By Aaron Bragman
Out of all the jobs on the planet, few are better for a car guy or gal than being an automotive journalist. The exception might be the job held by Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's top designer and head of the Street and Racing Technology group responsible for the SRT brand — the man responsible for how all new Chryslers look, the company's motorsports efforts and the creation of some of the most badass street cars ever to hit American roads. But if you can't be Gilles, being an "auto journo" is probably the next best thing, for reasons like the one that I got to experience in late June, courtesy of Chrysler.
Every year Chrysler puts on a big open house at its Chelsea Proving Grounds in southeast Michigan, Called the "What's New" event, it attracts a few hundred journalists from all over the world for what is arguably the best annual single-day product event in the business. Chrysler shuts down a big portion of the proving grounds, sets up a massive tent, brings dozens of cars from all of its brands and sets the media loose to drive them all day long. There's a highway-speed oval loop a few miles long, a tight-and-twisty handling course for throwing cars around, an off-road course for Jeeps and Ram 4x4s, an autocross and more. And all of it is kept fed and watered by catering from one of the best smokehouse/deli/bakery/coffee roasters in the world, Zingerman's Delicatessen of Ann Arbor.
My day started with an 8 a.m. arrival at CPG to get registered, participate in a track safety and rules talk (no cameras out while driving deep into the proving grounds, for instance), and drink some coffee. After shuttling in, the opportunities for fun abounded — what to drive first? The new Dodge Dart GT? One of the SRT vehicles, all of which were represented? The new Fiat 500L, 500e or 500c Abarth Cabrio? The Dodge Charger Pursuit police car with full lights and sirens? Nope. I went right to the one vehicle that doesn't get any love or attention, or appear in any press fleet: a 2013 Ram 5500 Chassis Cab with the dump truck bed and a Cummins turbo-diesel!
Where else can you flog such a beast around a racetrack handling course? The big white work truck howled in protest as its dualie rear axle's tires scrubbed and slid around the corners, but the quick ratio of the heavy-duty truck's steering actually proved to be remarkably responsive for such an enormous monster. And massive it is — nearly 7,800 pounds without the dump body on it, the 5500 Chassis Cab can be up-fitted to handle a whopping 37,500 pounds gross combined vehicle weight. Without a payload (max of more than 11,000 pounds), it can tow just less than 30,000 pounds thanks to a Cummins turbo-diesel 6.7-liter inline-six. That motor makes 325 horsepower but a whopping 750 pounds-feet of torque, which in an empty dump truck actually makes for some entertaining acceleration.
More mundane Ram offerings were on hand, of course, including the Ram 1500 HFE I tested earlier this year (the exact one, in fact), as well as a 2500 Quad Cab. Sadly, neither the new 2014 1500 with the EcoDiesel 3.0-liter or the 2500/3500 with the new 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 were available for driving, but they were on hand for static display and pictures. The new Hemi has Ford worried, besting the cross-town rival's numbers in the ongoing game of one-upmanship (for now anyway). But while the journalists were being dazzled by the big numbers and news of coil-spring and air-leveling suspension making its way to the HD trucks, many overlooked the new Laramie Longhorn interiors on the 2500 HD and 1500 EcoDiesel trucks on display. They are, in a word, stunning. Featuring high-quality leather, beautiful wood trim and Chrysler's benchmark Uconnect multimedia system, they might just be the best truck interiors in the industry right now, at least until Ford gets its next Platinum models out and GMC brings us a new Denali.
The next six hours were a free-for-all as the assembled media rotated in and out of Chrysler's entire 2013 model year lineup, as well as a select number of 2014 models (impressions of which can't be published until Sept. 1). One could drive Wranglers and Ram Power Wagons off-road on a special trail in the proving grounds meant for just such activity. Race car driver Tommy Kendall arrived for lunch to give hot-lap demonstration rides in an SRT Viper GTS to demonstrate both what the car is capable of and what it takes to make a journalist lose his or her barbecued lunch. Or you could pilot a Viper yourself over at the autocross course. Decisions, decisions.
For an auto enthusiast, it just doesn't get much better than this.
3.0L V-6 VM Mortori EcoDiesel
'Man of Steel' Ram Power Wagon
Ram 3500 HD Chassis Cab
6.4L Hemi V-8 Engine
Feather-weight Custom Jeep Concept
Longhorn Ram 1500 EcoDiesel