Earlier this week, the Chrysler Communications blog ran a piece that we all knew was coming, but few true enthusiasts wanted to see. The Dodge Viper SRT-10 Final Edition is here. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, the end of the line for the consummate American two-seater. Apologies to the boys and girls down in Bowling Green, but no other vehicle embodies the history of American sports car racing the way the Viper does–the biggest engine in the smallest car with the fewest frills. It’s a legacy that goes back to the days before closed circuits and seat belts.
And for the first time in nearly twenty years, the world will be without it.
The departing Viper carries with it a certain bit of contemporary symbolism as well. It’s an American car with an engine and body both exhibiting foreign influence. The V10, though rooted in the domestic Ram Truck program of the late 1980s, was first designed during the Lamborghini era. Thanks to that, at least in part, we got the best of both worlds–a stout, lazy powerhouse of a motor that also happened to be somewhat lightweight for its size. And then there’s the body, penned by an Asian gentleman (I believe) who was also responsible for the previous-generation Toyota Camry.
And in the same way that its halo car is a hodgepodge of the automotive world, so too has the company been for the past twenty years. Anybody who pays attention is familiar with the Daimler years, and to bring the Italian connection full circle, we have the Fiat years before us, with a little help from our own federal government.
But I’m here to talk about the cars. Because the problem is, everybody seems to have forgotten about them. And that’s troubling.
What’s there to talk about? Plenty. And just to be fair to the other automakers, let’s strike Jeep from the conversation entirely. There’s no manufacturer, foreign or domestic, who can touch the Jeep brand philosophy or execution. Off-road prowess? Unmatched. Compact and mid-size SUVs with light-duty diesels? Nobody else had anything affordable, and even Volkswagen still hasn’t done with the Tiguan what Jeep did with the Liberty five years ago.
To listen to the average import fan talk of light-duty diesels in the United States market, you’d think it had never happened.
With Jeep out of the picture, we’re left with Chrysler and Dodge (the majority of this discussion will involve cars that predate the Ram brand spin-off, so forgive the simplification). And what have they done for us lately? More than their share. Because when everybody else had virtually abandoned the mainstream V8 car, Chrysler built us the 300C, the Magnum and the Charger. While Ford was gussying up Expeditions and GM was trying to get the Escalade formula just right, Chrysler was selling us cars–wonderful cars. American cars. And make no mistake, the LX platform is indeed American. The front and rear subframes, transmissions and differentials were sourced from the outgoing Mercedes E-Class for cost saving purposes, but the LX cars were ground-up Chrysler designs modified for the Daimler era. And though the LX platform is ageing, its the 300’s contemporaries that appear dated by comparison.
Don’t mistake the above for an assertion that these cars are perfect. Far from it. They suffer from outclassed drivetrains, sub-par interior appointments, and $1.15-a-gallon-gasoline-era curb weights (and corresponding EPA figures) that stunted their handling potential, but they’re so sublimely executed in every other way that it takes a particularly jaded individual to find no redeeming qualities, even six years after the platform’s debut.
To look upon an LX car is to view design without any shame or cynicism. There’s no obscure angle or hidden corner from which you get the impression that the men and women who sculpted these cars left anything on the table. You get the distinct impression that the stylists, when confronted by accountants, simply threw them off the premises ( perhaps those who penned the interior were not so well-equipped to defend themselves).
And they show no sign of stopping. Look no further than the Challenger. Look at its monstrous proportions, at its HEMI Orange or Plum Crazy paint job. Look inside and imagine sitting in the preposterously small back seat. Slip the wonderful 6-Speed manual into gear and drop the hammer. Go ahead and smile. So what if somebody’s watching? They’re smiling too, because the Challenger’s exterior bestows that same emotion upon the observer. It’s a big, fat, obnoxious muscle car. If the styling doesn’t turn heads, the bark of the HEMI V8 will. And yeah, when the road straightens out and the minivans start stacking up, just plant your right foot (downshift entirely optional) and permanently scar grandpa’s retinas as you slingshot 4,200lbs of bright orange “What the hell was that?” through his peripheral vision.
As enthusiasts, we like to talk about what manufacturers stand for. If the worst we can say about Chrysler is that they built a fleet of bland appliances that surround a group of cars so clearly inked with honest emotion, then I think the rest can be forgiven. You can see in every line, crease and curve that the designers were penning something they wanted to drive home every evening for the rest of their lives. It’s so palpable in these cars that you’d have to ignore them on purpose to miss it. I suppose it’s fitting then that they’ve been purchased by Fiat. If anybody can nurture true passion in the automotive design process, it’s the Italians.
Yet, while General Motors continues to push their products into the European sphere and Ford relies on safe, efficient, FWD-based sedans, Chrysler continues to single-handedly deliver on the legacy of an entire industry. And for that, we need to take a moment to set aside our distaste for the Sebring and the Avenger and the Caliber and the Compass and, well, you get the idea. Let’s cleanse the bad taste of the former from our mouths by drinking in the beauty of these great cars, and tip our hats to the Pentastar.
They’ve earned it.