Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 24 Sep 2006 08:00:00 PDT
When, within the span of a few weeks, a velociraptor and a tyrannosaurus rex found their way into my unsuspecting domain, perhaps I might be forgiven for wondering if this is what it was like when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Because in these cost-wary, conscience-weary days when anemic and miserly "economy cars" attract all the plaudits (are they perhaps the skulking shrew-like mammals that survived when mighty dinos couldn't?), hot rods seem headed for extinction.
If so, the dinos are going out with a bang. Just driving Subaru's 2006 version of the Impreza WRX sedan and Dodge's Viper-powered Ram SRT10 pickup is enough to make hairs stand on end while that soft spot behind the knee tingles away.
Both vehicles, in their separate and distinctive ways, are heart-poundingly fun to drive. Both represent naked challenges to runaway automotive Puritanism. And in the latter case in particular, the Ram SRT10 is a poster truck for the end of an era-or at lease for the dormancy of an era until a new ice age arrives to chill things out a bit.
The Subaru success story over the last 30-plus years is one of the great unfolding chapters in an otherwise moody automotive story lately. And nothing exemplifies the star-spangled ebullience of the company's present outlook better than its Impreza line of compact sedans and wagons.
There are 19 different iterations to choose from-20 if you count the race-ready WRX STi; and they range in base price from $18,295 to $32,995. But all of them come by their star-studded Pleiades logo honestly, insofar as both the cars and the asterism are harbingers of good times.
The Subaru velociraptor that found its way into my driveway was a WRX sedan, whose base price of $24,995 rose to $26,019 as-tested after the addition of a basket-handle rear spoiler and destination charge. Otherwise the car was standard-issue WRX, boasting a thrilling turbo-boosted flat-four-cylinder motor displacing 2.5 liters.
Output is 230 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds, and the latter figure maxes out at an optimum 3,600 rpm. In other words, acceleration thrust shows up promptly at relatively low rpm for the sake of maximum sensory satisfaction.
What makes the Impreza WRX driving experience so distinctive is its shrewd combination of responsive motor, lightweight agility and, for its hallmark, superior all-wheel-drive. In other words, when you hammer the throttle of the WRX, all power reaches all the wheels in the precise proportions best suited to maintain maximum traction at each individual wheel. It's all go, go, go, and no efficiency losses to wheelspin.
There's also a distinct pleasure in running up the scale with the WRX's excellent five-speed manual transmission. Only Honda does it better, and not by much; each gearshift up or down is sharp, short, precise.
Enthusiasts who enjoy double-clutching in that heel-and-toe tap dance will find pedal placement and clutch throw exactly to their liking. And sporty front seats with ample side support virtually invite aggressive cornering.
There's no getting around Impreza's compact interior, of course; and rear seat conditions are, shall we say, grumpy-making for even small adults. Bean-counters, too, will note that among all compacts, Subarus are traditionally on the pricey side-which is only to be expected for the superior engine-powertrain technology these cars embody.
Suffice it to say that bean-counters don't typically know beans about evaluating fun-to-drive quotients, so it's also likely they'll complain about the one-potato-two-potato delay when you stomp the accelerator. But it's that very now-you-don't-feel-it-now-you-do thrill of turbocharging that makes this cute little velociraptor so delightfully vicious.
Even for a lifelong automotive enthusiast, writing about the Ram SRT10 from Dodge is, inevitably, like composing an obituary. An obituary about a great figure, mind you, but a death knell just the same.
There's no need here, of course, to rehearse the litany of current events that renders a hot-rod pickup into an automotive non sequitur. It's just that an 8.3-liter, 500-horsepower pushrod V10 in a two-seater truck whose beauty-box cargo bed totes only 1,100 pounds is facing rather short prospects in the Longevity Sweepstakes, especially while wearing that $51,610 price tag.
But, oh what a feeling it is to get behind the wheel and to strap on 500 horses for a series of straight-line romps into g-force territory. If it takes 8.3 liters (that's 507 cubic inches for us fellow Stone Agers) to hustle a 5,200-pound dinosaur down the road in under five seconds, zero-to-60, at least it's a thrill not likely to be savored in this world again.
Because other than its impressive V10, its retro-Hurst six-speed manual floor-shifter and its monster 22-inch wheels, the SRT10 pickup is the automotive equivalent of a Katyusha rocket. It really, really goes, but cutting-edge it's not. Dodge's Viper-truck, in fact, doesn't even have the handling finesse-what little of it there is-of the real Viper coupes and roadsters.
Sure the Ram SRT10 may handle better than it should with all that weight and girth, but it's still a lumpen ride guaranteed to splash every last drop of Maxwell House out of your coffee cup during a morning commute.
So let's face it: The Ram SRT10 is a stunt for some and a collector's item for others. In today's intemperate climate, its fuel numbers of 9 mpg/city, 15 mpg/highway-requiring premium, no less-may even represent a bull's-eye of sorts for some Molotov cocktail-swilling enviro-wacko looking to impress a girlfriend.
But there's a reason why dinosaurs still rivet our fascination. They're giant, powerful and ferocious; and we can't possibly imagine how they got to be that way only to disappear entirely. Any more than we can hardly imagine the same about ourselves, it might be said.
2-door pickup, 2-pass.; 8.3-liter OHV V10; RWD, 6-sp. manual; 500 hp/525 ft.-lbs.; 9 mpg/city, 15 mpg/highway w/ premium; cargo: 1,131 lbs. in short-bed box; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes, front ind. suspennsion w/ live rear axle, 22-in. wheels, front airbags; base price: $47,605; as-tested: $51,610.
4-door compact, 5-pass.; 2.5-liter DOHC turbocharged flat-4 w/ vvt; AWD, 5-sp. manual; 230 hp/235 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway w/ premium; trunk: 11 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes & ind. suspension, 17-in. wheels, front/front-side/head-curtain airbags; base price: $24,995; as-tested: $26,019.