Horse Thief Mile Raceway is halfway up a mountain in California's high desert, perched just above and to the north of Willow Springs International Race- way. A modern outgrowth of Willow's half-century-old main track, it's really nothing spectacular. Save for an overwhelming lack of runoff, most of Horse Thief's corners are relatively benign. A few of its turns decrease in radius, but only one of them qualifies as truly intimidating.
Naturally, that's exactly where Dodge's handbuilt, one-of-a-kind Demon concept decided to start shedding parts.
It began when I tapped the brakes. My foot hit the pedal in a preliminary, Are you still there, Brakes? manner, that tentative feeler that you send out in an unfamiliar car long before you actually need to slow things down. At that moment, the driver's-side headrest popped out of its shell, falling onto my neck. Immediately after, with a loud and obnoxious clunk, the left front brake caliper fell off. Traveling at an indicated 80 mph, heading into a narrow downhill right-hander bordered by a field full of large rocks, and seated in a priceless car that jerked violently to the right every time I hit the middle pedal, I had to resist the urge to wet my pants.
Thankfully, the caliper just hung there, off its bracket (and thereby useless for slowing the car) but otherwise harmless. I slewed and jerked the Demon down from speed as much as I could, slid tail-out through the right-hander, and came to a gentle stop. The Dodge and I limped back to the pits, and Chrysler's technicians--to a man, calmer than I--began searching the track for missing hardware.
Remove most concept cars from the auto-show stage and install them in the real world, and this sort of nightmarish occurrence is par for the course. Most concepts are held together with little more than hope and a few gallons of fiberglass resin; they're fragile, wispy creations, designed to do little more than look good. The wandering caliper? It was a stark reminder that, in spite of the Demon's realistic styling and performance--near-anathema in the world of concept cars--Dodge's chunky little roadster is nothing more than a well-executed pipe dream. To be totally honest, after lapping Horse Thief at respec-table speeds with little drama, it's a fact that I had begun to forget.
There's no sin in that; indeed, when you see the Demon in the harsh light of day, it's easy to be fooled. (Several passersby, convinced that it was in production, asked us how much the roadster sold for and who made it.) The Dodge's understated cockpit doesn't boast any of the traditional show-car ingredients--there's no technological whiz-bangery that doesn't yet exist, no joystick controls or fancy upholstery--and its exterior styling sports no trendy design touches or visual gimmickry. Drive it down the road, and it does most everything a real car ought to do: it turns, stops, and accelerates almost as well as you'd expect, given its looks. It's not perfect, but as a package, the Demon seems believable and grounded. It seems real.
Because the Demon is so heartbreakingly realistic, we decided to introduce it to its most obvious forerunner and potential competitor: the Mazda MX-5. The MX-5 also is the current small roadster benchmark, is Demon stylist Jae Chung's ad-mitted inspiration, and is the most faithful update of the concept pioneered by a hand-ful of British marques more than fifty years ago. The MX-5 is light, cheap, relatively quick, and more fun to drive than its modest 166-hp output would lead you to believe. Just as im-portant, however, is the fact that the Mazda is a giant waiting to be felled. We decided to take Goliath to David, show-car warts and all, and see if we could cook up some food for thought.
Climb behind the Demon's wheel, turn the same-as-any-other-Chrysler key, and you're met with a bundle of different sensations. First off, it stinks: the Demon may be surprisingly polished for a concept, but it's still a concept. And as in most concepts, from the moment things get hot, your nose gets smacked with a heady cocktail of baking laminate and curing paint. Epoxy smells waft up from under the dash like so many shop-class flashbacks. Second, surprisingly enough, it doesn't vibrate, rattle, or clank that much. Everything seems screwed together fairly well, and you feel no more engine thrum here than you do in the MX-5. And third, there's a boatload of room. Despite being roughly the same size as the Mazda, the Demon offers far more interior space (perhaps because it hasn't gone through the rigors of being prepared for production, but the space is there, nonetheless). One of Chrysler's six-foot-tall technicians sat in the passenger seat, and he was actually comfortable.
On the road, the spunky Dodge presents itself well. Push it too hard and you end up with a creaking and moaning chassis, a lot of tire rub, and a hefty dose of cowl shake. But overall, it's surprisingly satisfying. Even saddled with poor wheel alignment, ten degrees' worth of play in the steering, and a permanently disengaged reverse lockout (you can grab reverse easily when going for a second-gear downshift), the Demon is hefty, chunky fun. You can sense its potential.
The Demon rides on its own unique platform--that's manufacturer-speak for "it was built from scratch"--and although it shares its rear-wheel-drive chassis with no other Chrysler product, it does use more than a few production components. The compact independent rear suspension originally made its home in the Viper, and Chrysler's coarse 172-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder lives under the hood, bolted to a six-speed manual sourced from the Crossfire. Like the MGs, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys of old, the Demon is the result of a few off-the-shelf components assembled with a hefty dose of positive thinking.
When parked next to the MX-5, the Demon appears awfully similar to the Japanese droptop. The two cars' proportions are largely the same, and dimensions vary little between the two. The Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky have been lauded for their styling, but in truth, the two General Motors roadsters are awkwardly high-waisted and large in comparison to the Dodge or the Mazda. (Both the Demon and the MX-5 offer more usable interior and cargo space, as well.) Common to both GM offerings--and absent in both the Dodge and the Mazda--is an interior that simply feels cut-rate. It's a reminder that for a low-cost car to truly succeed and be memorable, it has to feel like it's cut from more expensive cloth.
What does all this tell us about what a production Demon might be like? Beyond the obvious potential, not a lot. Too many variables are involved in the transition from show-car star to showroom success to go down that road, regardless of how well-executed the concept is. What with Chrysler's current financial and ownership problems, the Demon will probably never see production. This is a shame, because it has promise. Even in concept form, it's a lot more visually compelling than most of what comes out of Auburn Hills--or, for that matter, the MX-5 itself. A fully realized, fleshed-out Dodge Demon will likely never see the light of day. But that doesn't mean it deserves that fate.