2015 Chryslers driven at US proving ground

Quick blat in several Fiats, Alfas and Chryslers at the firm’s What’s New event in Michigan

By Shahzad Sheikh

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

It’s great when a manufacturer does this – opens the doors to its own testing facility to allow a bunch of journalists in to blast about in a massive selection of vehicles from almost its entire range. And it doesn’t happen often, so of course we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to go to the Chelsea proving grounds near the company’s HQ in Detroit, Michigan to have a try.

Naturally we weren’t the only ones invited – we were there with around 100 of the rest of the world’s press too! So I didn’t get my paws on everything, but here’s what I did get to sample.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Dodge Durango

Believe it or not, I still hadn’t driven the revised Durango, despite my colleague having tested it (review here) locally, though I did drive it at this generation’s original launch in 2011 and concluded it to be one of the best seven-seat family SUVs out there.

So I jumped in the latest Durango, firstly in plush Pentastar V6 Citadel guise with its tweaked interior and great looking rear taillights, plus improved new interior. Straight afterwards I took out the ‘Blacktop’ special edition, which is slightly lowered and has way meaner looks.

We don’t get it in the region, but it looked so cool that it had to be driven! Actually it’s basically an R/T with black trim and wheels. As good as the Citadel is, this is the one I’d have, and although the Durango doesn’t need a HEMI, it sounds better, and feels so much gruntier. It’s the one for the dads that had to give up the Challenger for the sake of the family.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT

But then if you’re talking fast SUVs for Daddies that need to compensate, then they don’t come much meaner and quicker than the almighty Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT – again a car that somehow I’ve missed though my colleague has tested it – his review here.

Grand Cherokee is my current favourite large SUV (as long as you don’t need the third row of seats) and it just seems to get better and better as they continue to enhance it over its model life-cycle. Of course don’t take my word for it, the Grand Cherokee is Jeep’s best-selling car, and consistently in the US top ten selling SUVs.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

And the SRT is the king when it comes to performance of course – it’s a car that gives the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S and Mercedes ML63 nightmares. No opportunity to drive it should be missed. So I took it for a run around the long circuit but also the tight handling circuit which it ate up with relish. For such a big, hairy beast to move with such agility is astonishing, but the four-wheel drive grip really helps its cause.

You’d better get yours quick though as the SRT brand is about to be consolidated back into the Dodge marque exclusively, which doesn’t bode well for the long-term future of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. My personal guess though is that Jeep would be foolish to lose this monster, so it’ll probably get renamed as something else, and as the company has demonstrated with the ‘Hellcat’ it’s not short of cool names. Here’s my suggestion – Grand Cherokee Cayenne-Crusher.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Fiat 500 Abarth

From the giants in the paddock to the tiddlers – I’ve been waiting a very long time to drive the funky little Fiat 500 Abarth (which would be known as the 595 Abarth in Europe and probably our market), having sampled other variants of this fun and cuddly little car over the years. And now that there is an automatic version, we’ll probably be getting more in the region than the limited numbers we’ve had in the past.

I drove both the auto and the manual Abarths around the full loop and short handling circuit, but also a very fast autotest course – more of which later. I’m delighted to say that the Abarth does not disappoint. It’s sharp, darty, imminently adjustable on the throttle, extremely playful and eager as a pup chasing a ball.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

The six-speed automatic is a derivative of the same unit as in the regular 500, but it’s unrecognisable. It feels tougher and quicker as it’s been reengineered to cope with the more sporty attitude of the Abarth, including adding extra clutch plates and reinforced gears. It’s snappy and competent, but in a car like this I really missed not having paddle shifts, which unfortunately it’s not available with due to the steering wheel design. You can use the gear lever in sequential mode though.

But the real joy of the Abarth is of course to be had in the five-speed manual. Yes it’s a little spongy and not as precise in its movements as I would have liked, but overall the increased control, more satisfying changes and sheer delight of self-stirring the ratios on this cheeky little thing more than compensates. You don’t even notice that it’s down on torque (170lb ft compared to the auto’s 183lb ft) though it has 160bhp versus the auto’s 157bhp.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Chrysler 200

This is an all-new car that we have not yet seen in our region but will likely arrive next year and shake things up in the saloon car segment. So much in demand was it on the day, that I had to wait very a long time indeed just to get a go in one.

Forget the dowdy old 200, this is sleek, contemporary, very stylish, superbly appointed inside with clever little touches like the Detroit Skyline embossed into the rubber matt in the tray under the centre console – a nice detail considering a lot of people won’t even notice it.

A smooth easy ride was complemented with secure all-wheel drive handling on the twisty circuit making for an impressive all-rounder on first acquaintance. It would need a longer test on local roads for a proper assessment, especially as we’re only likely to get the two-wheel drive version with the Pentastar and the new 9-speed auto (somehow better suited here than in the Cherokee I think), but Chrysler could be onto another winner with the new 200.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Imthishan runs a Wrangler Rubicon here at MME, you can read all about it here, but whilst the two-door is perfectly adequate for his needs, if I was to get a Wrangler, it would have to be the Unlimited. So I couldn’t resist a go in a 2015 Rubicon with a manual transmission with a peeled back canvas top – perfect for the bright sunny weather we were enjoying on the day.

