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Americaís latest bout of Muscle Madness

DRCReview contributor Alex Shapiro returns from an exclusive trip to the US, where he drove a mouth-watering selection of performance models and discovered - 300bhp was just the beginning!

17.5.06. Even with skyrocketing fuel prices, American cars are growing in size and power with each new model year. Rear wheel-drive and V8s are coming back to American boulevards and itís not SUVs leading the pack with big displacement and serious torque.

The latest crop of muscle machines from American manufacturers and tuners is all grown-up, with luxury features and respectable touring suspensions. I spent a rainy week in L.A. trying out some of Americaís latest toys.

The Chrysler 300C revolutionised the full-size American saloon. Its chunky shape, low roofline and tinted windows recalled the cars driven by cartoon villains, and took American car design, and consequently sales, to new record highs. Since its release, Daimler Chrysler has sold hundreds of thousands of 300s, and thereís no sign of sales slowing down.

The 300 can be ordered in a slew of variations, with 2.7-litre, 3.5-litre and 5.7-litre engines, plus all-wheel drive, among the options shoppers had to consider last year. Now thereís an even more serious choice to drive potential buyers insane with indecision. The Chrysler 300C SRT8 is scheduled to arrive on our shores in June - and itís a beast!

6.1 litre Hemi powers the Chrysler 300C SRT8

To create a more up-market, exclusive, and ridiculously powerful version of the 300C, Chrysler reached for its 6.1-litre Hemi to deliver an additional 85bhp and 30 lb/ft of torque. To give the 300C a sportier ride, suspension modifications included a 1-inch lower ride-height, tuned dampers, sportier spring rates and upgraded bushings. Thicker anti-roll bars are also fitted.

The result is one of the most ferocious muscle cars Chrysler has produced in about 40 years. Chrysler's PR officer was uncharacteristically quiet, with no words of praise or reassurance for the car as he handed me the keys. His SRT8 had obviously sat under a pigeon party, but he was confident that I wouldnít notice - and he was right. Mercedesí engineering influence was obvious as the SRT8 approached 100mph. Inside, massive seat bolsters keep you firmly in place while negociating  extreme manoeuvres on winding boulevards - which can be carried out with real confidence, despite this being such a big car.

A backseat passenger would have no trouble scanning through the FT as the comfortable saloon takes twists and turns with a hint of German cockiness. However, the snarl of the 6.1-litre Hemi is always there to remind you whose car youíre in when mashing on the accelerator. The real fun of the SRT8 is that no one will expect what this elegant, luxury saloon can do away from the line. Acceleration is boundless, though the automatic transmission sometimes takes a while to make up its mind. Four-piston Brembo brakes on all four corners bring the 4200-pound Chrysler to a complete stop from 60 mph in an impressive 110 feet.

If sticking a 6.1-litre engine into a family saloon is quirky, by current standards, then bolting an intercooled, supercharger to a work-truck has to rate as sheer madness. Even so, thatís exactly what Roush has done to Ford's F150 pick-up, to make Americaís big seller into a 445 bhp monster called the Roush F150 Stage 3.

Supercharged Roush F150 Stage 3

The actual truck I drove was the first one in California and had come into South Los Angeles that morning. Such is the huge presence of this vehicle, that other Fords seemed to shrink when parked next to it. Looking at the bold stripes and unabashed body kit, with its huge, none-functioning hood scoop and wild air deflector on the tailgate, I had little doubt that this was a special truck.

Ford tried a hot rod, supercharged F150 of their own with SVT Lightning, which had an Eaton, factory-installed supercharger to produce 360bhp. The result was a small, uncomfortable, expensive truck. The Roush is a crew cab, happily seating four.

Wisely, the suspension has been stiffened and beefy anti-roll bars added to keep the six-foot tall truck on all fours when being driven enthusiastically. Taking a turn at speed in this truck is genuinely frightening, but only because you canít expect how stable it is. Body roll is unavoidable, but the rear end does a good job of sticking to the road in normal day-to-day driving. However, breaking traction is never a problem and you are unlikely to find another truck that forces your head into the headrest like a top fuel dragster - and can carry lumber and some friends. 

Roush vehicles are known for their rumbling exhaust note, and the Stage 3 does not disappoint, with a cat-back system that relocates two "Roush"-embossed tips in front of the rear wheels. They produce a ferocious growl that's guaranteed to have you grinning like a kid the first time you hit the throttle.

Inside, custom seats embroidered with the "Stage 3" logo replace Fordís dull-grey, McDonaldís-cow leather. The transmission is a stock, retuned, electronic four-speed automatic with overdrive. It does a better job at coping with the power than the Chryslerís.

Despite its sports car clothes, the F150 Stage 3 still keeps its truck heritage. The intercooled supercharger and its gobs of torque should make long-distance hauls a breezy, stress-free experience, even when going up steep hills. The Sales Director barely cracked a smile while telling me about the practical, utilitarian reasons for owning this truck, but to enthusiasts this vehicle will mean so much more than that.

