Looking for a modern muscle car alternative to the new Ford Mustang 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 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Subaru Impreza 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.