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Tests and Reviews
by David Zatz
This year, Allpar and other journalists were invited to test out new Mopars at the Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan. The massive facility has carefully-duplicated copies of many real road surfaces, from cobblestones to broken concrete to dirt and gravel; a drag strip and road course; and several off-road trails, with copies of portions of the Rubicon Trail.
Replacing the “big loop” was a nine-segment series of hairpin turns, which was more exciting than the big circle. We had enough space to reach highway speeds between turns (which we were advised to take at 30 mph or less, to avoid nausea). We had no problems going around at 30; going to 35 mph brought some squealing from the big Ram 3500 Dually (which as a traditional truck rear suspension, not the five-link setup of the 2500). What it didn’t bring, to my surprise, was any wheel hop — there’s the benefit of the modified Jeep rear suspension.
On the “road course,” essentially cones set up on blacktop, we took out a Charger 392 Challenger 392, Fiat 124, and Fiat 500 Abarth. On the off-road track, we tried the Compass, Renegade, and Ram Rebel. On the hairpins, we did a wider variety, including the Compass, Pacifica and Pacifica Hybrid, Fiat 500L, Ram 2500, and Challenger 392.
The Compass was one of the smoothest vehicles we’ve driven off-road — damping shocks well, while avoiding bounces. It was a pleasure to drive it; it was far more civilized offroad than the more-capable Wrangler and for that matter the Grand Cherokee. It made it through the entire trail without any issues, including some rather tough tests (see the video).
The Compass showed its provenance and intended audience by relying heavily on the traction control, which came on frequently on the mildly muddy roads. At one point we temporarily lost traction — but only at one point, and we recovered fairly easily. The new Compass was impressive off-road, with a body and the ability to go where competitors dare not go. (Though the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk steps up the capability more, and the Wrangler even further).
The comfortable, supportive seats kept me in place as the car rocked at sharp angles from rock to rock, or over the logs, or into the mud-holes. My notes say, mysteriously, “wow those rocky things feel better when you’re on them.” I think that means that I was surprised by the way that rocks, logs, stumps, and such were all damped out by the Compass’ suspension, making driving down the trails far easier on my butt and back than they would have been in the Wrangler. Last year, the Cherokee KL was king of the soft ride (though not as capable as the Grand Cherokee); this year, the Compass took its place.
Controls were easy to use and remember as second nature.
On-road, I also wrote down “wow.” The ride is smooth, but, in the words of my chicken-scratch notes, “dang, handles corners really well. Makes good use of lateral track acceleration.” The only downside was the powertrain, still — all the power of the Chrysler 2.4 liter engine seems to be in the high revs. The Compass cries out for the Hurricane four-cylinder, but that’s set to debut in the Wrangler instead.
The Renegade is capable of going through the offroad course (indeed, a tougher one than we had, since last year it rained heavily and made the entire track into mud), but without the incredible ease of a Wrangler or Power Wagon. (The Power Wagon remains king of the course, given the lack of sharp turns or obstacles that stop wide trucks from getting through; you can do stunning feats in comfort, barely even noticing what’s going on under your wheels).
What tells you that the Renegade belongs in the line with the Compass, Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and, yes, the Wrangler, is the fact that they started out the day with the same Renegade they finished with (though the Renegade is the only one in that list that can’t do the Rubicon Trail). Each Renegade went onto the trail countless times, got slammed against rocks and tree trunks (underneath), had opposite corners (front-left/rear-right) lifted high into the air while the other wheels dropped — and looked exactly the same, albeit dirtier, when the day closed.
The Ram Rebel may not be in quite the same class as the Power Wagon, but it also did a fine job on the trail; it was a bit bouncier than its elder sibling, but still made short work of every obstacle and path, with insane traction.
I will admit that I did not test a Wrangler thistime. Nothing on the trail would daunt it (well, duh, the Renegade made it through), but it’s relatively stiff and jiggly, because it has to be capable of far more than the other Jeeps. The Wrangler and Power Wagon stand at the end of two different traditions — Willys-descended Jeep and Dodge-descended Ram, and while they do share some basic design features, they are very different in intent and feel.
