I was sceptical when I first encountered the Chrysler Crossfire. I thought it a styling exercise, and a cynical one. After all, this brash American body sits atop what's basically a Mercedes-Benz SLK platform.
I expected a flabby excuse for a sports car - pleasant enough for boulevard cruising, perhaps, but not for carving any corners or setting any true petrolhead's blood afire. But as I drove that original V6 Crossfire - from Auckland to the Manawatu via the Desert Road, and back via National Park and Taumarunui - I began to see the point. And by the time I returned it, I frankly liked the thing. But for one proviso.
Yes, the styling hits the spot. It's at its best from the rear three-quarters, the angle from which to appreciate those muscular haunches. True, it's frankly weak from the side and that long, striated bonnet is just a tad too much. But it's certainly eye-catching, drawing small crowds wherever we parked and even prompting several heavy-duty Harley dudes to pull over to let me past. It's got cred, then.
It deals to distance too, the narrow boot opening hiding a surprisingly useful space - golf clubs don't suit the car's persona but yes, you can get two sets in there (shame there's no tonneau cover to hide your valuables from view).
The suspension does a decent job of smoothing out patchier road surfaces and controlling the beast round corners. It's comfy enough for hours behind the wheel, and though the fascia surfaces are a tad plasticky and the quirky temperature controls take some getting used to, it all works well.
It also proved capable enough of tackling the corners. There was endless grip and only the slightly numb steering proved a disappointment when charging hard. So, a car you can have a bit of fun in, yet live with everyday.
But... Though the standard 3.2-litre V6 is powerful enough, it just can't quite match up to the car's visual persona. The lines promise in-your-face muscle but the powerplant didn't quite deliver. It does a decent job - yet there was none of the hairy-chested almost over-the-top response or soundtrack you expect from something that looks like this.
But now there's a more powerful Crossfire, for Chrysler has supercharged the V6. Light the blue touch paper and you'll find arguably the fastest production Chrysler ever. Chrysler quotes 0-100km/h acceleration in five seconds - which means it can take on Nissan's harder-focused 350Z or Porsche's Boxster.
The engine's helical supercharger and water-to-air intercooler haven't just lifted power, they've set it alight with an 86kW increase to 246kW. Torque is up a staggering 110Nm, to 420. That's more than Ford's 5.4-litre V8 Fairmont Falcon - with 220kW and 470Nm - and almost as much as the 260kW, 500Nm XR8 - and in a much smaller car. More mumbo could easily have thrown a spanner in the works. But it hasn't.
The SRT-6 has the deep, almost feral growl that was so lacking before. It's particularly effective at lower revs - tap the throttle and the thing clears its throat; you don't have to follow up to get the message.
Actually, you don't even need to climb aboard, for the SRT badge says it all for Chrysler fans. The Street and Racing Technology tag indicates the attention of the performance arm of the brand. Think Dodge Viper SRT-10, and Dodge Ram SRT-10. In this case the SRT guys opted for supercharging rather than a big engine because they wanted to up power without increasing weight, or ruining the car's balance.
This route also suited the Crossfire's surprisingly flexible nature. Where turbochargers use exhaust gases to force the fuel/air mix, and therefore work at their best at higher revs, a supercharger is driven off the engine's crankshaft, building urge much lower down the rev range. That means that where a turbo tends to be peaky, bogging lower down and throwing a rapidly off-on punch, superchargers deliver a more linear response. The extra urge is available over a broader rev range.
In this case, a much broader range, for 90 per cent of the torque is available from 2300 to 6200rpm. Clearly the gearbox needed fettling to suit, and the five-speed sequential shift auto gets a more dynamic shift pattern - and an increased torque rating.
Beefed-up suspension with uprated springs and performance-tuned damping offer a more incisive response without giving away too much comfort.
The ESP stability control's been tweaked for sportier driving. The brakes have had a look-in, with the ventilated disc front and standard rear uprated to internally vented discs at all four corners, and even the ABS has been tuned for eyeball-stretching 100km/h to zero stopping power.
Other changes include the sports exhaust; that rather obvious rear spoiler in place of the fancy lift-and-drop of the standard car; a thrusting chin spoiler; 15-spoke alloy wheels with more aggressive Michelin Sport rubber; and interior tweaks that include sports seats with Alcantara inserts and SRT-6 embroidery. Plus there's a generous range of spec from heated, power seats to dual-zone air con; a six-speaker stereo to the four airbags.
Is all this stuff worth the extra ten grand, at $84,900 to the naturally aspirated version's $74,900? If you want the go to match the show, undoubtedly. Because it works.
On the open road the wheel and tyre combo is a touch noisy, but the slightly harder ride is still acceptable for everyday errands - or long distance cruising. But where the standard car merely proved to be a capable handler, this one's eager to attack. Pick-up is keener, acceleration harder. Tap the gear lever left to hold second, hold third - charging out of one corner; braking hard into the next then pulling out, the rear tyres barely scrabbling and throwing the long nose round with an eager roar. That linear power delivery and the exhaust's note really does suit this car, as does the performance - though of course the 320km/h speedo's there just for effect, since the SRT-6 is speed-limited to a rather academic 250.
So it's perfect, then? Well, no. The steering's still rather uncommunicative for the purist, the plastics a tad tacky for the price. But few who love this car's brash looks will care.
For at last, it has the hairy-chested persona and angry performance to match that eye-catching image.
Specifications: 2005 Chrysler Crossfire
Dimensions L/W/H/WB: 4058/1766/1307/2400mm
Engine: Supercharged 3.2 sohc 18v V6
Gearbox and driven wheels: Five speed sequential-shift auto driving the rear wheels
Wheels and tyres: 18-inch alloy front, 19-inch alloy rear, with Michelin Pilot Sport tyres 255/40-18 front and 255/35-19 rear
Performance: 246kW at 6100rpm, 420Nm at 3500-4800rpm, 0-100kph in five seconds
Review and photographs by Jacqui Madelin