DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group wanted to show how the '05 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, equipped with new all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems, perform in wintry and wet conditions.
But it was a dry, crisp fall day.
So Chrysler hired crews to spread man-made snow and spray water on a curvy course laid out in a parking lot of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
High winds that afternoon came compliments of mother nature. They almost sent a tent airborne. It happened as vehicle program manager Joe Grace, addressing journalists under the tent, spoke of AWD's extra stability.
Suddenly a gust of wind swooped in. The tent started rising up, up and away. Grace reflexively grabbed one of the poles and pulled it downward as a cameraman did the same thing on the other side, presumably preventing the tent from becoming a giant kite.
It seemed like a good time to get out from under the big top and into the cars. For them, traversing the slippery course, covered with swaths of snow and water, was, well, a breeze, even during harsh maneuvers and pedal-to-the-metal moments.
AWD systems now are optional on '05 Magnum SXT and RT models, and will be on Chrysler 300 models at the end of the year.
The Magnum and 300 debuted this year as revived rear-wheel-drive (RWD) cars after Chrysler for years only offered front-wheel drive (FWD) in cars of all sizes. The Magnum is the first RWD Dodge car in decades.
DaimlerChrysler engineers say RWD is superior to FWD in larger cars because it offers better balance, delivers torque more efficiently and improves handling with front-wheel steering and rear-wheel torque.
It also allows luxury car stylists to design longer hoods and shorter front overhangs.
RWD slippery control issues of yesteryear have been rectified by a better distribution of weight as well as by three modern technologies:
An electronic stability program (ESP) that provides control on slippery and uneven surfaces
A traction control system that prevents slipping during initial acceleration
Anti-lock brakes that keep the vehicle straight during sudden stops
“With those systems, rear-wheel drive is extremely capable in all-weather driving situations,” says Grace.
The AWD packages are for steep and slippery inclines and uneven road surfaces where all four tires may have different grip levels.
AWD adds a front differential and a transfer case. The power is divided between the front and rear differentials and is transmitted to both axles at all times. Sixty-two percent of the engine torque goes to the rear axle, 38% to the front.
“It's not 4-wheel drive and it's not intended for off-roading,” says Grace. “It doesn't feel like an SUV. It's very car-like and sporty in character. There's no compromise.”
AWD packages range from $1,300 to $2,000, depending on the car model.
John Sloan, director of Chrysler car marketing, predicts less than one in four Magnum and 300 buyers will opt for AWD. Demand will vary by region, with snowbelt dealers expected to sell the most.
Reintroducing RWD cars into the marketplace has been easier than expected, says Sloan. “The level of re-learning has been substantially less than expected.”
Dealership sales staffers have been coached on how to tout the benefits of RWD and neutralize challenges from car buyers who have been convinced FWD is more stable, especially in winter driving, and regardless of the size of the vehicle.
“But surprisingly, there haven't been many challenges,” says Sloan. “Rear-wheel drive is a non-issue. Over and over again, dealers relate back to us that customers during test drives immediately recognize the Magnum and 300 as buttoned-up vehicles.”
But modern stabilizing systems are not cure-alls to bad driving, notes Nicholas Rondet, a racecar driver demonstrating the Magnum's and 300's ride and handling abilities in the stadium parking lot.
“ESP is not magic,” he says. “The driver can't act as a passenger. And electronics can't do much if the wheels are off the ground.”