All three of the surviving Detroit automakers have long and checkered histories of building high performance hardware, but it could be argued that Chrysler is king in this regard. And the more you look at the facts – from the first-generation Hemi V8s and Chrysler letter cars of the ‘50s to the loud-and-proud Dodge Viper SRT-10s of today – the harder that argument is to refute. But Ma Mopar’s go-fast history doesn’t consist entirely of massive displacement and rear-wheel-drive; there have been plenty of turbocharged, front-drive dynamos as well. Case in point: the Dodge SRT-4.
Based on the second-generation Neon, the SRT-4 was marketed as a separate entity from the cheap and cheerful compact sedan, and understandably so: There was nothing remotely cute or sedate about this thing. Okay, the bug eyes did provide some connection to the original Neon and its playful ad campaign, but that was pretty much it. In fact, if you look at the sport compact car market of five or six years ago like a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, the SRT-4 was the kid who was playing Whac-a-Mole with a ten-pound sledgehammer and throwing 90 mph fastballs through the center hole on skee ball while the Civic Si, GTI, Sentra SE-R and others looked on in a mixture of awe and horror. How did the little Dodge manage that? The main enablers were a turbocharger and intercooler attached to the corporate 2.4L DOHC inline-four. These bits bumped output to 215hp and 245 lb./ft on 2003 models, while subsequent years picked up an additional 15hp and 5 lb./ft on top of that. Of course, there are multiple reports that the actual numbers were higher still. (Fun fact: The PVO engineers found that the exhaust silencing effect of the turbo allowed the car to meet federal noise regulations without a muffler, freeing up some of those extra ponies, though some owners have gotten tickets even with stock exhaust.) And what about buyers who still weren’t satisfied? They were directed to the dealer’s Mopar parts counter, who would happily sell upgrade kits that would launch the power figures into low earth orbit but would not void the factory warranty (as long as the dealer did the installation).
Naturally, the rest of the car also got plenty of attention. The engine’s power was routed to the pavement through a heavy-duty clutch to a 5-speed manual transmission, a limited-slip differential (on ’04 and ’05 cars), equal-length halfshafts, and finally on to stylish 17-inch alloy wheels wearing performance tires. Brakes, suspension and steering were also heavily revised to ensure the SRT-4 stopped and turned as brilliantly as it accelerated. Exterior revisions included a bold new front fascia, a hood with a functional scoop, side skirts, a rear bumper with cutouts for the polished dual exhaust tips, and a rear wing that wouldn’t look out of place in a St. Louis park on the west bank of the Mississippi. The interior received a new instrument cluster with a 160 mph speedometer, a boost gauge, a cue ball-esque shift knob, and sport bucket seats in front covered in a sporty fabric that also wrapped the rear bench.
Production numbered a mere 3,000 units the first year, but ramped up considerably over the next two years. The 2005 model year also saw 1,175 ACR (American Club Racer) versions and 200 Commemorative editions produced. Early examples can be found for $10,000 or less, while really nice later ones – particularly one of the 2005 special editions – can fetch more than $16,000. Problem areas include the slide arms for the optional sunroof, the crankshaft position sensor, vacuum lines, and the turbo impeller shaft. Modified cars are more abundant than posthumously-released Tupac albums, but if the upgrades are done correctly, are unlikely to adversely affect reliability. Bottom line: If you want the rowdiest American pocket rocket, look no further than the Dodge SRT-4.