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2003 Dodge SRT-4

The Americans fight back

Nov 20, 2002
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Fast. Raw. American.
Dodge's new SRT-4 redefines this collective concept. This ridiculous little car overwhelmed us every time we stepped on the gas. It spun tires, snorted turbo sounds from its mufflerless exhaust and proved without question that Dodge is playing hardball.

These initial impressions are just the beginning of the good news. Dodge plans to sell this rocket for $19,995 beginning early next year. Based on our test numbers, you better order yours now if you want one anytime soon.

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During our testing, the angry little SRT-4 hit 60 in 5.8 seconds and put 223 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque to its front wheels on our Dynojet chassis dyno. That means our test car made more power and torque at the wheels than it's rated for at the flywheel, which is unheard of from nearly any car.

These impressive performance numbers come with a caveat, however. The car we tested was a prototype and putting it through our instrumented tests sent convulsions through DaimlerChrysler. The engineers on hand for our testing, however, engine calibrator Ethan Bayer and development engineer Stephan Zweidler, insisted the engine calibration and hardware are within several percent of being finalized for production. That means the numbers we produced at the track and on the dyno should be repeatable on production cars.

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Even if conservative final tuning takes five percent from the engine's output, it will still far overshoot its factory power rating of 215 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque.

The engine, by the way, is new and based on the 2.4-liter turbo the company has been selling in the Mexican market. However, in the SRT-4 it's radically updated. Still displacing 2.4 liters, it gets new pistons, which are now cooled by oil squirters. Stronger rods and a new cast crank both support the 14 psi shoved down its intake manifold by the Mitsubishi TD04-16G turbocharger. Before reaching the intake manifold, charge air is cooled by a huge front-mounted cross-flow intercooler, which does wonders for the looks of the car.

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A beefed up cooling system is also in place to handle the radically increased thermal loads. From the front, the efforts to keep the engine cool are integrated into the front fascia and hood styling. Six bumper vents and a functional hood scoop tell us there was some communication between stylists and engineers on this project. The hood scoop dumps air over the turbocharger and has a unique stamping, which can be cut to provide cool air to the airbox with little work (see photo on page 74).

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Out back, the rear valence has two exhaust exits spaced symmetrically on each side. We've never understood the point in splitting the exhaust on an inline engine. Zweidler and Bayer don't either, but say function was forced to follow form. The engineering retaliation was simple: The SRT-4 has no mufflers, which helps make up for the compromised exhaust routing. That's right, there's a turbo, a catalytic converter and two resonators in the exhaust system, but no actual mufflers. Again, the engineers insist this will make it to production. We'll be impressed if it does as the SRT-4 sounds as pissed as it acts. Burbling under engine braking and spitting backfires under hard acceleration gives us some doubts about the production readiness of the exhaust system, but we absolutely love it.

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On the street, the SRT-4 is a monster. Blast through the gears hard and you'll scare the pants off of anyone driving a Subaru WRX. Sure, the SRT-4 doesn't have the all-wheel-drive holeshot of the Subaru, but a careful look at the numbers tells us that a drag race between the two cars would be a contest of drivers as much as cars--it's that close.

On roads that matter, the SRT-4 won't give an inch to cars costing 10 grand more. And it's faster than we expected given its lack of a limited-slip differential. We're not going to tell you the SRT-4 is easy to drive at the limit. It gives up some chassis refinement to cars like the Mazdaspeed Protege and Ford's SVT Focus, but its lack of chassis refinement is more than made up for in sheer American torque. Put your foot down mid corner and the chassis does a remarkable job of putting 250 lb-ft through relatively small 205/50 Michelin Pilot Sport rubber.

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Some may complain about the relatively mild torque steer. But this much power for this little green will always come with a few compromises, and we'll deal with some torque in our steering if it means having this much fun. Deal with it. We give Dodge two thumbs up for having gonads big enough to produce a front-driver with this kind of gusto.

The chassis presented engineers with some serious challenges. First, Dodge designed the Neon chassis with zero camber adjustment. That means factory alignment settings set the tires exactly vertical to the pavement, which is not the best for cornering. Because of this fundamental design issue, the SRT-4 certainly gives up some cornering power to its rivals. Adding adjustable camber plates will go a long way to improve the Neon's lateral grip.

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But zero camber does offer some advantages. Keeping the tires vertical helps grip during acceleration and braking. The SRT-4 stops from 60 in a short 119 feet. The sticky Michelins and big 11.0-in. front rotors didn't hurt, either.

The experience from the driver's seat is a good one. There's a boost gauge to keep the geekshappy. There's also a real temperature gauge. By real, we mean the gauge actually reads engine coolant temperature. In most other modern cars, the needle never moves, staying in the middle of the range while coolant temperature rises and falls as much as 40 degrees. Drive hard and the Neon's temp gauge climbs; cruise, and it falls. Amazing.