While thereís no doubt that in North America, pro athletes will snatch up these limited editions, boat and horse owners will also be tempted to upgrade their factory F150s to the Stage 3 specification, especially since the racing stripes are optional. All Stage 3 modifications are also available through Roushís massive parts catalogue. 

While the standard F150 is Fordís sensible workhorse for the Mr Everyman, the Mustang GT, with its retro design and 300bhp 4.6-litre V8, is meant to play as hard as the F150 works. The convertible version of the GT is currently the only rear-wheel drive, four-passenger convertible that just about anybody can afford in the US. However, predictably though, in an effort to create a sports car for the masses, Ford needed to cut corners on the quality of the parts used in order to keep costs down.

Saleen, another Ford-only tuner like Roush, specialises in helping Mustangs achieve supercar potential. I parked my older, dirtier, slower Mustang Convertible well out of sight to drive the Saleen Ė afraid itíd get jealous.

Saleen's has created a svelte version of the convertible Mustang 

Started over 20 years ago by a group of racing drivers led by Steve Saleen, the company that carries his name infuses all its creations with proprietary technology derived from its race cars. The latest Saleen Convertible brings together all that the company's engineers have learned in 20 years of rebuilding Mustangs into growling racers. Suspension modifications to the stock GT include N2 struts with linear-rate coil-over springs; tubular anti-roll bar bars for front and rear, plus urethane bushings to replace the stock rubber components.

Under the bonnet, Fordís respectable, 300bhp V8 is topped with Saleenís intercooled supercharger, boosting horsepower to an impressive 435bhp at 5800 rpm. Brakes can also be upgraded with 14-inch ventilated rotors - a considerable confidence-booster, should you decide to explore the accuracy of Saleen's 200-mph speedometer.

The fruit of Saleenís thorough re-engineering is a genuine American convertible muscle car. Frustratingly, however, itís impossible to really push this car, as it is sold through Ford dealerships with speed-limiting software.  Without it, the car would be illegal.  Driving impressions were somewhat limited, but with the top down, you canít help but feel that youíre surrounded by a cacophony of Ford Mustangs as the echo of that ferocious exhaust note alienates you from the surrounding world.

While the Roush body kit is a aggressively styled, Saleen has actually calmed the edges and lines of the Mustang into something smoother and more grown-up. This maturity also extends to the improvement in performance over the stock GT.

In both handling and power, the supercharged Ford easily stacks up well against the Aston Martin DB9 Volante when mated to Saleenís quick-ratio five-speed transmission. The Aston weighs more than the Saleen with only 30 more horsepower on tap, and the Ford costs about a third as much - at under £40,000 imported into the UK.

In 2005, the Mustangís retro redesign confirmed what Volkswagen already knew with the latest Beetle, and BMW with the re-born Mini - making new cars that look like old cars was to automotive design at the beginning of the 21st century what  tail fins were to the 1960s.  

In the case of the Dodge Division of Daimler-Chrysler, the designers decided to use the 300 platform for a throwback muscle car of their own. What they came up with was a new take on the legendary Hemi Charger. While design cues, such as the distinctive roofline and aggressive front end, are somewhat familiar, the new Charger also comes with four-doors and a lot less attitude than the General Lee.

Dodge Hemi Charger boasts 425hp in a four-door saloon

The Hemi Charger can be ordered with any of the four engine configurations, from 340bhp to the same massive 425bhp as Chryslerís SRT8. Sadly, though, even the fastest new Hemi canít live up to the raw insanity of the original Chargers, and the five-speed autostick transmission, borrowed from Mercedesí E-class, does little to spice up the experience. In addition, the Hemiís Multi Displacement engine technology shuts down half the V8 during "light acceleration and cruising" in a bid to improve gas mileage.  It's a bit like drinking Diet Coke with a bucket of fried chicken - the two don't seem philosophically compatible.

While it looks inviting, driving this Hemi was a relative disappointment, with a noiser cabin and a more bumpy ride to the Chrysler 300C.

All that said, the Hemi Charger does offer a wild alternative to the more understated, corporate tone of the 300, without missing out on the power and build quality. Itís also less expensive than the Chrysler. With its old-world, rear wheel-drive configuration, V8 power and four-doors, Dodge is even hoping that law enforcement agencies will consider replacing the troubled Ford Crown Victoria with the Charger as their cruiser of choice. Yellow examples had just appeared during my visit, striped for the Dodge Daytona package. I couldnít help but think that the Hemi Charger looked like a futuristic, possibly-flying taxi. With its roomy back seat and robust platform, it may not be long before black-and-white Hemi Chargers are patrolling Americaís streets and highways and making it a lot more fun to be a cop.

Story: Alex Shapiro

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