2012 Power Drive

On Road, Off Road and Through the Cones With The Best of Mopar (And A Bit of Fiat As Well)

By Imthishan Giado

How long would it take you to drive an entire manufacturer’s range of cars on the track? Can a people carrier offroad? How does a tiny city car fare on the Autotest course? The answers to all this and more from this year’s Power Drive at the Dubai Autodrome.

You get the feeling that the boys from Chrysler are in a fighting mood – like a bear waking up from a long hiberation with a mean headache, ready to show everyone who’s boss.

We were lucky enough to attend this year’s Power Drive event, in which all the cars on the range (and we mean everything, including the Voyager minivan!) are tested at speed on the track, followed by a brief offroad section, and finally a slalom course to try out the little Fiat 500’s handling capabilities. Don’t forget, Chrysler Middle East is now handling Fiat as well. Can you say Abarth?

Briefing time

Before we begin, Chrysler Middle East boss Jack Rodencal quickly runs through the highlights of the Mopar range this year. There’s quite a few changes to the lineup – we’ll run through them in easy-to-digest bullet form:

  • The new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is still on its way to the region. Only one is currently here and it’s Jack’s own(!) car that’s going to be out on the track. And he’d like us to be gentle with it. Don’t look at our crossed fingers, Zack….
  • After the longest delay, we finally have confirmation that the Dodge Charger SRT8 is coming here. 465bhp, mean looks and 0-100kph in 4.3 seconds. You’ll forget about all of that when you hear the price, though. Ready? Sitting down? All that muscle will cost you just AED160k! Unbelievable value for such a monster. Let’s hope the local dealers don’t get too greedy with the markups, but either way we can’t wait to get our grubby mitts on one.
  • On the Ram front, you can expect to see the 2500 join the regular 1500 on sale – and interestingly, that also includes the Ram Runner super offroad pickup, which Zack claims will utterly demolish the Raptor in a desert duel. Certainly looks like it’s capable of flight, anyway. Unlike the Raptor, the Runner arrives in kit form – so in theory, you only pay for the bits of it you need. Not everyone needs the full roll cage and MasterCraft racing seats, but trust us when we say that you definitely need those awesome Fox Racing shocks and that vicious looking front end. I think it looks absolutely feral, like it wants to chomp the Raptor’s face off.
  • Expect to see the highly-anticipated new Dodge Dart turn up in the region before the end of the year; our best guess is an introduction timed to coincide with the Abu Dhabi Motor Show. Automatics only, before you even ask.
  • The venerable Dodge Challenger also gets a V6 model added to the lineup. But seeing as it features the 305bhp of the rapidly proliferating Pentastar engine, it’s no slouch. And at AED103k, it’s hardly going to break the bank. V6 Mustang, your serious competition is finally here. Now if we could only get that R/T..

That’s all the news that fit to print.

Track Time

Enough talking – it was now time to venture out on the well worn Dubai Autodrome track. In just under one hour, we ran through nearly every car in the range as hard as we could, with our breakfast at risk the entire time. In no particular order this are our impressions.

First up is the Chrysler 300C. This is our first chance to sample the new flagship of the range. You might be forgiven for thinking that the exterior hasn’t changed much. With the toning down of its earlier brash looks and the loss of that fantastic eggcrate grille, it looks considerably smaller even though the dimensions are much the same as before. The real story is on the inside: jewel-like detailing on the instruments, soft touch materials in every direction and a transmission shifter that wouldn’t look out of place on a $100k Audi A8!

And you’d be even more amazed to discover that…the 300C is no track car, that’s for sure. The soft suspension setup is the chief culprit, coupled with too-light steering. Heave the old girl through the corners and there’s an awful lot of body roll. If you ignore all of that, the car is actually surprisingly quick and surefooted. It’s no embarrassment on the track, but there’s little doubt that it prefers to be on the highway.

Next up is the Charger R/T.

Essentially identical to the 300C under the skin, but it’s a world apart to drive. The steering loses the numbness and gains a whole lot more road feel, the ride is worse but stiffer and sharper through the bends, the engine zings harder; basically everything that was slightly soft and woolly in the 300 has been ripped off like a freshly pasted Band Aid. Unlike its departed predecessor, this Charger actually seems to be enjoying itself in the bends, and indeed, we’re only limited by the relaxed pace of the other drivers (who it must be said, are all doing this for the first time).

I didn’t get a chance to drive the Challenger SRT8 as it was being used as the pace cars but I did get a chance to ride along with the Autodrome instructors. As you’d expect, it’s easily the most rapid car on the track with that big 6.4-litre Hemi V8. I kind of expected it to wallow in the bends like the previous Challenger, but no, body roll is largely contained to a minimu and the brakes are scarily effective. OK, I reckon it still won’t hang with a well-driven Camaro or Mustang, but for a coupe that’s nearly the size of an S-Class, it handles bloody well.

Break time’s over and it’s time to check out the main event – the Grand Cherokee SRT8! A quick run in the base V6-powered Grand Cherokee reveals no bad manners waiting to trip us up. True, there’s lot of lean, dive and squat when you play silly buggers with the steering, but it remains relatively well composed. This is perhaps the only time I wished for more power – on the main straight, the Pentastar lacks the bottomless well of torque needed to propel this car with authority beyond 120kph.

