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 Ford Mustang GT. Traction willing, a Stage 3 SRT4 would stand tall in a straight-line comparison against rally-bred favorites like the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO MR and the Subaru Impreza 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.