2006 Chrysler 300C SRT8

A sinewy alternative to the big bad American sedan.

CAREFREE, Arizona- Actually we're past Carefree. Soon, I hope, we'll be past Trouble-Free, having left two policemen back at the roadhouse to prep for the chili cook-off on Saturday. And we're totally done with Sugar-Free too, with cupholders filled by Diet Coke bottles despite the desert aridity. (Hydrate as we say, not as we do.)

There is a reason to be out in the desert when the rest of the world is counting the days until the Super Bowl. We're driving the SRT8, the killer version of the hit 300C that Chrysler is spit-polishing on the auto show circuit before unleashing it on the public this spring.

With the new 300C derivate, the Chrysler Group's SRT ("Street and Racing Technology") suffix now reaches deeper into the Chrysler and Dodge brands. Dodge has six SRT vehicles alone - two Vipers, two Ram trucks, a Neon and a Magnum coming in May to dealers - and Chrysler thus far has the Crossfire twins breathed on by the SRT team. No matter what vehicle it begins with, the SRT team massages powertrains, brakes, and handling components as well as visuals to give distinct appearance in a cohesive way that's more closely aligned with the BMW M model than either of the speed boutiques purveyed by Chrysler's domestic competitors.

HEMI heft

The 300C SRT8 arrives in the fourth quarter of 2005. Like other SRT vehicles it emerges from the womb outfitted with a powertrain only remotely like that in its base versions. Here it's the astounding 425-hp version of the HEMI V-8.

The 6.1-liter HEMI here howls out 85 more horsepower than the 300C through all sorts of mods. Displacement is up, of course, and so is the compression ratio, to 10.3:1. It has a forged crankshaft for strength, hollow valves for lightness, and the engine block and pistons have been reinforced. Too, the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) that mitigates the HEMI's fuel thirst in the 300C has been deactivated.

If you thought the 300C's power lascivious, you'll swoon at the might of the SRT8. Stomp into it and you'll swear you've prodded Siegfried and Roy's white tigers once too often with a pointed stick. It roars to the challenge with animal authority, making blow-off valve noises as it merges through its gears effortlessly. More astonishing is the way it peels off 60-80 mph passes like $20 bills at the club.

Not much has changed in the gearbox. The transmission is still a five-speed automatic with AutoStick controls, with the favored side-to-side manual gear selection (uppy-downy Tiptronics can't be smacked around like a tetherball, they have to be nudged back and forth into gears). The combination of nicely staged gears and the 425-hp HEMI is that the 300C SRT8 clocks 60 mph in about 5 seconds or less, depending on which monthly car mag you read.

Tune it up

Given its outrageous horsepower and brazen SRT badging you might be led to believe the 300C SRT8 would ride punishingly. While it's tight and aggressively tuned, there's still enough play left in the SRT8's suspension to give it resilience and ease in normal traffic that you may not expect. Tighter springs and bigger anti-roll bars along with Bilstein shocks are part of the ride prescription. In fact, the most you'll notice in terms of harshness is a little less damping than the steering column seems to need.

The massive 20-inch forged alloy wheels and 40-series tread are about as subtle as the rest of the blingy 300C shape. And equally direct are the four-piston Brembos, vented all around, working with the Goodyear F1 tires in Copland symphony.

A deftly integrated package of add-ons in and out boosts the SRT8's visual performance. Deep chin and butt spoilers improve airflow but not so much its profile - how do you top a grille that's as tall as your femur is long? But they do help push the SRT8's rear end closer to the ground at higher speeds. A handful of badges scattered about the silver-or-black-only body are discreet as late-evening appointments with the concrete shoe-fitters' union of Jersey City, New Jersey.

The interior's been dressed up with "technical" leather trim (faux-wood steering wheels are for the steak-and-cognac lunch crowd, apparently) and massive SRT-only bolstered seats wear wings large enough to wear a Boeing label. The black cap on the dash and black leather seats are lightened by gray trim on the lower dash. Complaints? The driver's seat is dished a bit and like Consumer Reports will tell you, it's a bit tough to see out of the 300C's rear windows. They also banged up a Proctor-Silex toaster with the same amount of barely contained disdain, so tiptoe carefully through those circle ratings.

Maybe the most astonishing thing about the SRT8, once you've scraped your toupee from the headrest, is the sub-$40,000 price tag. Add in option packages like the navigation/Sirius/UConnect Bluetooth apparatus and you can nudge over $43,000, but you have to really want to take cellphone calls without using your hands to spend that much.

The 300C telegraphs Chrysler's plan to be the most American of the big car companies on the sedan front - and it does so winningly. By stuffing more HEMI power under the hood, Chrysler's throwing down a challenge not only to GM and Ford, but to the fastest, most finely tuned four-doors the world's automakers can bring on.

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