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When the almost-obscenely powerful Dodge Charger and Challenger were replaced with the definitely-obscenely overpowered Hellcats with 700 horsepower in 2015, we all wondered what could happen next, and Dodge showed us, with the 2017 Demon, with still more power and torque.
Now it’s 2018, and amid rumors that companies such as Ford, and Dodge parent FCA (Fiat-Chrysler Autombiles), are considering discontinuing cars in favor of building more and more profitable trucks, we approached the “What’s New for ’19” event at the Chelsea, Michigan, FCA Proving Grounds with curiosity.
I heckled a few good friends at the company about when it would switch over all its factories to strictly Ram trucks and Jeeps, but they didn’t take the bait. For facts, however, measuring the year-to-date production and sales of all FCA vehicles, the Ram pickups sold 189,997 through June, and 110,382 Wranglers.The Wrangler, all new in the last year and vastly improved by more than just that 2.0 engine, increased sales by 38 percent from last year, through June. The Ram, on the other hand, actually decreased in sales for the same period by 8 percent, because the completely redone 2019 Ram was not fully out to dealers early this calendar year.
However, ranking all the rest of Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat and Jeep vehicles, the order following Ram and Wrangler for the first six months of this year were: 3. Grand Cherokee, 91,589, barely holding off 4. the smaller Cherokee, which showed a 31 percent increase to 91,286, and 5. the Compass, also entirely new, at 72,368 for a whopping 315-percent increase. Just shows what you can do when you do a good job of reinventing a model.
The rest of the top dozen are 6. the Caravan (70,511), 7. Pacifica (53,910), 8. Renegade (41,906), 9. Journey (41,023), 10. Charger (34,786), 11. Challenger (30,545), and Durango (27,378).
Those are some surprising numbers, and remember, they are only for the first six months of 2018. But the Caravan, which seemed destined to be discontinued in the face of the all-new Pacifica, not only is soldiering on, it watched Pacifica sales improve by 14 percent and improved its own status to outsell its much-heralded cousin.
But power, power and more power commanded the stage, to further Dodge’s performance image.
Shortly after we got going, we were hustled to an adjacent tent where three cars awaited us, shielded by tarps. If their silhouettes all looked a lot like Challengers, that’s what they were — 2019 Challenger high-performance models. There was the wide-body Challenger Scat Pack, with a 392 cubic inch Hemi and 485 horsepower; the new and improved Challenger Hellcat, with 727 supercharged horsepower and 656 foot-pounds of torque; and the brand’s new halo vehicle, the Challenger Redeye, with an incredible 797 horsepower and 707 foot-pounds from its supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi V8.
FCA discontinued the top-of-the-line Demon after its short run a few months ago as the industry’s fastest and most-powerful domestic car ever built, but the new cars hardly indicate Dodge is abdicating its top-power throne. In fact, they said they like to think of the Redeye as a “Hellcat possessed by Demons.”
When Dodge brought out the Demon, it was a widened model of the Challenger, planting its tires for greater stability. The new Challenger high-performance models will all get the wide-body treatment, with larger wheels and enormous but low-profile Pirelli tires that improve road-course times by 2 seconds and improve quater-mile dragstrip times significantly. The Hellcat adds an 18 percent increase in airflow into the supercharger, accounting for the increased power over the outgoing Demon. And the Redeye combines all the top attributes of the Hellcat and the late Demon and hits the pavement screeching. Good way to make a shortcut to the bank, because the Redeye starts at $71,350.
Or, about as much as a fully-loaded Ram top-of-the-line crew cab pickup, decked out with every luxury feature imaginable.
Jim Morrison, who used to be the brand manager of Jeep when it rose to its greatest heights, is now the boss of Ram trucks. He offered me the chance to drive one of the new Rams around the performance course, while he jumped in the passenger seat so we could spend a little uninterrupted time renewing acquaintances. Without question, the new Ram offers the most comfortable ride, with its rear coil springs, and has the most sophisticated interior — almost luxury sedan levels, and another reason luxury car buyers are tending toward selecting high-end pickup trucks.
One of the stranger sights going around the slalom course inside the oval was me sending two of the ProMasters through the tight turns. I drove the largest high-roof ProMaster 3500 with it 159-inch wheelbase, and the low-roof 2500 with a 136-inch wheelbase. Both have Chrysler’s venerable 3.6-liter V6, and not only do they have enough power, they have stable handling because their proven European platform has all its front-wheel-drive components under the cab for optimum traction and stability. The shorter and lower ProMaster starts at $30,195 and the higher, longer 3500 model is $40,145, both with windows on both sides. And both are crying out to be modified into roomy recreational vehicles.
The FCA group, which includes everything from the diminutive Fiat 500 economy cars and the larger 500X, plus the electric 500e, to the huge and restyled ProMaster vans. That offers an intriguing contrast, because while it forced the spotlight and the introduction show on the Challenger hot rods, the other biggest news was in a couple of the corporation’s smallest engines.
I personally think the new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine might be the best engine Chrysler or Fiat has ever designed and built. Strong words, I know, but when I told that to Paul Smith, the chief engineer of the 2.0, he just smiled and said, “I’m glad you like it.”
Some of the corporation’s vehicles from Jeep offer the steady and strong “Tigershark” 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, or even a larger V6, but for my money, the 2.0 beats those engines without a challenge — offering more horsepower and torque and fuel economy. What else is there?
I have driven the 2.0 in the new Cherokee, and it also is available in the newest and most impressive version of the Wrangler off-road specialty Jeep. But here’s the most impressive fact: The 2.0 turbo Chrysler-designed and built 4-cylinder is also the base engine in the Alfa Romeo Giulia, which I thought was the best handling car I’ve ever driven, and is a comparative bargain with that 4 compared to the more powerful but much costlier V6.
The other secret weapon FCA has coming this fall is a new 1.3-liter turbo in the most-compact Jeep of all, the renegade. Sworn to secrecy, all I will suggest is that if you’re looking at Jeeps for mainly commuting and general transportation, don’t overlook the Renegade — and for certain, don’t pass up the chance to test-drive it with the 1.3 tdurbo!
A decade or so ago, Detroit’s “Big Three” used to maneuver around so that all three would share in bringing in the nation’s auto writers, so with efficient use of travel we could hit General Motors on a Tuesday, Ford on a Wednesday and Chrysler on a Thursday in the same trip. No longer. Ford and GM have dropped out of the media-intro scene, leaving it up to FCA to gather journalists to Auburn Hills, just outside Detroit.
That facility is under reconstruction, so we were limited to a shortened oval, ending with an entry to a tight, winding handling course. There were also off-road, drag-racing and autocross courses set out, although I found the limited time gave me the best chance to shake down the vehicles by sticking to the oval and multi-switchback handling course.
The FCA officials also handcuffed us by putting an information embargo on most of the vehicles, meaning we can’t write or report on them until either September 1 or October 1. We can wait. Maybe I can get a ProMaster with a Fiat 500e inside for a test drive by then.