We couldn't help but ask Chrysler officials point-blank about what cars their 2012 300 SRT8, the brand's self-proclaimed "Ultimate combination of world-class luxury and performance," will compete against. Their answer, delivered with zero hesitation and a perfect poker face? The Cadillac CTS-V. That utterance shut us up so quickly that we had to sit back in our chair to ponder the bold response.
The new 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8, the highest-performing model ever in Chrysler's lineup, boasts a powerful 6.4-liter Hemi V8 punch, massive Brembo brakes, lightweight forged wheels, countless hours of suspension tuning and a slew of cosmetic goodies. It is, without question, a very impressive sport sedan. But choosing a target like the CTS-V, Cadillac's highly regarded flagship performance vehicle, may reveal a bit too much confidence. After all, the CTS-V isn't just more powerful – its chassis is a bit lighter, it's shorter in stature and it wears stickier shoes. Of course, it's also much more expensive.
We didn't question Chrysler's comment, or even raise an eyebrow to their claim. We were, after all, sitting at a racetrack with a 300 SRT8 idling in the hot pits just a dozen yards away. Instead, we walked out of the building, donned a helmet and climbed into the driver's seat to find out for ourselves.
Introduced as a concept at the 2003 New York Auto Show, the first production Chrysler 300 rolled into showrooms shortly thereafter as 2005 models. Designed during the peak of the DaimlerChrysler relationship, the 300 was a big change from its front-wheel-drive 300M (and Concorde) predecessors. The new car had bold styling and was built on a sophisticated rear-wheel-drive platform with a suspension borrowed from the W210 Mercedes-Benz E-Class (1996-2002) and W220 S-Class (1999-2006). Standard models were fitted with a 2.7-liter V6 rated at 190 horsepower, but a range-topping SRT8 model debuted at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance boasting a 6.1-liter V8 rated at 425 horsepower. It was a much-needed shot in the arm for both the car and brand.
Nearly seven years later, we're at the famed Willow Springs Raceway in the high desert of Southern California. The ambient temperature is in the mid-80s, which is cool for July, but the car we are piloting around the big track is the hot new second-generation SRT8 that's been boosted for 2012 with an even larger 6.4-liter V8 under its aluminum hood.
From the outside, the SRT8 is distinguished by its half-inch lower ride height, body color side sill cladding and standard 20-inch wheels. The front fascia features upper and lower grille surrounds in black chrome and LED daytime running lights. Out back, the bumper cap sports twin four-inch exhaust pipes and there is a functional decklid spoiler garnishing the trunk.
The interior starts with a leather-wrapped, heated SRT steering wheel with metal paddle shifters on each side. Integrated into the dashboard is genuine carbon fiber trim, gloss black surrounds and chrome accents. The standard sport seats, upholstered in Alcantara and leather, are heated and ventilated and feature the SRT logo emblazoned on the seatback. The door panels mirror a similar treatment. Underfoot, the accelerator and brake pedals are metal with small rubber nubs for better traction. The car in our photographs was configured with the Radar Red interior, one of two standard colors. For something a bit less boastful, choose the simple black interior or upgrade to the premium leather with Poltrona Frau Foligno upholstery with leather-wrapped door panels, instrument panel, cluster brow and center console side panels - it's quite classy.
Like the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 and 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8, this 300 is fitted with a massive 6.4-liter V8. The 90-degree pushrod-operated 16-valve engine has a cast-iron block with aluminum-alloy heads. With a compression ratio of 10.9:1, and burning premium unleaded fuel, the powerplant is rated at 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a traditional five-speed torque converter automatic sending power to the rear wheels through a standard Getrag limited-slip differential. According to Chrysler, the 300 SRT8 will sprint to 60 miles per hour in the "high four-second range" with a quarter mile in the "high 12-second range." The sedan's top speed is a reported 175 mph.
Even though it is counterproductive to rapid acceleration, standard fuel saver technology will stop fuel flow to half the Hemi's cylinders if the electronic watchdogs determine they aren't needed (EPA fuel economy numbers haven't been released). The system works in conjunction with the active exhaust, which allows hot gasses to flow straight through the mid and rear muffler under engine load.
Underpinning the 300 SRT8 is a new Adaptive Damping Suspension (ADS), which reads both driver and vehicle inputs (vehicle speed, steering angle, steering speed, brake torque, throttle position and lateral and vertical accelerations) to determine optimal suspension settings for all conditions. For driver control, the two-mode system is cockpit-adjustable between "Auto" and "Sport" through the touchscreen console display. (Chrysler engineers were quick to explain that ADS is a hydraulic system with Bilstein shock absorbers, not a magneto rheological fluid-filled system. Officials suggest that benefits of the system include active damping in both directions of suspension travel and the lack of an abrasive fluid wearing internals over time).
There is plenty of firepower, so the braking system is equally as capable. Bringing the five-passenger sedan to a halt are four aluminum calipers, each fitted with four pistons, sourced from Brembo. The fronts clamp down on 14.2-inch vented and slotted rotors, while the rears are slightly smaller 13.8-inch rotors of the same design. The previously mentioned wheels are forged alloy with seven spokes each and offered polished or with black chrome finish. The standard tire size is 245/45R20, with a choice of all-season Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires or three-season Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber.
At this point, many of you will notice that the specifications of the 300 SRT8 mirror those of the Charger SRT8. It is no secret that both vehicles share Chrysler's LX platform, but each is tasked with a different role. The 300 is traditionally a luxury player, while the Charger is a sport sedan. But this is where things get interesting. Not only do the 300 SRT8 and Charger SRT8 share the identical engine, transmission, brakes and suspension, but the two share wheelbase, vehicle length, track and have an identical curb weight. Remember, however, each play a very unique role in the automaker's big scheme.