Straight away I could see why Imthishan chose the manual variant, it’s not only easy to drive, but very enjoyable with a distinct ratios and nice, wobble-free movement of the shifter, remarkably refined and delightful. And with 285bhp from its V6, this thing really hustles along. But what none of all that tells you is the fantastic feel-good value of driving one of these.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Alfa Romeo 4C and Dodge Viper

I’ve lumped these two together as I tried them one after the other on a fast autotest course at another part of the venue. However, these cars are an absolute world apart in terms of execution, delivery and character. And yet I equally desire them both, but for entirely different reasons.

It’s the second time I’ve driven the Alfa Romeo 4C (read my first drive review), and this was even briefer than last time. But frankly I’ll never miss an opportunity to peddle one as it’s one of the most lively, feelsome, alacritous and exciting cars on the planet.

Around the fast course – featuring plenty of space to get it wrong, I found that even on the limit it was intuitive and adjustable with taught ground-hugging dynamics. You could slide it just enough and keep it all going in the right direction with relative ease.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

It’s also the second time I’ve driven the Viper. The first time I grappled with it on the road I found it intimidating and brutal – you can see my reaction in the video below. Unsurprisingly after eagerly jumping in the 4C and driving it hard from the get-go, I instead found the anxiety levels rising to hand-quivering throat-parching levels as I lined up waiting for the mean and made old snake.

The black car I was offered was already configured in the potentially fatal ‘Race’ mode but I decided to leave it there. There is something slightly masochistic about the Viper, the more it terrifies you, the more you want to drive it and try to see if you can cope with it – honestly though, unless you’re super talented, you’ll never really tame it.

So, sod it. Full burn-out time off the line. Then hard on the brakes and testily around the first hairpin corner. Hard through the sweeping left, just feeling it getting close to the edge, correcting, easing; hard again on the anchors as things tighten up for the 90 left, and then a long circumference round to the right. Keep it pinned… no, c’mon, don’t chicken out, there’s nothing to hit here… keep it, keep it, ah shit!

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Picture credit: Carlin Gerbich, Car & Driver ME

You’re seemingly sitting on the back wheels, the fronts almost in a different time zone, so when it goes it snap it’s a big slide, not a little kick. Amazingly though I manage to catch it before it swaps ends, partly luck, partly prayer (I DID NOT want to look a total fool before the rest of the world’s media!).

Frankly I must have had some bravery pills this morning though, because I’m back on it for the next slight kink, there’s a bit of movement at the back, but this time I keep it pinned as its going the right direction and it slews sweetly into the next short straight bit. At the end of which the reassuring brakes do a great job of washing off momentum and there’s enough confidence and finally some belief in the Viper’s quite astonishing grip, to attack the 90 right at speed, but not to overcook it.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

I slow dramatically for the final section as its closer to the tents and really not somewhere where you want a beast like this out of control and bring it home. The adrenaline is coursing through my veins big time now, but I’ve stopped shaking. Instead there is some satisfaction, but mostly there is utterly exhilaration and joy not only at driving the Viper, but the fact that some as mental as this is real, and that you can buy one. And if you can, you should.

Having had a very fast passenger ride on the previously mentioned handling circuit in a Viper TA Stage 2 with tons of downforce and piloted by professional racer Tommy Kendall, I got to witness just how much grip you could get out of a Viper (it’s relatively stock apart from the aero), and that for someone with real talent and ability it is possible to grab this wild thing by the collar and manhandle it around a challenging course. Or for the rest of us to spend time learning it and feeling really special when finally conquering it.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

Verdict

As you’ve not doubt gathered, driving both the 4C and Viper was the absolute highlight of the day – even though I’d driven them before. This sportscar and musclecar are astonishing vehicles, real stand-out stars and better, more memorable and enthralling than most supercars on sale today.

Which would I have? You know I can’t really make up my mind. Neither are ideal daily drivers, but both are must-drives. The 4C is quite a bit less costly than the Viper, so that could swing it. But then the real dilemma will arrive with the Challenger Hellcat goes on sale – more powerful than this Viper (although that’s being remedied) and probably closer in money, if not cheaper, than a 4C. That’s a toughie!

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

The other thing to take away from the day is the optimistic outlook for the Fiat-Chrysler group in terms of product. There wasn’t a bad car here. And the diversity and ability on offer is absolutely astonishing. Whether you’re an adventuring family, an adrenalin junkie, a chic city-slicker, a humble commuter or a man in need of a truck, there is something here for you.

Plus this is a group blessed with iconic marques (Jeep, Alfa Romeo) and brands (Wrangler, Challenger, 500, Viper) with several best-sellers in its group. Chrysler is in a very good place now considering the near catastrophic woes of the last decade when it filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy just five years ago.

Looking around the paddocks, if I was on a shopping spree – money no object – there are at least eight cars I’d place orders for instantly, and there are several more that I would consider – and I genuinely can’t say that about most other manufacturer groups.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

See my walkaround of the Jeep Renegade at the same event.

Click here to take a look inside the 2015 Challenger and hear the Hellcat revving.

Factory tour of the fable Toledo plant where they make the Wrangler and now the Cherokee too, during the same trip.

2015 cars driven at Chrysler’s proving ground

That’s the 2015 Chryslers driven. Can you figure out which cars I’d order? Which ones would you have out of the full Fiat-Chrysler group range? Tell us below. 

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