SRT-4 is most affordable hot rod

Friday, October 22, 2004

Every once in a while a car dealer tosses me the keys to something really special. Something that's a kick to drive. Something that leaves a lasting impression. And when that something doesn't cost an arm and a leg, I get really excited! The Dodge SRT-4 offers the most performance for the dollar of any production sport compact car available in the United States, foreign or domestic.

With more than 200 horses under the hood, it is one of the most powerful four-cylinder cars on the market. By Dodge's own claims, the SRT-4 will do zero to sixty in under six seconds, but two enthusiast magazines -- Car and Driver and Sport Compact Car -- have clocked samples at 5.3 seconds and 5.8 seconds respectively. Top speed comes in around 153 mph!

Like the Dodge Viper SRT-10, the "4" in SRT-4 denotes the number of cylinders in the engine, while SRT is an acronym for Street and Racing Technology. Produced at Belvidere, Ill., my sample car, well-equipped with a power moon roof and other popular options, listed for $22,030. It is the second-fastest current-production Chrysler vehicle, and one of the fastest Dodges ever made. While only 3,000 per year were originally projected for construction, production this year has reportedly surpassed 13,000. Chrysler makes a profit on the SRT-4, presumably because it is so closely related to the Neon, which it would look like were it not for the styling and performance tweaks.

SRT-4's styling theme includes unique front and rear fascias, sill-mounted ground effects and an outrageous deck-mounted spoiler. A unique steel hood sports an integral air intake that perches above a 2.4-liter turbo engine. The Dodge crosshair grille gives the SRT-4 a bolder face than Neon. Behind that grille sits a cast aluminum intercooler. Viewed from the side, doorsill cladding gives SRT-4 the low, stealthy racecar appearance. Dodge claims the visual cues are also technically effective -- wind-tunnel tests prove they actually provide downforce to assist high-speed handling.

I found the SRT-4's acceleration to be strong from any engine speed, with no need to be up in the high rpms before getting turbo boost and a kick in the pants. A limited-slip differential is standard equipment this year and necessary to put the 230 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque to the pavement. The SRT-4 has a Mitsubishi turbocharger and weighs a mere 2880 pounds, so its power-to-weight ratio is one reason for its speed. It is faster to reach 60 mph and the 1/4 mile than many acclaimed sports cars that cost much more, including the Porsche Boxster S and Beetle Turbo S. The engine is fairly loud with a rumbling sound that could easily be muted with an after-market muffler if the owner desired a sleeper.

Handling is very good, without the harsh ride so common in many sport sedans, made possible by 17-inch aluminum performance wheels, sticky 50-series tires, specially tuned strut and spring assemblies, dual sway bars, and updated knuckles. The SRT-4 also features ABS and four-wheel disc brakes with larger diameter calipers and rotors, to assure that it can stop from 60-0 mph in less than 120 feet. Other safety features include standard driver and front passenger air bags, as well as optional side air bags. Even the Dodge SRT-4's sound system was designed with performance in mind. A best-in-class AM/FM stereo CD with six speakers is standard equipment.

Build quality gave the Dodge a tight, solid feel. The interior is nicely done, with tasteful chrome accents and a small boost/vacuum gauge. It has a good-sized rear seat and trunk, which makes this a possible family-hauler. To that end, Dodge blessed the car with excellent rally-capable front seats with enhanced lumbar and lateral sections. The side bolsters curve to stabilize occupants, further enhancing the racing feel of the vehicle.

A new carbon-fiber-look leather wraps the top of the Dodge SRT-4 steering wheel and the wheel's three-spoke design provides a better view of the unique instrument cluster featuring special silver faces with satin silver ring accents. They give the look of precision instruments dedicated to performance. A satin silver cue ball shift knob tops a shifter that is surrounded by a boot made of the same textured carbon-fiber-look leather as the steering wheel.

The Dodge SRT-4 is available in four exterior colors-- Solar Yellow, Black, Flame Red, and Bright Silver Metallic. With a starting sticker price of just $19,995, the Dodge SRT-4 is the quickest production car available in the United States for under $21,000. I know what I want for Christmas!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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