Whether you call it "The Fastest Road in the West" or simply "Big Willow," the main 2.5-mile road circuit at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park is intimidating. There are sizable elevation changes, a half-mile straight and a 100-mph decreasing-radius sweeper that slings someone's vehicle off the pavement nearly every time we visit the track. Thankfully, this is our hometown track and our familiarity with the proper line gives us an advantage.
However, we weren't alone at Big Willow. Our high-performance 300 SRT8 was sharing the asphalt with its SRT8 siblings from Dodge and Jeep. No worries, as this would give us an even better opportunity to see how Chrysler's luxury sport sedan handles against the Grand Cherokee, Charger and Challenger. Lined up in the hot pits, we programmed the active damping to "Sport" and waited for the starter's signal.
With a satisfactory gap between our Chrysler and the Jeep that had pulled ahead, the track marshal gave us a quick thumbs-up. We pressed the accelerator to the floor and... screeeeeeeeeeech!
The rear tires spun like they were covered in wet algae. The muscle-bound sedan, its engine belting out a beautiful rendition of the stereotypical American V8 roar, crawled forward for about 20 feet before the electronic traction and stability controls mated the melting tires to the pavement. We shot onto the track in pursuit of the Grand Cherokee.
We initially used the convenient wheel-mounted paddles to run through the gears, but after clipping the apex of Turn 1 and waiting too long for the apprehensive slushbox to follow our request, we threw the transmission back into Drive. We didn't touch the paddles, or shift lever, again. In automatic mode, the five-speed transmission shifted more slowly than we'd prefer.
Our first on-track impression was that the 300 SRT8 handled itself with the dexterity of an angry grizzly bear. With a curb weight of 4,365 pounds and 54 percent of its mass over the front wheels, the Chrysler used plenty of muscle to quickly get to speed. However, despite the adaptive suspension's best efforts, it was a bit ungainly while running at full trot.
Turn 2, basically a 450-foot radius banked skidpad, was entered gingerly. We fed the throttle slowly, bringing up speed until traction was eventually lost and the sedan started running a wider line. There was ample stability, but not a ton of feedback through the wheel despite a revised steering system featuring a new heavy-duty pump and gearing for improved feel and on-center response.
Entering Turn 3 required heavy braking. Speeds fell rapidly from triple digits as we prepared for a hard left to climb into the Omega section of the circuit. Again, weight came into play as braking had to start a bit earlier in the 300 SRT8. Despite the massive amount of heat being absorbed by the components, the four-piston Brembos didn't flinch – we were pleasantly surprised by their performance.
The top of the Omega is the slowest part of the circuit, but hitting it properly is critical to ensure speed down the back of the track. Turning under braking induced mild understeer accompanied with some tire scrub, but nothing embarrassingly nasty or unrecoverable happened. Again, we took it easy and then used the power of the 6.4-liter V8 to shove the vehicle down the hill. We hit the brakes firmly as we entered Turn 5 just to bleed some of our excess speed. There are plenty of opportunities for tail-happy oversteer – amusingly easy to control in the 300 SRT8 – around this left turn.
We built plenty of speed over Turn 6 and down through Turn 7, but the brakes were applied before entering Turn 8. In a racecar or prepared track car, this 900-foot radius is done nearly flat-out. In a tuned two-ton family sedan on street tires, we approached it with a lot more discretion. No complaints about the Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber – plenty of grip there – however, the platform wasn't giving us the confidence to sweep around as quickly as we'd like. Give us a lower center of gravity, a larger contact patch (245s aren't exactly wide these days) and, of course, less weight.
Coming around the front straight, after a cautious launch out of tricky Turn 9, our speed maxed out in the low 120s before we crossed the finish line. We had passed the Grand Cherokee a few corners earlier, our initial objective, but its driver didn't know the circuit, which made it an unrewarding accomplishment.
A moment later, we pulled into the pits – as impressed as we were frustrated.
The 300 SRT8 demonstrated serious competency on the track despite its size and luxury underpinnings. The engine pulled strongly, the chassis was solid and the brakes were unflappable. While we wouldn't go so far as to say that throwing the big Chrysler around the circuit was fist-pumping enjoyable, it was certainly entertaining.
However, we expected a driving experience that would rival the CTS-V. It never materialized. Several months ago, we tossed the Cadillac around this same track. The luxurious sport sedan felt "hunkered down" on the race circuit. That feeling of stability, combined with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires and a big horsepower advantage, translated to confidence and faster lap speeds. The 300 SRT8 fell short of its Wreath and Crest opponent. It is simply in a different league. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to see how the 300 SRT8 stacks up to the Generous Motor on public roads – we'll have to wait for a followup review to give you the skinny on its real-world performance.
But don't be dissuaded – we genuinely like the 2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8. Not for its track performance (its Charger SRT8 brother is better fit for circuit use), but for what it really is. With a base price of $47,995, and very well equipped in standard trim, Chrysler's luxurious new muscle car will excel in the real world. This is a place where luxury is measured by yards of leather, technology is assessed via state-of-the-art infotainment systems and performance is still very much weighed by the cubic displacement of the engine. On those scales, this sedan is proficient. Even better, however, is the immeasurable emotional delight of lighting up the rear tires and vanquishing unsuspecting victims off the line – that's what a Chrysler 300 SRT8 does best of all.