"SRT" stands for Street and Racing Technology, and it's the name of the in-house Chrysler team that has produced such hits as the Dodge Viper, the Ram SRT-10 and the Neon-based SRT-4. All are the fastest vehicles in their respective segments and price brackets, and deliver nothing short of an exhilarating driving experience. But it's a brash and unadulterated kind of performance, akin to drinking a good whiskey out of a frat brother's dirty shot glass.
Of course, when made properly, a margarita served in a clean glass can be every bit as potent as a whiskey shot: It just goes down easier. So when the SRT group wanted to leave its mark on a Chrysler-branded vehicle, it turned to the AMG performance division of Mercedes-Benz. AMG has a reputation for creating Benzes that go like hell on the open road but go down easy in freeway gridlock and while motoring to the country club. You'll remember that Chrysler borrowed plenty of SLK-Class mechanicals to create the Crossfire coupe and roadster. With its elegant body and 215-horsepower V6, the Crossfire is a fine car with or without a top, but drop in an AMG drivetrain and you'd have something truly special.
So that's what SRT did. The group commissioned the use of the supercharged 3.2-liter V6 and sport-oriented five-speed automatic transmission found in the 2002-2004 SLK32 AMG. The recipient of this drivetrain goes by the name Crossfire SRT-6, and it's rated for 330 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque. Like the original Crossfire, it's available as either a coupe or convertible.
On their own, the SRT-6's output figures are impressive, but glance at the SLK32's specs and you'll see that it's listed at 349 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. Why the difference? "Calibrations to account for [tighter] emission standards," was the explanation given to us by the SRT public relations staff. Only the most serious drivers will detect any differences in actual acceleration, though: Chrysler claims the 3,240-fpound SRT-6 coupe will sprint to 60 mph in five seconds flat, while an SLK32 of similar weight can reach that velocity in 4.8 seconds. Additional modifications were made to the exhaust system to set the Crossfire version apart from the SLK original, and we can attest that the SRT-6 sounds great coming out of the blocks.
Next, engineers went to work on the chassis. They increased the spring rates anywhere from 40 to 50 percent and tightened up the dampers 40 percent front and rear. The car's suspension tuning is even firmer than that of the SLK32, according to the SRT staff. Where wheels and tires are concerned, Chrysler couldn't really go much bigger, so the SRT-6 wears the same 225/40ZR18 and 255/35ZR19 meats as the regular Crossfire. The SRT team did, however, put on a lighter set of alloy wheels (18 inches in front, 19s in back) with a distinctive 15-spoke design.
We've never had any complaints about the standard Crossfire's brakes (which consistently allow the coupe to stop from 60 mph in under 120 feet), but Chrysler redoubled its efforts on the more powerful SRT-6, fitting the car with larger front rotors and double-piston calipers front and rear. Performance targets included a 60-to-0-mph stopping distance of no longer than 115 feet, as well as a sub-16-second time in what the SRT team calls its signature test -- accelerate to 100 mph and then, without pausing, haul the car down to a stop.
While Dodge-branded SRT vehicles appear to draw their styling inspiration from unbridled hormones, Chrysler wanted the SRT-6 to look the part of a high-performance luxury vehicle. Accordingly, cosmetic upgrades are subtle. Designers fitted the car with a front chin spoiler and replaced the standard Crossfire's retractable rear spoiler with a fixed unit. And in the cockpit, SRT specified a pair of laterally bolstered suede and leather seats. The suede is pleasing to behold and touch, but just as important, according to SRT director, Dan Knott, is its capacity to "hold your butt in the seat." And so that you never forget that this car is something special, the SRT-6 logo has been embroidered into the fixed head restraint of each high-backed bucket seat. Another reminder comes by way of the 200-mph speedometer right in front of your face.
Chrysler let us loose in an SRT-6 coupe on the two-lane blacktops that snake through the Angeles National Forest. These are local roads for us Southern California residents, and with little traffic to contend with on a weekday, there was ample opportunity for amusement as we made our way to the afternoon treat -- open lapping on the 2.5-mile road course at Willow Springs Raceway.
Although we wouldn't have minded the added control of a manual transmission during our spirited drive, the supercharged V6 is a terrific performer even with an automatic. Step on the gas and you're quickly wrapped up in its broad power band and on your way to unmentionable speeds. Midrange torque is particularly impressive, as the coupe stormed out of turns on the track. Even if you've never taken an engine to the redline in your life, you'll want to do it in the SRT-6 -- and the five-speed automatic will let you do it when you've got the pedal pressed to the floor. The transmission is also quick to come up with downshifts when you need them, though its manual-shift mode comes in handy when entering turns more aggressively.
The SRT-6 suspension upgrades gave our coupe a virtually flat cornering attitude, and with plenty of road information coming through the driver seat, this is an easy car to drive fast. We soon found a rhythm on the two-lanes, transitioning from turn to turn like the automotive equivalent of a slingshot. Steering feel is noticeably improved over that of the regular Crossfire. It's still not quite at the level of the BMW Z4, Honda S2000 or Porsche Boxster, but you are getting useful information on the goings-on of the tires from a quick, accurate rack. The brakes are strong and progressive in their actuation, and it took no time at all to acclimate to them. If you're so inclined, the SRT-6 makes an excellent track companion -- it's predictable enough to allow a novice driver to hone his skills, yet its limits are high enough that even more experienced pilots will find it entertaining.
Even as our commentary on the SRT-6 drips with adrenaline from a day at the track, it's worth noting that it would make a fine touring or commuter car as well. Ride quality is taut yet smooth over most surfaces. You will get some harshness over broken pavement, but unless you live in a pothole-infested area of the country, it shouldn't be much of a problem. And for all its potency, the supercharged V6 is quite content to settle into the background when you're cruising down the highway. Chrysler didn't have any SRT-6 roadsters for us to drive at the event, but the coupe at least delivers a quiet ride.
The Crossfire SRT-6 coupe goes on sale in June 2004 with an MSRP of $45,695 (including destination); the roadster version will follow in the late summer (probably August, we're told) with a sticker of $49,995. Both will come with all the essential amenities -- power-adjustable seats, side airbags, a 240-watt Infinity stereo, seat heaters and, on the convertible, a power top -- so there won't be any need to add options.
Nevertheless, there's no question that this is serious money for a vehicle with a Chrysler badge. Our main hesitation about recommending that you spend this much has to do with the car's interior. We like the new suede/leather upholstery, but the rest of the materials are uninspiring -- what seemed about average in a $35,000 Crossfire comes off as subpar in a vehicle that costs $10,000 more. Moreover, the control layout is outdated, as drivers have to deal with console-mounted window buttons and annoyingly small stereo buttons. Finally, on a car that gets this close to $50 grand, we expect conveniences like an automatic mode for the climate control system and the ability to feed more than one CD into the dash.
Turn your thoughts to the SRT-6's performance credentials, though, and the price is easier to justify. For $45-50 grand, you're getting virtually the same package of power and handling as a 2004 SLK32 that stickers at $56,000 and is sold by dealers who aren't willing to offer much in the way of discounts. If you can live with so-so interior materials and ergonomics, the Crossfire SRT-6 could shape up to be quite a bargain.