No such problem with the SRT8 car. Our own Fraser Martin drove this at Willow Springs last year and pronounced it “flipping good fun”. Shahzad was at the wheel today and within moments, the grin was from ear to ear. OK, it’s slightly softer than before and the noise isn’t quite as bellowy as the previous car – which was frankly mad. None of that matters at all when you realise that this 2+ ton SUV can hustle down the straights and round the club circuit like a well-driven European performance saloon, shifts crackling through the paddle shifts like shotgun blasts. In fact, I’d wager this’ll give the regular Challenger a hard time…

And then there was the Voyager. Now that was, umm, interesting. Slow? No, not really with that Pentastar engine. Set up for performance driving? Not in the slightest. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a hoot to throw around the truck, if somewhat blasphemous, like a nun that poledances. Despite the protestations of the economy-minded tyres, it kept up well with the rest of the cars, as long as you remembered not to brake mid corner…

Off the beaten path

That’s enough of the track stuff. The next section of our whirlwind tour was on the axle articulation course, where we sampled the Dodge Durango, Ram 1500 pickup and the Cherokee.

Looks simple, doesn’t it? In theory, all you have to do is roll over the humps, letting the ‘floating’ wheels articulate fully and touch the ground before applying the gentlest of throttle (or none at all, preferably) and going over the next one. Turns out, it’s much harder than it looks. We were given two spotters, one at the front to watch which way the wheels were pointing (and to make sure that we didn’t biff the front bumper into some concrete) and a side spotter to make sure we didn’t go too fast (and biff the sills into said concrete).

Unlike regular dune work, this requires absolute concentration and precise, milimetric throttle work. Forget about putting it in D; you have to ensure you’re in Four Low, first gear to ensure maximum torque, and there’s absolutely no gear changing once you set off.

What’s the report card? Somewhat surprisingly, it was the rather old Cherokee that struggled the most, with the electronic diffs reacting too slowly when the wheel lifted into the air. The V6-powered car is also a bit down on power, so I often had to apply the throttle more than I was comfortable with. On the other hand, the long, low Durango aced the test. That front bumper should hit the ground, but never seems to, and the clever offroad electronics always keep you moving. Toughest of all was the Ram. With its real mechanical diff, it made mincemeat of the course and honestly, I hardly even noticed that two of the wheels were constantly off the ground. Mountains of torque from the Hemi V8 made the whole exercise completely non dramatic.
You want us to do what?
The last part of the offroad course will test your nerves, or at the very least, your sphincter reflex.
Designed to show off Hill Descent Control works, you climb a very big hill and then go down that impossibly steep ramp, without any brakes at all. As offroad guru Peter Gladstone explained to us, using the brakes actually makes life more difficult – the brakes inevitably lock up and then you have no control at all. Hill Descent makes it all ridiculously simple – engage low range, stab the Hill Descent button and then foot off the brake, hands on the wheel and let her go.
The first time you do it, I guarantee you’ll hit the brakes. It’s just human nature to try to stop something potentially disastrous from happening. Of course, if you don’t, the magic really happens, as the car rolls down hill at a snails pace, safely and controllable. Other manufacturers use button systems to determine the speed of the crawl; with Jeep, you use the gear selector, so first or second gear provides incremental speed increases. In the Wrangler I tried, you’ve got such good basic ground clearance that you could probably do the whole thing in first gear anyway.
The Cherokee however, was a real surprise. Even with its scrape-collecting front bib in place, it nudged its way down, drama free. And then when you get to the bottom, hit the gas and power out because that’s totally awesome. Which Peter would not approve, of course.
Cone Carnage
Final test of the day is the venerable Autotest (or Autocross to you Americans). For this we’d be using the fabulously nimble Fiat 500 to navigate a tight series of cones and set a blistering lap time.
The tiny Cincequento is hardly the fastest track car in the world, so this tight course played to its strengths, as you’d expect. First gear, engage sport and away you go, making sure you stick to the actual course (otherwise you’ll earn a stern finger wag from resident Scotsman Fraser Martin). The 500 still feels like it would be best sampled with a manual gearbox, the clutchless automatic far from quick to swap cogs. Nevertheless once you get up to speed, it’s got plenty of oomph.
Does it need to be said that Team MME aced our group? Probably not, although there is some disagreement over how Shahzad really eked out that last four hundredths of a second to beat me…
Closing off the day was a chance to practice lane avoidance using stability control and ABS systems. We’ve done this loads of times before and it’s very helpful for people to really understand how their car’s safety systems work in practice. Ever been driving along, not keeping quite enough distance and then the dimwit in front of you slams on the brakes? Most people don’t brake hard enough, or back off when they feel the ABS pedal pulsing, thinking that something has broken.
The best thing to do in this case – and what this exercise taught people – is to slam on the brakes as hard as humanly as possible, and let the computers work out to stop the car safely, without locking up the wheels. The lane change bit at the end is designed to show you that you can still manouevre out of the way of any potential hazard, while staying hard on the brakes. It’s an exercise that everyone must do at least once, even the most experienced drivers.
Quite a busy day out, in the end. We got to try out and compare nearly every vehicle in the range, on road and off road as well as get a sneak peek of the full Dodge lineup that’s headed our way this year. The eagled eyed among you will also have spotted the Charger police car – we hear that a number of the local authorities are strongly considering it to their existing patrol car fleet. Of course, you may get a chance to see it in person soon enough..

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