The 24 Hours of LeMons season is in full swing, which means that I'm traveling the country in carny fashion--though instead of hosing out the Tilt-a-Whirl and riding in a decrepit Winnebago, I'm applying strange punishments to bad drivers and subjecting new cars to the rigors of the race organizer's lifestyle. That means bombing between hotel and racetrack and airport, roaring down ill-marked roads in search of the rare non-chain dining establishment remaining in America's rural areas, filling the trunk full of weird equipment, and attempting to impress a paddock full of jaded racers who daily-drive everything from Lancia Fulvia Berlinas to AMG E63 wagons.
In our last Race Organizer Review, I experienced the 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO at and around Michigan's Gingerman Raceway. This week, we'll see how a great big 2014 Chrysler 300 SRT fared during my weekend at the Real Hoopties of New Jersey race last month.
The 300 SRT, with its 470-hp V8 and heavily leatherized interior, might appear to be Chrysler's answer to all those big, powerful German sedans, but I think it's more the modernized version of the C-body cars of the 1960s and 1970s. Say, the 1970 Chrysler 300 Hurst, which was a two-ton C-body coupe with a 375-hp (gross, not net) pushrod V8, two-tone paint, some cool-looking hood scoops, and a sort of semi-disreputable strip-club owner air about it. The 2014 300 SRT is a few hundred pounds heavier, boasts nearly twice the power at the wheels, and it gets more than twice the fuel economy of the 1970 model.
So I felt a little like Ben Gazzara, circa 1971, behind the wheel of this car, which is a good thing in my book. But a race organizer's ride needs to be practical as well as Gazzaresque, and the trunk definitely held all the luggage and supplies that the 24 Hours of LeMons staff drags to the racetrack. We were already quite familiar with the passenger and cargo capacity of the current 300, having rented a few of them during our travels, and the only rental car that could rival it in that department was the now-discontinued Mercury Grand Marquis.
Of course, with the 300 being a common rental car and everyday V6-powered driver for hundreds of thousands of Americans, the SRT version has a hard time standing out from the crowd. It attracted approximately zero attention from other drivers during my run from the Philadelphia airport to New Jersey Motorsports Park (unless I was mashing the throttle, the effects of which made it clear that this wasn't an ordinary 300).
At the racetrack, the 392 Hemi's rumble attracted some admiring comments and thumbs-up gestures from a few of the LeMons racers, but nothing like the amount of praise the '14 Chevy SS grabbed from LeMons racers in Texas.
Unlike the SS, however, the 300 SRT's interior is vaguely racy looking yet subdued, and the materials are pleasant to the touch and well put together. I found myself wishing for a bench-seat option, preferably with column shifter, for more of that updated C-body feel. The Uconnect multimedia/navigation/sound system, with the optional Harman/Kardon upgrades, was one of the easiest to pair with USB drives and Bluetooth cellphones of any car I've driven in recent years, which is a real plus for a race organizer who doesn't want to futz with endless balky menus to crank the original Tom Waits version of "Jersey Girl" on the stereo while cruising the NJMP paddock.
The 6.4-liter Hemi V8 is more proof that Detroit is now in the Golden Age of the pushrod V8. It's smooth, makes ungodly power, gets astoundingly good fuel economy and sounds great. All I ask is that Chrysler put this masterpiece of an engine in a car that weighs about a thousand pounds less. Perhaps Mazda could sell the tooling for the RX-8's chassis to Chrysler?
Truth be told, I spent more time at NJMP driving the 1976 Cadillac Sedan Deville of Mod Squad Racing—their MR2's tow vehicle—than I did behind the wheel of the 300 because the big Cad is more of a proper Judgemobile. However, I did manage to pose the Chrysler with a LeMons car made by the same manufacturer, in this case the Dodge Daytona of Team Waaahmbulance.
Overall, the 300 SRT did everything a race organizer's car should do, though it needs some wild body modifications if it's going to impress the crowd at a LeMons race (may I suggest bringing back the Air Grabber hood scoop, along with side pipes and maybe bright red interior lights that make the driver appear to be in Hell?). It combines brutal power with one-finger-on-the-wheel cruising ability, the electronics are non-frustrating, and the interior feels Detroit-ish without being icky.
The Race Organizer Verdict: A fast, sensible, well-built car with plenty of room, the 300 SRT needs more visual differentiation from its quotidian 300 siblings.
2014 Chrysler 300 SRT Premium
Base Price: $48,900
Price As Tested: $59,035
Drivetrain: 6.4 liter OHV V8, RWD, 5-speed automatic transmission
Output: 470 hp at 6,000 rpm; 470 lb-ft at 4,300 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,365 lbs
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 14/23/17 mpg
Options: SafetyTec ($1,995), Leather Interior Group ($2,500), Harmon-Kardon Audio Group ($1,995), Black Painted Roof ($1,500), 245/45ZR20 Tires ($150), Gas Guzzler Tax ($1,000), Destination Charge ($995).
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