I remember staring at it on hot summer afternoons, on one of the shady blocks on the other side of the train tracks from my middle school. The leaves cast green shadows on its long white fenders. The whole world disappeared in its grill. A 1962 Chrysler.
I'd take a long detour on my way home from class just to ride by it. When the street was empty, and nobody could see me, I would sit on my bike and stare at it. If I was really daring I would bike close and almost get a shiver. I didn't know anything about cars. I had no clue what it was, what was so interesting about it, why I couldn't take my eyes off of it.
I would fall into the bosom-like curves near the slanted headlights, shading me in the heat.
It was one of my first automotive loves, and I'll always remember those leafy summer afternoons with a '62 Chrysler.
The problem is that I've had a thing for big American cars ever since. I know a bit more about that '62 Chrysler now than I did as a kid. I know its steering is loose and feather-light. I know it might V8 rumble down quiet sidestreets, but it will be slow, and clunky, and sloppy and weak. I can imagine taking on a twisty road and hear the tire squeal in my head. Sense the way I'd slide hopelessly across the bench seat, clinging to the steering wheel for dear life.
And the bad part is that there's a different vision lodged in my brain — an imagined American car. It's big and comfortable, but tied down and under control. It still has a V8, only it can shove you back under throttle and genuinely scare you if you dare. It doesn't have the nervousness or the agility of a real sports car, but it can throw itself into turns, rear tires spinning and burning and roaring away.
I'm not sure the 2014 Chrysler 300 SRT lives up to that dream.
(Full Disclosure: Chrysler wanted me to drive a new 300 SRT so badly that they lent me one for a weekend and haven't even written me any angry emails about doing copious burnouts. At least not yet. I paid my own damn money for the $90 in gas that 11 overall MPG of Manhattan traffic and back roads bombing gets you.)
The interior certainly doesn't. The seats are fantastic — they hold you in well when you're really going for it, and they're wrapped in perfect red leather. But the rest of the insides go very quickly downhill from there, from the chintzy black plastic trim around the infotainment screen to the even chintzier fake carbon fiber plastic glued all over the center console, to the utterly crap rubbermaid door bins. They warn you not to put cups in them and they feel like they'll break off in your hand.
It's not that the interior of a new Audi is better; the interior of an Audi from eight years ago is better.
But if you drive a new German car today there is a very distinct sense of getting ripped off. You get the feeling that BMW or Mercedes or Audi could have given you more space or more performance for what you paid, but chose not to. You feel a bit like the victim of some kind of austerity program, and you imagine the equivalent model from 20 years ago was probably more fun.
Despite the interior, there is none of that cheapness in the Chrysler. It might not be quite there in terms of materials, but it feels like the best Chrysler can manage, and there's something endearing in that.
Or, well, maybe that's not what's endearing. Maybe I'm getting confused. Maybe something has confused me.
The Chrysler 300 SRT comes with a 6.4 liter V8 engine. Open the hood and you will see it is not only large in its displacement, it is a physically large device. It is roughly the size of a deer, if a deer curled itself into the shape of an engine. It is smaller than a photocopier, but not by as much as you might think.
This V8 has 470 horsepower and an even 470 pound-feet of torque. It is enough to make the car honestly frightening to drive on a wet highway with the traction control off, fishtailing not just from a standstill, but again halfway through a large intersection.
And even in the dry, when you're tearing through a downward on ramp with too much speed, and you sense the car leaning over the front left tire and you hear that corner start to squeal, the V8 will neutralize the front-end push.
Neutralize. It's a very strong, almost video game word. It makes you think of first person shooters and explosions and achievement scores. That's what it feels like to even the SRT out on the throttle, canceling out the wash from the front end with power sent to the rear. Neutralizing the push with a 6.4 liter V8 — it feels like blowing up a bridge.
The 300 never acts light on its feet, or nimble. The car weighs 4,365 pounds. When you gun it up a sharp rise, the car heaves up on its springs and and you picture yourself riding a breaching whale.
This is understandable. It's a large car, the kind that you talk about having a 'purchase' on the road. Like, the Gadsden Purchase.
You become intimately aware of this vastness when you do plant your foot on the throttle with the intention of slaying the back tires (and you will get this urge). You will find yourself dealing with a huge amount of momentum. The car will slew back and forth on a cushion of tire smoke. Things will get hairy. The blood will drain from your face as you think you might lose it. The road will narrow around you. Trees and rocks will come close, and yellow lines will creep towards your left tires. You will not laugh until a minute later, when the adrenaline has died down and any cops are well behind you.
I'm going to try and steer clear of the 'it's a bad car, but it's a fun car' trope when describing the 300 SRT. I mean, it is a fun car, something that won't get boring stoplight to stoplight and won't fall apart on a backroad either. There are better cars, without a doubt. Even the Chevy SS is more refined, let alone one of the staid sports sedans from Germany.
But to say that it's a bad car with a lot of heart sells it short. It's big and comfortable, but still composed even on gnarly rough turns out in the middle of nowhere. It's not as cultured as an Audi behind the wheel, but here in America it's still stylish and charming.
In Europe it's even more charming, it just comes with Lancia badges. I swear, if you ever see a family of Italians working their way through Parisian traffic in a Lancia Thema (the rebadged version of this Chrysler), you have seen what style incarnate looks like. However big and old school the 300 looks like in the USA, multiply that by ten for the crowded byways of Europe.
I keep coming back to the deep and satisfying warmth I got tearing up country lanes in this 300. It was an affirmation of an old dream, like I had imagined that perfect Chrysler would drive so vividly back when I was a kid, I had somehow molded it into physical form in the present. That my vision of American car perfection had passed through a wormhole and manifested itself in this weekend's narrow, twisting country two-lanes.
Leaves cast green shadows on the pavement, and I burned my name on the asphalt in melted rubber.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove