It was an honor to be invited again. It was also an honor to attend and participate in one of the best annual manufacturer events put on in the automotive industry.
For several years, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles opened up their Chelsea Proving Grounds west of Ann Arbor to journalists from all over the world to sample "What's New" for the upcoming model year. The rule of thumb is simple: Drive everything, take photos and videos, but do not post anything until later. Abide by the embargo, and you are good for life.
So, what's new for 2016 at FCA?
For starters, Alfa Romeo unveiled their Giulia sedan in Milan a couple of days earlier. That is the second new product the Italian brand will sell worldwide in an effort to play heavily in the premium market. We, at Chelsea, did not get the Giulia to look at, but Alfa Romeo did bring out their 4C Spyder to play out on the skidpad in the autocross.
The Fiat 500X is old news, but it was worth seeing again. This small crossover had huge potential to drive sales at their Studios across North America, and there had been a lot of positive feedback on this vehicle already. There is a plan to bring the 500X and/or the related Jeep Renegade up to the Twin Cities for some winter driving in a future review. I did drive the Renegade, as well. I will reserve more judgment when it arrives for review.
Ram made an announcement regarding improved towing and a jump in the torque rating of the Cummings diesel in the Heavy Duty pickup trucks. Imagine having 900 pound-feet of torque to work with. That is the new number…and it puts Ram on top in terms of pickup truck performance and engineering.
Dodge brought back Plum Crazy on a limited run for 2016 for the Charger and Challenger. The folks at Dodge talked about how they made sure that the Plum Crazy you see in today's cars are a match to the one seen in 1970 and 2010. Automotive paint and the process of replicating and application has changed over time, so getting the hue correct was the biggest task facing FCA to accomplish. To celebrate, I drove a 2016 Charger R/T Scat Pack with the 6.4liter SRT-tuned HEMI V8 to put through its paces. Other than the paint job, driving the Charger confirmed one thing from last year when I drove the 2015 R/T Plus and Challenger R/T Scat Pack. The Charger remains lighter, more balanced and practical than the coupe it shares its platform with. A good confirmation indeed!
That led me to drive the 2016 Chrysler 300S with the 5.7liter HEMI V8. Knowing I will have the Pentastar V6 version of the same car a few weeks after the event, it gave me an opportunity to see the result of the "invitation" by brand CEO Al Gardner to the Los Angeles Auto Show for the unveiling of the revised big sedan. A brief conversation with Gardener at "What's New" led to another invitation to drive the V8-powered 300S there. It is revealed that Gardner's personal car is that exact specification.
The HEMI-powered 300 is a treat when driven normally. It is quick and comfortable. Therefore, highway speeds will be no problem. After a lap on the inner ring, I took the car onto the handling course. Though I was told it had a beefier suspension, the 300S showed its limits sooner than I anticipated. The roll through the corners showed a soft edge on the suspension. It also confirmed another thing about the LX platform – for better handling, go with a Charger.
There were other models I drove in the course of the day at Chelsea. The 2016 Ram ProMaster City changes the idea of a small van for businesses that require them. It is pretty good, though one would have to debate whether this, the Ford Transit Connect or the Nissan NV200/Chevrolet City Express would be the right choice for these businesses. Each van offers a completely different set of driving competencies and capabilities to this new segment.
The good news for consumers is that a lot of familiar vehicles have been carried over for 2016 until new models arrive towards the end of the decade. For example, the Dodge Journey lineup was revamped for better value and more concentrated choices. The AVP is gone. Therefore, the SE model is now the entry level step for the Journey. The SXT still remains as the middle model, while the Crossroad becomes the Journey's top trim level. Dodge did expand the popular Crossroad model to include a lower priced version with less equipment and a Plus package that is equipped like the 2015 model. This was a result of the popularity of the model that has driven Journey sales in the past year.
Ram offered two 1500s for me to check out. The new Laramie Limited showed me a different side to the familiar pickup. The ride was much smoother than previous models. The EcoDiesel engine was also powerful and felt right for the job in this truck. What wowed me was the Limited's interior. The Longhorn offers tough leather and a cowboy motif, but the Limited takes the Ram cabin and makes it the most luxurious interior of any FCA product designed in North America.
For a different kind of Ram 1500, I got to drive the off-road ready Rebel. With the 5.7liter HEMI V8, this is the kind of truck that is made to play. On the road, it is civilized. Now, imagine if I took it off-road? Unfortunately, I did not. Still, it is a great package. I have a feeling it might just show up for a review towards the end of the year.
If there was one vehicle I had been itching to drive again, it was the Fiat 500 Abarth. With the automatic transmission, you still get the same sensation as the manual, thanks to a matched tuning between a higher torqued 1.4liter Multiair turbocharged engine and the Aisin six-speed automatic. This time, I drove the convertible version with a new-to-Abarth color of Celeste Blue. While you can now get the Abarth in seven colors, one thing has not changed – performance. This thing can rock!
I saved the best for last. We talked about it at length on- and offline. It still provided more than enough conversations about its performance, its capabilities on the track and off and all of the issues that rose in response to its production and sale. However, all fear must be defeated. To drive this engine is to shelve fear to the furthest point on the bookcase.
Yes, I drove a Hellcat. I drove it with the red key enabled and 707 horsepower at ready. It was actually a Charger SRT – again running on the hypothesis of the sedan being lighter and more balanced than the Challenger. This 2016 TorRed SRT answered all of my questions and made me a more confident driver, even when I hit traffic on the inner ring at Chelsea.
The Hellcat felt like a modernized version of an old muscle car with that rumbly engine and the full force of the exhaust. It spoke both old school and new school. And, it was quick. Before I knew it, I was at 70MPH. Then, I slowed down. At 55MPH, the Charger Hellcat felt like it wanted to pounce. It was also patient, despite the engine's impatience for more speed.
Simply put, the Hellcat is a unique automotive experience that defies logic. But, who cares! You get in the Hellcat – Charger or Challenger – and run. You punch the throttle and find trouble. In the end, it felt good. I walked away from that car like a kid that hit the game-winning home run in the playoffs. It brought a smile to my face.
I want another lap, please?
As a media professional, there are opportunities to let loose when experiencing the latest and greatest available for the consumer. For the second year in a row, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles invited me to this event and welcomed me with open arms. It is always an honor to accept their invitation.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles, travel and event logistics provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.