First drive: Chrysler 300C, Grand Voyager, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Fiat 500 and more
We’ve never been to an event before where we drove so many different cars at once that all the names did not fit in the title of a story. At the recent “Mopar Power Drive” media event at the Dubai Autodrome, we drove the 2012 editions of the — in one big breath — Chrysler 300C V8, Chrysler 300 V6, Chrysler Grand Voyager, Dodge Durango, Dodge Challenger V6, Dodge Charger V6, Dodge Caliber, Dodge Ram 1500, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Compass, and finally, to throw a curve-ball, the Fiat 500.
We started off with a mild off-roading session within the grounds of the Autodrome. We drove the Jeep Grand Cherokee V6 down a nearly 45-degree slope using the ‘hill-descent control’ feature, without touching the brakes. We did the same thing using a Jeep Wrangler Pentastar next, which apparently also has ‘hill-descent control’ now.
We then moved onto a different set of vehicles to do some chassis-bending exercise. Using the Dodge Durango, the Jeep Cherokee and the Ram 1500, we went over a series of asymmetrical concrete humps so that one tyre of the car was always in the air, and sometimes two tyres were in the air. It was a test to see how strong the frame was, and none of the cars faltered. The Durango had to go slowly due to its limited ground clearance and long length, the Cherokee was the friskiest, given its short wheelbase, while the humps were hardly felt in the Ram, as it had the most wheel articulation.
We then moved onto a skidpad where there was a Dodge Challenger V6, a Dodge Caliber, a Jeep Compass and a Dodge Charger V6 waiting for us. We had to accelerate hard and then swerve to avoid an obstacle under full ABS braking. It was easy enough, even with the lowly Caliber. Interestingly, this was our first encounter with all these cars. The Challenger V6 has decent power, the Charger V6 with the new 8-speed gearbox now has a funky knob shifter, the Compass has a nicer interior with more padded areas, while the Caliber also uses better trim materials for its amazingly spacious cabin.
Our next stop was at the track, where we got a couple of laps each in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Dodge Durango, the Chrysler 300C and even the Chrysler Grand Voyager.
Though we didn’t push them that hard in our speed-restricted pace-car laps, the Jeep and the Dodge trucklets continue to impress with their stable driving characteristics around corners. While still a step below the premium European crossovers, they are much better handlers than anything the Japanese have ever out out in this segment.
The Chrysler 300C, of course, is a nice car with a stunningly-trimmed interior, and that’s all we took away from the casual drive, as the car was never even near its limits.
The Grand Voyager, on the other hand, was more interesting. Same old on the outside, it was recently updated with a powerful Pentastar V6 and a nicer interior with better trim, and it shows. It also had rather good body control on whatever corners we managed to push it on. The driving position was weird, and the shifter was in an awkward location, but turning back to look at the expansive space, its priorities were obvious. Still, it’s a good handler for what it is.
We also separately got a couple of laps with the only 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 in the country. The 6.4-litre super-4×4 is bigger and bulkier than before, and it got a run for its money on the straight by the 5.7-litre Chrysler 300C that we were chasing. But it handles tightly, and feels a lot like the Germans now. It was still easy to get the tyres squealing, but then again, it had been burning rubber all morning that day.
To finish it all off, we also drove the Fiat 500 around a coned autocross course. It is a cute little thing, with a weird shifter to control the dual-clutch auto gearbox, and enough playfully-shiny hard cabin plastics to imitate Legoland. The car is a tight handler, expectedly, though it lacks the edge of the Mini, understeering earlier. Of course, it costs a fair bit less than a Mini.
The event also had various other models on display that will hit the GCC market soon, such as the low-budget Fiat Linea sedan, the big Ram 3500HD Dually pickup, the small Fiat Fiorano panel van and the range-topping Dodge Charger SRT8. Also on display were a Jeep Wrangler modified pickup and a Dodge Charger police car that we played the sirens on, the latter car being pitched to police forces around the Middle East.
Chrysler has gone from a bankrupt company to one of the most interesting carmakers ever, especially after it’s become a Fiat subsidiary of sorts. Now the Americans and the Italians are feeding off each other and churning out some of the most desirable cars in various segments. Affordable rear-wheel-drive sedans, muscle-cars, proper offroaders and quirky minis all under one roof? What’s not to like?