The heat rising around cool compacts is reminiscent of the muscle-car era when every punk with a license and a job bussing tables could slap down a paycheck and run fourteen-second quarter-miles. Now that Dodge finally has rolled out prototypes of its long-hyped SRT-4, it's clear that we're back in a full shootin' war. The price: just under $20,000 ready to wrestle. The punch: 0 to 60 mph in a potent 5.4 seconds.
The "Street and Racing Technology" label pinned onto the lowly Neon by Chrysler's new Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO) tells all. At the core is a Mitsubishi TD04 turbo whipping waste exhaust energy into found horsepower. But that's just item one on a laundry list of powertrain, chassis, body, and interior upgrades. Essentially, the PVO crew shot a bare Neon body full of Viper chromosomes.
When you drop the hammer with the tach primed at 2000 rpm, the driveline rattles and bangs in a futile attempt to pound 215 horsepower into the pavement. The 205/50ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Sport radials smoke through first gear, finally grabbing a few feet after the one-two chirp. Second in the New Venture Gear T850 five-speed transaxle sweeps through 60 mph, while top takes you to a governed 148 mph. "The tires, gearing, and torque curve are good for 160," notes development engineer Stephan Zweidler. "Conscious of our buyers' youthful exuberance, we shut it down early." But not before the SRT-4 blitzes the quarter-mile in 14 seconds flat at 102 mph by our measurements.
When clutch and throttle are engaged more deliberately, there's just a hint of torque steer. What the steering and shifter lack in Bimmeresque sensitivity they more than make up for in efficiency. A flick of the silver shift ball grabs each new gear. The firm, quick steering shows the same eager-to-please attitude. Ride motions are tightly snubbed but never boy-racer harsh. By its dynamic personality, the SRT-4 shows it was nurtured by car enthusiasts with an earnest appreciation of what constitutes a fun ride.
While the SRT-4's wrapper looks like the centerfold from a West Coast accessory catalogue, every slot and spoiler serves a purpose. The intercooler plainly visible through the front fascia's gunsight port is, according to Zweidler, the largest heat exchanger that could be crammed between the frame rails. A hood scoop channels cooling air to a turbine housing cast integrally with the exhaust manifold, and the hood's inner panel can be modified with a little creative snipping to feed supplementary cold air to the filter housing. The St. Louis arch mounted on the deck lid not only screams "If you dare!" but it also generates enough downforce to keep the car aerodynamically balanced at high speed.
Inside, a combination vacuum and boost gauge hangs prominently to the right of the main cluster. Charcoal-on-silver instrument dials coordinate nicely with the satin-finished shift knob, door handles, and center-console appliqu. Seat frames pirated from the Viper are upholstered with cloth and vinyl trim selected more for grip than for appearance. Side bolsters provide enough lateral location to run the Talladega high banks.
The best part is the soundtrack. Hammer down, the Neon's boosted 2.4-liter four-cylinder growls angrily, sometimes forcefully enough to thump the interior walls into resonance. Lifting off cues the woodwind section to chime in with whinnying chirps when the compressor-bypass valve opens to recirculate excess intake air. Spectators instinctively search the sky for a 747 on final approach when the SRT-4 blasts by with its wastegate cocked and its exhaust system whistling.
What we have here may be the quickest front-wheel-drive automobile ever spit off a production line. It flies, so why shouldn't it sound like an airplane?