The Ram Rebel was surprisingly capable, or maybe it’s not that surprising. The Rebel may not have all the articulation and ground clearance of the Power Wagon — which takes any challenge with aplomb and ease, except ones that require getting between two obstacles. It was comfortable, had plenty of power, and seemed to be totally unchallenged by the trail.
It’s easy to believe that the Rebel got as muddy as it did, because people were willing to push it faster — it just didn’t seem to be anywhere close to its limits, on the entire course.
We drove two Chrysler Pacificas — gasoline and hybrid — on the switchbacks. If you don’t know the term, a switchback is a sharp, nearly 180° turn. They’re usually used to go up one side of a steep mountain.
The hybrid had good acceleration and was extra-responsive, thanks to its electric motors; you had to listen for the gasoline engine to know when it was coming on, and even then sometimes you might miss it, thanks to excellent sound insulation and an active noise cancellation system.
The hybrid is incredibly heavy, so it was amazing to find it was confident around the switchbacks, handling them at surprising speeds. It felt a little like the Grand Cherokee SRT as it ran through the turns, with just a little squealing and sometimes a boost from the stability control. The batteries make the car, well, bottom-heavy, which likely makes a huge difference; good tires don’t hurt. Brakes were smooth, though they’re regenerative.
The controls were easy to figure out, but the seats didn’t seem as comfortable or supportive as those in some other FCA products, or, for that matter, my 2006 Town & Country. That was true for the rear, too.
The gasoline version was virtually identical inside, but less satisfying to drive; with just the gasoline engine, it couldn’t be as responsive. It still has the best powertrain of any FCA minivan, it’s still quick on its feet, but it’s not the hybrid. Cornering actually seemed a little less confident than the Hybrid — probably skidpad tests would show that to be an inaccurate perception — but it was still far better than a minivan has any right to be.
Chrysler people gave demonstrations of the safety features on request, showing how it automatically stops when you’re backing up to prevent a fender-bender, and a journalist (not from Allpar!) demonstrated how you can override the system to run into the car behind you. The Pacifica has some other fine safety features, including the invaluable rear cross path detection, which lets sensors in the bumper spy out oncoming traffic for you.
The Fiat 124 was a very happy surprise. I’m used to reading all sorts of crazy rhetoric about cars, and then when I drive them, I see they’re not the worst thing ever/best thing since sliced cheese. But the Fiat 124 Spider was just absolutely lovable — so much so that I forgot to photograph it.
It starts with a comfortable seating position and pleasant interior, but lots of cars have those. The shifter and clutch are very smooth and easy to use, to the point where it’s hard to believe these guys also made the Dart transmissions (which are on the balky and rough side). The engine, too, is hard to relate back to the Dart, though it’s theoretically the same in size, horsepower, and, well, maker. Everything seems to have been retuned for perfection.
The car launches well, rides smoothly, and makes you want to take turns as fast and hard as you can. It’s rear wheel drive, but doesn’t have oversteer issues — at least, there’s no easily induced oversteer. I took the car on both the switchbacks and the road course, and thoroughly enjoyed it on both. If I was willing to get a convertible, this is the one I’d get. Indeed, I tried it out on the road course three times, just for the fun of it... and I only took the Challenger 392 out twice.
The Fiat 500 Abarth, as you would expect, was also fun and handled very well, but the powertrain didn’t seem to be the same as the 124. Something was missing there — but only by comparison.
The big Dodge V8s also impressed me on the road course and switchbacks. They handle far better than you’d expect, with potent acceleration and fine brakes. I keep reading about what pigs the Challenger and Charger are, but they don’t drive like pigs. They do feel heavy, but they can make it through the cones all right. Dodge has done quite a bit to make these cars belie their weight (which, outfitted as they are, isn’t much above the smaller Mustang and Camaro in any case). They’re not Vipers but they comport themselves surprisingly well.
From the photo above, taken by an FCA rep, you’d think I’d taken a Hellcat out onto the road course, but that wasn’t in the cards. The Charger Hellcat was there for thrill rides — you got to drive down a drag strip, using Launch Control. I wasn’t quite as fast as I could have been, since I’d gotten warnings about letting off the throttle at the end — and did it too early — but yes, it was still a thrill. (A professional driver sat as co-pilot.)
Also see our test of the 2018 Fiat 500L
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