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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Never have I felt so embarrassed to be twenty-something than I was at last year’s Toronto Autoshow, when Dodge unveiled its new turbocharged street-racer, the SRT-4. Up on stage, the company’s new “director of product planning,” a lanky dude with Euro sunglasses, tight-fitting shirt, and toque pulled tight over his head, hopped spastically around the bright-yellow car, not describing its features or technical specifications, but rather how it had him all “amped, yo yo yo”, how the car rocked his world, man. Then, then-Chrysler Canada head Ed Brust got onstage and, on a huge computer terminal, logged onto the company’s Web site and joined a chat session where many supposed enthusiasts “ad-libbed” positive, yo yo yo-laced comments about how much they wanted the new Dodge.
My (mostly older) colleagues were looking at me puzzled, and the younger guys and girls in the room were simply slack-mouthed, so dumbfounded we were. Was this for real? Was this, I wondered back then, what the company thinks of my age group? That we’re a bunch of loud, illiterate, bouncy babies who can’t string together a coherent sentence? That, even though we were unable to communicate worth a damn, we also had $27,000 to drop on a hopped-up Neon? How, I fumed while looking around for a convenient place to hide, could they have gotten it so wrong?
Especially when, now that I’ve spent some real time in it, they’ve clearly got the car so RIGHT?
Make no mistake: the SRT-4 is the new king of the sport-compact hill. Full stop. Forget its humble Neon (now Dodge SX) roots. Forget a kinda cheap-looking interior and build quality that, though quite good in 2003, still isn’t up to import standards. Forget that unnecessarily huge rear wing. This car is the real deal, packing huge turbocharged power, amazing handling, powerful brakes, and real attitude. All for what’s essentially a bargain price: $27,000 will only get you 170 horsepower in a Ford SVT Focus or Mazdaspeed Protege when they buy you 230 at your local Dodge store, and an SRT-4 will roundly spank both those cars down a dragstrip, along a winding road, and around a racetrack.
Dodge’s recipe for domination is refreshingly simple here. There’s no complex high-revving variable-valve trickery, not much real finessing of the finer points of engineering to eke out a little advantage here, a small gain in performance there. The approach instead is very much “go big or go home”. The SRT-4 packs a big engine (2.4 litres compared with 2.0 litres in the base SX) to which has been strapped a big turbocharger and a big intercooler; exhaust gas is expelled through a big set of dual pipes, and power is delivered to the ground via a huge set of 17-inch BFGoodrich tires; behind them sit massive disc brakes clamped by giant red-painted calipers. On the rear is perched what may be the biggest standard wing this side of a Subaru STi; like the rest of the car, it ain’t subtle, but there’s no denying its effectiveness in broadcasting what the car’s all about. All that’s needed, frankly, is some bright orange paint, a flat-black stripe down the side, and maybe some roadrunner stickers on the wing just for fun.
The analogy would be appropriate, for the SRT-4 is a real road burner. Small twitches of your toe translate to big forward motion, big turbo whooshing loudly, big tires clawing at the asphalt to generate impressive traction in any gear. Not only does the Dodge handily dust anything in its price class with a claimed sub-six-second 0-100 km/h time, but it keeps accelerating strongly well past that point, even though it has only five gears, with relatively wide spaces between them. No matter: the big engine, even when its turbo isn’t blowing – lag is minimal but there’s still a distinct rush as the turbines spool up – is impressively flexible, as happy surfing along at low revs in top gear as it is gunning for redline in first. The shifter’s gates are wide and a bit notchy, but the chunky, industrial-grade feel is in keeping with the car’s general demeanour; the clutch is heavy but easy-to-modulate and the awesome brakes are connected to an admirably firm pedal.
As you would have surmised by now, the SRT-4 isn’t what you would call a delicate-handling car in the twisties. The suspension exhibits excellent body control, but the ride is correspondingly firm – though never uncomfortable. There isn’t much real feedback from the steering about what’s going on at the road surface; the fat tires and heavy weighting pretty much dull the sensations wriggling up through the thick, three-spoke rim. There is, however, plenty of torque steer out of tight turns and impressive wheel-tugging tramlining behaviour on rutted pavement; on less-than-smooth roads, you will need two hands on the wheel, lest you get tugged straight into the ditch (as befits the SRT’s basic, roughhousing approach, there’s ABS but no stability control). Never mind, because this Dodge is a car you actively drive: in it, you shut off the radio, inch your seat a bit closer to be right in the action, and go a bit faster than you normally would so you can feel the cornering forces build and the tires start to slide.
Thankfully, the SRT-4’s seats, in the same big-bolstered design as those in the Viper, clamp you sufficiently well about the torso so you can actually exploit those cornering forces. They’re part of an interior that, though its Neon roots are clearly visible, feels as special as the car’s exterior looks. Flashes of aluminum grace the shift knob, door handles, and gauge bezels. There’s a special, aggressive typeface on the speedometer that now reads to 240 km/h. A boost gauge sprouts somewhat incongruously from the storage tray above the centre air vents. And a full array of toys – power windows, locks and mirrors as well as an excellent sound system – is standard. On the practicality front, those huge front buckets compromise rear-seat legroom and footroom somewhat, but a low rear seat cushion means there’s still decent space, and once you’ve got past the high liftover, the trunk’s a very usable size and shape.
Would I be tempted by the SRT-4 if I were in the market for a car? Despite a prejudice against American metal born out of two cross-country trips in the back seat of a K-car when I was a kid, some reservations about the extra-vert styling, and my ongoing indignation about that press introduction, I certainly would. (The company’s marketing since, to its credit, has played a much more mature tune, positioning the SRT-4 as a serious performance machine alongside the Viper and SRT-10 pickup.)
With four doors, the SRT-4 is a practical enough only car, and even in the wet, its aggressive rubber is pretty well-behaved, though you’d need a good set of winter tires for when the snow flies. When you’re not playing boy racer, it’s surprisingly comfortable and refined at a steady cruise on the highway, and it’s easy to see out of and drive in downtown traffic. But what really seals the deal is that on a price-performance basis, the Dodge simply blows every other sport compact into the weeds. Simply put, this little car is big, big fun. Big enough to not only overshadow its brand marketers’ narrow-minded targeting of dumbed-down teenage speed freaks, but also big enough fun to comprehensively make all its competitors look pretty wimpy by comparison.
The SRT-4 is awesome. Despite myself, I want one real bad.