For most 300 buyers, the combination of a new 8-speed automatic and a Pentastar V-6, with 292 horses and a highway economy rating of 31 m.p.g., is the smart app. A 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 raises the horsepower to 363 -- and surely that's enough, right?

But no, say the muscle heads at Chrysler. The engineers of the SRT division, which produces the Viper sports car and high-performance versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger -- have created a small batch of SRT8s. The tuner edition of the 300 adds a raging bull of a Hemi, with 6.4 liters, 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque, coupled to a 5-speed automatic.

The SRT's interior features real carbon-fiber trim and a heated, chrome-spoke, flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters. For $1,995 you can add a 900-watt 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. Also available is a two-tone interior with red leather seats, faux-suede inserts and heated cushions for the front and rear.

The Performance Pages readouts add a range of analog-style engine and transmission gauges. One vivid screen animates real-time horsepower and torque output. Another highlights the g-forces affecting the car -- in acceleration, braking and cornering. I kept finding excuses to goose the Chrysler, just to watch the horsepower gauge explode from roughly three horsepower -- the Hemi's output at idle -- to 400 and beyond. Just remember to keep one eye on the blurry road ahead; the car runs a quarter-mile in roughly 12.7 seconds. Top speed is said to be 175 m.p.h.

The SRT's reworked body looks ready for undercover duty. The car is half an inch lower than a standard 300, with dual four-inch exhaust outlets and 20-inch wheels. The SRT's approach to performance is as subtle as a blackjack to the skull.

But while the Hemi provides the blunt force and basso soundtrack of a big-block Motown V-8 -- with equally oversized, track-worthy Brembo brakes -- the Chrysler tempers that force to become a surprisingly comfortable, compliant daily driver. The Hemi can shut down 4 cylinders to save fuel, though it remains thirsty, with an E.P.A. mileage rating of 14/23 m.p.g., drawing a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax.

The adaptive suspension now features three selectable modes. The stiffest Track setting commands the transmission to hold gears at high revs while the driver manually controls the shift paddles or console stick. Yet that 5-speed transmission remains the weak link, especially in light of the 8 speeds in other verisons of the 300.

The SRT8's starting price of $49,990 can seem iffy at first, and more so after options. (My test car checked in at $57,750.) The closest comparison for the Chrysler may be Cadillac's CTS-V, a 556-horsepower beast available as a sedan, coupe or wagon. But even that formidable Caddy costs about $15,000 more than the 300.

Still, smaller German supersedans like the Mercedes E63 AMG and BMW M5 cost $100,000 and more.

With its accurate but relatively light steering, the Chrysler isn't as precise, agile or luxurious as the Mercedes or BMW. But on the mean streets, it gets the job done in remarkably similar fashion. The Chrysler delivers 90 percent of the German cars' performance for barely half their price. And I'll swear this on a stack of Gutenbergs: the Chrysler is more fun and more visceral than BMW's flawed new M5, though not as sensational as the Mercedes.

And if valet attendants don't respond as quickly to the Chrysler, you can always try flashing a badge.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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