Looking for a modern muscle car alternative to the new GT and Pontiac GTO? You’ll need power numbers like 355 horsepower, 365 lb-ft of torque, and a price under $30,000 to compete.
But what about a turbocharged front-wheel-drive Dodge Neon weighing less than 3000 pounds with the ability to push well over 20 pounds of boost? Is this a modern muscle car? It definitely is. It’s even scary to drive at times, like some of the most bitchin’ muscle cars of the 1960s.
Meet the Stage 3 Dodge SRT4 that we borrowed from DaimlerChrysler’s Street, Racing, and Technology division, the same folks who have created beasts like the Ram SRT10, 300C SRT8, and Viper Competition Coupe.
You want more numbers? Try 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds flat and the quarter-mile in the mid-12s at more than 110 mph. Forget Mustang and GTO, that’s Evo and WRX territory and at least a full second quicker than a stock SRT4. More than that, those numbers put it ahead of its legendary budget-racer brethren like the 19691/2 Dodge Super Bee, which had a Six Pack 440-cubic-inch engine putting out 390 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque–good for quarter-mile times of 13 seconds flat at 110 mph right out of the box.
We are the only journalists who have driven the Stage 3 car at the time of this writing, and it came to us more hopped up than Jose Canseco in the late 1980s, with a tuner catalog full of upgrades. Nearly all of them were developed in part by SRT, given Mopar Performance badges, and are available from Dodge dealers, just like a multitude of factory-engineered performance parts were available in the late 1960s from Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler. The Mopar Performance Stage 3R Turbo Upgrade Kit ($4199 MSRP) was the hottest bolt-on–the “R” is for “race only,” so keep it off of public roads, wink wink. The kit is essentially a big Mitsubishi TD05 turbo with the necessary electronic and fueling enhancements to make it work. Our Stage 3R car also came with turbo toys, a three-control assembly mounted underneath the heater controls that allows you to spray the intercooler (off, auto, manual), play with the boost levels (zero through three), and–our favorite–switch on high octane mode. With regular 93 octane pump gasoline, the car puts out 310 hp and 325 lb-ft at the crankshaft, by no means old-lady numbers. Pump in 100 octane unleaded, and you’d better hold on to your potatoes as the engine pushes 355 hp and 365 lb-ft to the crank.
Most of the other upgrades were there to help make the most out of the big turbo: Mopar Stage 2 coilover suspension, larger antiroll bars, extremely stiff rear tension struts, front and rear titanium strut tower braces, short-throw shifter, upgraded clutch … all these from Mopar/SRT. The car also had a cat-back exhaust, air-fuel meter on the A-pillar, and seven-inch-wide Dodge Stratus R/T sedan wheels (stock SRT4 rims are only six inches wide). If you installed these parts yourself, you’d invest about $28,500, including the original SRT4. All this makes your warranty go up in so much tire smoke.
Not surprisingly, traction is definitely the weak part of this equation, even with wide wheels and sticky BFGoodrich KD skins. Dumping the clutch drag-race style will do you no good on cold Michigan roads that are as dry and salty as a Saltine. Instead, carefully engage the notchy first gear without touching the throttle to get the car rolling.
The next few seconds change your life. Smoothly yet promptly push the gas pedal to the floor. You feel a brief bit of bog until the boost starts rocketing up around 2200 rpm.
Kablizawack! If you didn’t reflexively lift off the throttle at the sound of all Hades breaking loose when the revs reached somewhere just north of three grand and the boost gauge spiked above 15 psi, the car has surged forward–though not quite as quickly as both free-wheeling front tires–and the tachometer has shot up to redline, where the rev limiter rudely spoils your fun. Quick-shift to second, re-apply your right foot, and torque again overpowers the tires, though this time you get a little more traction with your wheelspin and the car is going about 60 mph when the rev-limiter game starts back up a couple of seconds later. Don’t worry about watching the boost gauge unless you intend to drift into the dump truck one lane over. Just steer.
In third gear, you have to hang on tighter than you would on any Honda motorcycle ever owned by a Beach Boy. On winter roads, traction is still slightly overwhelmed at wide-open throttle in third, but the monstrous pull nonetheless squishes you back into the seat as you surpass 90 mph and sling the gearshifter into fourth. SRT drivers have hit 165 mph on the track before running out of room.
Judicious application of the throttle is imperative when you are trying to get traction in a 6000-plus horsepower Funny Car, and the same is true if you want to avoid wheelspin and get the most power out of the Stage 3 SRT4 in the first two–even three–gears. We had most of our fun in third gear on the highway, slamming ourselves back into the supportive Viper-inspired seats again and again as the boost spooled upward of 21 psi and speeds leapt from 60 mph to figures better suited for the racetrack. The car is not as easy to drive nor as well-balanced as an Evo, but it’s highly rewarding when you get it right.
Handling also is excellent, as a result of the stiff suspension package and 2970-pound curb weight. Due to the road conditions, we didn’t have a chance to steer it through many twisties, but it clearly is a nimble car. The limited-slip axle probably would help on curvy roads, however, under acceleration through slow, tight corners, the steering wheel winds up and tries to rip itself from your grasp. The car probably would smooth out in larger-radii, faster curves.
Living with the Stage 3 SRT4 day-to-day is tolerable, though driving it demands your full attention. With the suspension upgrades and wide tires, the Dodge pounds its occupants and tramlines if you’re not careful. Torque steer is surprisingly absent, replaced by more of a torque slide. After a test drive, executive editor Mark Gillies said, “they’ve found a cure for torque steer–it’s called wheelspin.” He’s right. Frequent inadvertent tire squeals are a way of life in the Stage 3 SRT4. Excessive road noise, a cheap interior, and lack of long-distance comfort are annoyances consistent with any muscle car, but they are forgotten with the whoosh of the boost. Clasping the Hurst-style shift ball and stirring through the nicely notched gears also brings back muscle cars memories.
And what would a muscle car be without a distinctive exhaust note? The Stage 3 SRT4 gurgles deeply and pops with pent-up back pressure on throttle liftoff–just like a professional rally car. In fact, Mopar-sponsored Stage 3 SRT4s have been campaigned successfully in SCCA ProRally events, winning two-wheel-drive championships and turning in overall times not far behind those of all-wheel-drive opponents.
The Dodge Neon likely will be replaced by the upcoming Caliber in 2007. We hope the SRT can cook up an even hotter SRT4 on that platform.
When we first drove a Dodge SRT4 for our April 2003 issue, it absolutely stomped on three other pocket rockets–Ford SVT Focus, Mazdaspeed Protg, and Mini Cooper S–in a fight that was won by the SRT4’s raw power. The Stage 3-equipped car that we drove simply crushes its stock brethren, which already nips close behind modern Detroit muscle like the GT. Traction willing, a Stage 3 SRT4 would stand tall in a straight-line comparison against rally-bred favorites like the EVO MR and the WRX STi.
If there’s any doubt that the SRT4 is a modern muscle car, spend a few grand souping one up and see how much fun it is to run with the classic and contemporary big dogs at the local drag strip.