SRT Performance Series Test Drive

Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep pulled out all the stops and brought the best of their best to the desert.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The same former Marine base that plays host to the current U.S. edition of Top Gear was roaring with a very Hemi tone recently as Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep brought several makes of their 2012 SRT line to Southern California for a short rally track day.

GM has their share of high performance cars over on the Camaro and Corvette end of spectrum, but this was a day for Chargers and Wrangers to shine.

For the uninitiated – or for Ford fans who block this sort of thing out their minds – SRT stands for Street and Racing Technology and applies to a line of tricked out performance cars across the Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep lines. Performance enthusiasts who look to buy Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep join an intimate club when they purchase SRT cars, and Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep set up the track day to give automotive journalists a little taste of what these SRT gatherings are like.

The writers gathered at the former El Torro base where a short rally course have been laid out on what used to be a runway. In attendance out in the dusty Orange County desert were the 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Dodge Charger SRT8 and the Dodge Challenger SRT8.

There was nothing fancy to how the day would play out for all in attendance. After signing my life away, I lined up with the other reporters and took turns ripping around the rally course in vehicle after vehicle. We were asked to sample each of the four models before going back for seconds with any one of the cars. While the SRT technology promises a proper adrenaline rush no matter the ride, each vehicle left a very distinct impression.

The silliest drive of the day was the brutally powerful and wonderfully impractical Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. It doesn’t sound like a Jeep when you lay rubber pulling away from the line with the help of a 465 horsepower Hemi V8. It does however handle like a Jeep on the rally course, sliding and skidding through clouds of tire smoke. It’s a lot of fun to drive, but not practical under those track conditions.

The Dodge Charger SRT8 offers a that same Hemi engine and it handled the rally course fairly well for a muscle car. But, every time I see the Charger, I wonder if the only reason anyone buys one is they can’t allow themselves to look silly in the Dodge Challenger they really want.

Yes, the villainous king of the SRT performance club is the Challenger SRT8 392. It’s big. It’s long. It makes the biggest noise. It produces the most white smoke as you peel away from the starter line. It also produces some of the worst handling on a tight performance course because the Challenger is still designed first and foremost to go fast in a straight line and to look intimidating doing it.

But, my favorite ride of the day was also the last car I tried out on the rally course – the surprising 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8. While I knew the 300 had evolved in recent years into a proper affordable performance sedan, I had no expectation that it would handle any better on the rally course than the Charger or Challenger.

It took only the first couple of turns for me to realize that the 300’s 6.4 liter V8 Hemi power plant, better weight balance and short wheel base put the 460 horsepower down on the pavement much more effectively than its more famous sisters. No, the 300 SRT8 doesn’t have the throaty rumble of the Charger or the off the line speed of the Challenger. But it corners better and allowed me to post my best track time of the day by a full three seconds over the Challenger.

Now, just because it doesn’t carry the historic name bag of a Charger or Challenger, the 300 doesn’t come cheap, selling for about $50,000.

But, if I was bound and determined to pick up one of the SRT8 models – for less than the king’s ransom the incoming Dodge Viper will charge – I’d go with that 300 SRT8.