PRN Visit to Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds

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PRN Tests the Entire SRT Line-up on Legendary Track

IMG_0367_optThis is the place where legends are made. The place where millions of miles, thousands of man-hours and hundreds of models have been used and abused over its storied 56 year history. Opened in 1953, the 3,850 acre Chrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds facility incorporates every road (and off-road for that matter) condition known to man. It is the place where everything from top secret prototypes to competitor products are put through the paces to go faster, be more efficient and define the future of the automobile.

PRN recently visited the facility and had full access to Chrysler’s entire 2009 lineup. And we mean the entire lineup — everything from base-model Calibers all the way up to the mighty Viper ACR, even utility trucks and Sprinter vans. Chrysler set up an enormous tent for the some 500 international media as journalists from as far away as Europe and South America descended upon Chelsea, a small township just outside Ann Arbor, MI.

While entering the front gates, the hoards of security guards remind one that this is a top secret facility. What we witnessed on the grounds, is a watered down version of what goes on there day-to-day. There is a wind tunnel on site, dozens of dynamometers, crash testing, temperature simulators amounting to 750,000 square feet of interior space. Cars are developed here for braking dynamics, emissions certifications, suspension testing and most importantly, thousands of miles of durability tests both on an off the dyno. On site there were several Chrysler vehicles up on the rollers, running constantly and when the tanks run dry there is a gas pump right next to them so they don’t even have to be shut off.

IMG_0424_optBut the crown jewel of Chelsea is the monumental oval that encircles the facility. This 4.71-mile long oval has some steep banks that provide no lateral loading to the vehicle. According to Chrysler insiders, when driving on the oval there is so much embankment, there are no steering inputs needed. You can literally go hands off the wheel around the entire banked portion. The surface of the oval was deteriorating over time and recently got a facelift with some fresh blacktop that appears as smooth as glass.

While we didn’t have access to the oval itself, we did have full run of the grounds. The oval was occupied by a pair of white Challengers and oddly enough, some Infiniti product for comparative analysis. The inner oval was a chance to run different vehicles over every possible road surface. Concrete, asphalt, uneven slabs, expansion joints, washboard, potholes and even poor patch jobs were found in the left lane.

The right lane however was smooth and we began our SRT experience with the 300C sporting the 6.1L Hemi. Then we graduated on up to the Charger SRT-8, an ultra comfortable ride and one hell of a tail happy drift machine when provoked. Afterwards we hopped in the Cherokee SRT-8, which happens to be the best handling of the SRT lineup next to the Viper. With its low stance, fat tires and AWD this SUV carved up the road course at the end of the oval like a sports car 1,000lbs lighter. With all of these beasts churning out 425hp, we were yearning for more room to wind them out. Well, we got that and even more!

For most of the day a stunning black on black Viper ACR ran around the facility in the hands of a Chrysler Engineer. While we could only stare in awe, the day picked up when we found out the car was available at the Auto-X course on the monster skidpad.

First up was the Challenger SRT-8 Hemi-powered monster. The car made famous in Trans-Am racing, NHRA drag racing and on the streets of North America is now finally back in production and slicker than ever. Slip into the all black retro interior with bezel gauges, chrome accents and ribbed leather seats and it’s the ultimate throw back. Fire up the Hemi and you soon realize, this even better than the original! The Challenger weaved through the cones with a bit more body roll than expected but there were piles of torque to power though the turns. The response is instant and the Hemi growl is something that would eliminate the need for a radio although, our Challie came with the slick double DIN LCD head unit complete with satellite.

IMG_0375_opt IMG_0383_opt Challenger_opt

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT-8
Engine: 6.1L HEMI V8
Output: 425hp / 420lb-ft
Base Price: $45,995
Transmission: 5AT
Curb weight: 4,140lbs

Then we got the keys to the aggressive Charger SRT-8; one of our personal favourites in the styling department since its all new as opposed to the Challenger’s retro approach. The Charger is a beast with a long wheelbase and lots of mass behind it. What that means it that after turning off the traction control, the car is so much fun it should be illegal. Well, if we weren’t on a closed course it would be illegal. The Hemi was familiar and predicable, while the suspension was very controlled for such a massive vehicle. We were able to essentially slide the whole course which may have been the fastest way around since it did plow a bit. But in the Charger’s defense, that was after the tires were likely well beyond their heat range and already showing wear after the manhandling they received at the hands of over zealous journalists.

One of the surprise hits of the test and the performance world as a whole for that matter was realty a car at all. It was an SUV, more specifically the Cherokee SRT-8 – a 4,800lb bully packing 425 ponies harnessed by an advanced all wheel drive system. This is the only car in the SRT lineup that has no torque limiting because of its superior traction, meaning all 420ft-lbs are yours for the taking. And the Cherokee SRT-8 did no disappoint. Its sport-tuned suspension with absolutely zero off-road capabilities makes it less of a Jeep and more a distant cousin of the Porsche Cayenne. It murdered the pylon course with its taut suspension and massive 20-inch Goodyears sized 255 up front with 285mm on the drive wheels. The Jeep, as confused as I still am about it, was the second fastest around this circuit next to the Viper.

IMG_0357_optThe finale was the mighty Viper itself. And although the regular SRT-10 versionimage40088_b_opt was available to drive, we gravitated directly toward the ACR. The American Club Racing version was on display in all its 600hp glory. The car is capable of 3.5-seconds 0-60mph times, 11s in the quarter, over 1g on the skidpad and over 200mph stood before us with keys in the ignition. The upgrades to this $120,000USD car are substantial including: coilover suspension, StopTech brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup Tires. Its aerodynamics generate more than 1,000lbs of downforce and we were about to put it thorough the paces.

We drove it hard but the Viper was barely sweating this course; in second gear the revs were never high. It was basically just point the wheel and modulate the throttle with any amount of torque you wanted out of the 8.4L V10. The turn-in was so sharp, the big car handled the tight areas with ease and oversteer could be induced to whip the snake’s tail around if needed.

 
2009 Dodge Viper ACR
Engine: 8.4L HEMI V10
Output: 600hp / 560lb-ft
Base Price: $98,110 USD
Transmission: 6MT
Curb weight: 3,366lbs

 

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