012_09zoom+2003_Dodge_SRT_4+Hood_View Photo 9/12   |   A careful look at the underside of the SRT-4's hood reveals some interesting details. Note the bulge on the right side (see arrow). This aligns with the airbox when the hood is closed and can easily be cut to make a cold-air intake.

Bayer says the real gauge is part of Dodge's philosophy to make the driver smarter, not make the car dumber. We like it and and know it will go into production.

The shifter for the five-speed manual is a serious departure from other Neons we've driven. It's relatively short throw and very direct, not unlike the last generation Honda Civic.
No slushbox is available.

Then there are the seats, which are deep, supportive buckets with giant bolsters on the side and bottom cushions. Someone on the development team definitely thought about driving the SRT-4 in more than just a straight line as the seats provide serious lateral support.

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Other than some interior trim changes, the rest is all Neon. There's no money sunk into huge stereos, speakers and amps that could have been put toward the drivetrain or chassis. Very cool.

Launch the SRT-4 from low rpm with little wheelspin and it almost bogs before immediately coming on boost, thanks to its relatively small turbo. Then it snorts and pops between shifts, sounding more like a high-strung rally car than a production machine before pounding through the traps in 14.2 seconds at 99.5 mph.

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During our day of testing, which was at a 1,120-ft track notorious for low grip and high temperatures, the car did manage one pass in 14.1 seconds, but we're using the 14.2-second time because our testing standard is to average the two fastest runs and round to the nearest .1 second. Grip around the skidpad was respectable but not overwhelming at .85g. Balance through our 700-ft slalom was as manageable, if not as controllable, as Mazdaspeed's Protege. Regardless, it was still fast at 69 mph.

Nits? The most glaring to pick is the lack of a limited-slip differential, which Bayer and Zweidler say is being looked into, perhaps even for production in a future model. They were tight-lipped about when it might be available, what kind of LSD they might use and how much it might cost if it is to be sold through the MOPAR catalog, which seems like a possibility.

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The suspension calibration is good, but we'd like to see a bit more rebound damping. Our mountain road pounding explored the limits of the design as much as its calibration. Travel isn't substantial, so excruciating attention to damping goes a long way in finding extra speed and safety margin when driving hard.

Other than those few bits, this car is superb. Fast, fun, even pretty damned good looking. The only question is how many will be made? At the time of our test, no one wanted to spill the production numbers so it's impossible to say how seriously demand will exceed supply. But it seems obvious at this point that it will.

All we know is you can now hit 60 in 5.8 seconds for under 20 grand, haul three passengers in reasonable comfort and scare the bejesus out of WRX drivers in an American economy car. Sign us up.

For more road tests, log on to www.sportcompactcarweb.com

2003 Dodge SRT-4
Estimated Price : $19,995 (est.)

Chasis Code : PLDS41

Engine
Engine Code : A853
Type : Inline four, turbocharged and intercooled, iron block and aluminum head, structural aluminum oil pan
Valvetrain : DOHC
Displacement : 2429 cc
Bore & Stroke : 87.5 mm x 101.0 mm
Compression Ratio : 8.1:1
Manufacturer's Claimed Horsepower : 215 hp @ 5400 rpm
Manufacturer's Claimed Torque : 245 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
HPas measured at the wheels : 223 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque as measured at the wheels : 250 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Redline : 6000 rpm

Drivetrain
Layout : Transverse front-engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission : 5-speed manual
1 : 3.647:1
2 : 2.045:1
3 : 1.367:1
4 : 0.947:1
5 : 0.756:1

Final drive : 3.526:1
Differential : Open

Exterior Dimensions
Curb Weight : 2,870 lb
Weight Distribution F/R : 64/36
Overall Length : 175.7 in.
Wheelbase : 105.0 in.
Overall Width : 67.4 in.
Track F/R : 57.6 in./57.7 in.
Height : 56.5 in.

Suspension
Front : MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
Rear : Struts with two lateral links and one trailing link, anti-roll bar

Brakes
Front : 11.0-in. vented discs, single-piston sliding caliper
Rear : 10.6-in. solid discs, single-piston sliding caliper

Wheels and Tires
Wheels : 17 x 6-in. aluminum, 45 mm offset
Tires : 205/50ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Sport

Performance
Acceleration
0-30 mph : 2.5 sec.
0-60 mph : 5.8 sec.
30-50 mph : 2.0 sec.
50-70 mph : 3.0 sec.
Quarter Mile : 14.2 sec. @ 99.5 mph
Handling
Lateral grip (200ft skidpad) : .85 g
Slalom (700 ft. six cone) : 69.0 mph
Braking
60-0 stopping distance :119 ft.

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