Power Trip

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2007

There are delicious pleasures we're not supposed to admit we like. Cohiba cigars. The Victoria's Secret catalogue. Driving fast. You probably have your own list.

So it is with trepidation that I admit I enjoyed a week behind the wheel of a 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. I added it to my list of forbidden pleasures.

Listen, I'm not supposed to like vehicles like this.

The thing makes no rational sense, you must understand, but appeals to the parts of us that long for power and performance. These desires reside in our dark sides. They're common to pro football players, Third World leaders and pimply, underperforming teenage boys trying to save enough money for a noisy Honda exhaust system.

This vehicle will make anyone mighty. Think of it as body armor for special knights. Simply put, it's the world's fastest production sport utility vehicle.

It looks mean, with its lowered stance and huge wheels and tires. It is mean enough to rip zero to 60 in less than five seconds. And it stops in about 125 feet from that speed, a figure that matches some of the world's better sports cars. It is as politically incorrect as a Taliban member running for Congress.

I climbed into this monster and something so incongruous greeted me that I burst out laughing: a speedometer that topped out at 180 mph and a sticker on the sun visor advising that this style of vehicle is dangerously prone to rollover. Go figure. Why on earth would any automaker create a performance model of a vehicle designed and sold for its utility?

The halo effect, that's why. Carmakers like to own bragging rights: Biggest, fastest, thriftiest, baddest. By creating a halo vehicle, they can bring people into showrooms. Once there, the people will ooh and aah over the features of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. The oohing will end when they spy the $45,015 sticker price. Then they'll look around and buy a used Neon.

Still, the dealership needs special, outlandish vehicles to attract buyers. That's why the Grand Cherokee SRT8 exists. Not many will be sold, but many will cause browsers to become Daimler-Chrysler buyers.

For me, the ultimate sacrifice of this vehicle is its fuel mileage. It claims to get 12 mpg in the city and 15 on the highway. You'll most likely see neither figure, because it begs to be driven in pedal-to-the-metal style-which demands the most gasoline.

But fuel efficiency is not even on the radar of anyone interested in a vehicle like this. This is so thrilling that those with funds to afford a Grand Cherokee SRT8 will gladly pay $1,000 more each year for fuel, compared to an average sport utility. The thrill is worth the price.

For a week, I forgot how un-green I was in this gas-sucking, resource-depleting, pedestrian-intimidating horror. I just had fun. Under the hood is a Hemi engine that engineers bored out to 6.1 liters and tweaked to produce 415 horsepower. This is not your mother's Hemi. Engineers strengthened even that strong engine in a way that gives this beast 85 more horses and 25 percent more power. You can feel the difference. Don't even think of pitting your pathetic Chrysler 300 against one of these. You'll be embarrassed.

So once I stopped laughing, I cranked it up and stomped on the accelerator. Kawabonga! I was off like a shot. This Jeep's all-wheel drive is a first for any SRT vehicle offered by Chrysler, but helps this big boy bite the pavement. There's no noisy wheelspin as the Grand Cherokee SRT8 launches. Acceleration is akin to being fired out of a cannon. You can almost watch the gas needle plummet.

The one downside is the quality of the ride. This is one brutal vehicle. It beats up its passengers even on smooth roads. I never adjusted to the harshness imposed by a suspension system designed primarily with high-speed cornering in mind. And that would be reason enough for me to say, "Impressive, but I can't live with it." You may beg to differ, but I don't want to face a future of being beaten up behind the wheel of a gas hog.

Chrysler boasts of beefing up the Grand Cherokee to handle the high horsepower and torque produced by this modified Hemi. The driveshaft, for instance, is from the European Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel model. The Dana 44 rear differential has been upgraded with a larger ring gear. Chrysler would like us to believe this one won't break.

So why is there only a 3-year, 30,000-mile limited warranty? Buyers can get better on many economy cars. If Chrysler were sure of quality, it would at least have a 5-year, 50,000-mile warranty. Better still would be 100K.

Rest assured that for the money, interior comforts were part of our test vehicle. All of the expected safety features are present, including side air bags and head curtains. The front seats are racelike, with strong support wings to keep belted folks in place during high-speed turns. The tester even had a rear-seat entertainment system (DVD player in the roof) and GPS navigation system.

Not once during the test week did I feel something was missing. This is a very complete $45,015 vehicle.

It took me awhile to figure out who might actually buy one of these. Not your run-of-the-mill teenage boy, that's for sure. This SRT8 can only be a photo on his bedroom wall. No, this might sell as a status symbol for that first buyer I mentioned many paragraphs ago. This thought struck me as I watched Tiki Barber tooling along in his Cadillac Escalade in a TV commercial.

Tiki, a New York Giants running back knocking down millions each year, doesn't fret the cost of gasoline for his Escalade. He just wants to be the biggest and baddest as he drives through his neighborhood. With more money than he could ever use, he's the real potential buyer.

It will happen when brother Ronde Barber of the Tampa Bay Bucs, driving a new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, pulls up next to Tiki at a stoplight. Tiki will smile and wave. Ronde will return the gesture. Then both will floor their humongous sport utilities, sucking a year's worth of gasoline for residents of Everglades City.

Tiki will watch Ronde disappear in the distance. No running back can take that. So Tiki, too, will buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. That will be followed by sport ute envy on the part of other NFL players. Pretty soon, those Escalades will fade from prominence and even rap stars will rush out to purchase the biggest, baddest halo sport utility on the planet.

I expect to see them in TV commercials before long. Boom-thumpa, boom-thumpa. If I were Chrysler, I'd give Ronde Barber a Grand Cherokee SRT8. Just to get the ball in play, so to speak.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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