2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8: World-Class Bang, Middle-Class Bucks

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Chrysler’s 2012 300 SRT8 offers both cupholders and competence.
Chrysler’s 2012 300 SRT8 offers both cupholders and competence.

The word from Detroit is that the 2012 300 SRT8 is the most powerful and best-handling Chrysler sedan ever.

In fact, it’s one of the most powerful and best-handling American sedans of all time, a USS Iowa-class bruiser with a chip on its XL-wide shoulders. By comparison, Cadillac’s CTS-V supersedan feels almost dainty, a BMW M3 to the 300’s Bentley Brooklands. Like a big Bentley, at first the King Kong 300 feels heavy—a heavy car that steers heavily and needs forceful applications of brakes and throttle. But as it’s rolling, the bulk seems to lighten.

Think of Mercedes-Benzes of 30 years ago, ironmongery that became more and more agile and comfortable the faster they flew.

The rumble under that vast hood comes from a 6.4-liter volcano making 470 horsepower and 470 pounds-feet. The motor starts with a hoarse chuff! and a spasm of torque. Zero to 60 comes up in a tick or two beyond four seconds and the scenery continues to blur until you run out of road or courage. It’s hard not to giggle, or maybe goggle, when you mash the throttle, at least until the next gear change. (More on this later.) But it isn’t all motor; the 300 SRT8 is no ancient muscle car that understeers straight through the first corner and into the trees. Drivers who have flogged this thunderous beast around race tracks say the steering and suspension let it dart through the esses and powerslide around bends until the tires melt, and the potent brakes don’t fade in the frictive heat of battle. Which must become significant—the 300 SRT8 is as long and wide as a city block and weighs two and a quarter tons.

It isn’t just a track monster, either. The 300 SRT8 is meant as a deluxe sedan with space for four large people and a full toy chest of nifty features. And, unlike most European war-wagons, it goes mild again without having to re-program everything. There are no menus to scroll through, or even switches to flip, to set up the car for a grocery run. It just is what it is. The “full-spectrum” personality comes across in fuel burn, too: 10 to 14 miles per gallon when you’re at play, 22-plus while loafing down the interstate at 10 miles over the limit.

The interior is that American Gothic faux-luxury that Detroit does so well, and it’s both comfortable and functional. Four hours at a stretch in these seats is not too much to ask, and the driving position is excellent. The computer panel is large and clear, with functions that make sense to the middle-aged. There’s even a screen that shows acceleration, braking and cornering g-forces.

So all is peachy? No. Let’s get back to this 5-speed autobox: It may not be stout enough to handle the full cataclysmic output of the motor, and its computer brain knows this. When you’re in the midst of a glorious, full-bore dash to the rev limit, the transmission abruptly short-shifts. It’s like cutting off The Ride of the Valkyries in mid-battle cry—deflating, almost painful. Altogether, it’s too easy to catch the transmission out, to make it do something clumsy. Playing with the shift paddles on the steering wheel helps, but we expect better, even if the $50,000 300 SRT8 costs an entire Honda or two less than more refined German speed sleds.

This car owes its existence to Detroit’s post-Crash realization that flash without substance won’t cut it any longer, plus the influence of Chrysler’s new boss, Sergio Marchionne, a man who likes to blow off steam at the test track in one of his Ferraris. And let’s not forget the renewed sense of purpose within Chrysler’s entire workforce. The 300 SRT8 is a throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s, when American cars were the standard of the world—big, heavy, powerful and shimmering with presence—except that this one is tremendously competent, too. But please, let’s have a new transmission, and soon.