From The Sunday Times
May 27, 2007
Son of Dukes of Hazzard
Imagine a car called Demon
, and you’ll maybe think of something big, muscular, ferociously powerful and probably eco-unfriendly. This tough little sportster is none of those things, but don’t let that put you off because it is possessed of the kind of character that will tempt you to take the long way home.
It is Dodge’s answer to Mazda’s cute MX-5 two-seater sports car and, if it goes into production as planned, will enter a decidedly uncrowded corner of the market where the discontinued Toyota MR2, Smart Roadster and Fiat Barchetta have all begun their slow transformation from obsolete models to nostalgic classics.
“If”, because at the moment Dodge teasingly describes the Demon as a concept car created to gauge the market and whip up excitement around its maker. Added to that uncertainty, Chrysler, Dodge’s parent company, has just become all-American again, raising new questions over its future model lineup.
Still, there’s a strong possibility Dodge will build this car. Alongside its big sibling, the SRT-10, it will easily be the most appealing in a UK range that is decidedly patchy right now, including as it does the so-so Caliber hatchback, the monster Nitro 4x4 and, in a few months, a rather forgettable Mondeo-sized saloon called Avenger.
The Demon certainly has the right ingredients to fire interest, scoring instant points merely for being an open-top sports car, and quite a striking one at that, especially in a paint job that makes it look as if it has been dipped in liquid sun. It builds on this with a rear-wheel-drive, front-engine layout – mirroring the MX-5 and exactly what’s needed for back-road entertainment. It has just two seats and styling aggressive enough to suggest blood-stirring performance.
On paper it looks good, too, equipped with a 2.4 litre four-cylinder engine located well back in its bay, promising a weight distribution nearing the ideal 50:50 over each axle and creating plenty of scope to tune this car to handle like a sports car should. It has a neat six-speed gearbox and its suspension is from the now-defunct Chrysler Crossfire.
And this Demon demonstrator definitely flaunts promise, despite being a cobbled-together prototype. I got to drive it on the Cranbrook Academy of Art campus, Michigan, which happens to have some appropriately swoopy curves. What’s immediately apparent is that the Dodge barely rolls at all, darting into turns with that dog-after-a-bone zeal that can have you aching to gobble up a relentless succession of bends.
The steering might be a little vague on this development car, yet the Demon still feels confident, crisp and secure enough to invite thoughts of driving it a lot harder. Even better is that unlike many open cars, especially the coupé-cabriolet variety, the top of the windscreen does not overhang your forehead, with the result that you feel you really are in a convertible.
And quite a spacious one, too. Dodge claims even adults over 6ft will feel comfortable in this cockpit, which offers plenty of rearward seat adjustment and enough width to prevent you feeling cramped, but without losing the sensation of being closely coupled to your machine.
The interior is distinctly better quality than I’ve been used to from Dodge and Chrysler lately, though you’d have to say the improvement is badly needed. The grained plastics used on the dashboard and doors are of decidedly superior tactile quality to those in the Caliber, and hopefully won’t sound as hollow when you tap them. The good-looking seats have carbon fibre shells, which won’t make production except in faux form, but the hardwearing artfully stitched fabric – the thread is silver, to echo the cabin’s extensive aluminium decor – just might.
The steering wheel, the broad dash and hooded instrument binnacle were all inspired by the cockpits of classic 1960s sports cars such as the E-type Jaguar and Triumph TR4. “The dash is deliberately simple and easy to read because the car is about the driving experience, not frills,” says Dan Zimmerman, the man who designed the interior.
But does the driving experience live up to the Demon’s looks? The engine’s 172bhp might sound quite generous for a small sports car but it doesn’t drag the Dodge along with the kind of zest you’d expect, even if it sounds blaringly inspirational. Demonic is not what you’d term a 0-62mph time of 7.1sec and a 130mph top speed these days.
But there is a turbocharged 300bhp version of this engine, currently used in the Caliber SRT-4, and that unleashes exciting possibilities. A near-doubling of the Demon’s power output ought to generate the necessary maniacal zest, along with the kind of tyre-smoking redneck powerslides that machines such as the Dodge Charger – star of The Dukes of Hazzard – have made this marque (in)famous for.
Performance on this scale would also justify the Demon’s fat rear end, suggestive of tarmac-tearing torque. Currently the rear wings house the least successful aspect of the Demon’s design, a pair of air vents that scoop up the breeze to cool the rear brakes. They look half-hearted, somehow, and undermine the otherwise pleasing purity of the exterior.
Happily, the realities of practical motoring have not been forgotten amid the Demon’s mildly macho character. There is plenty of storage space, from the cupholders beloved of American drivers to an assortment of storage cubbyholes and a reasonable boot. Dodge hasn’t got around to engineering a fully working hood for the Demon, but it would be fabric and, being American, would likely be motorised to minimise the effort of removal.
So when can we expect this fresh and somewhat unexpected MX-5 alternative? Assuming it gets the go-ahead, it should be less than three years away.
Model Dodge Demon 2.4 Roadster
Engine type 2359cc, four cylinders
Power/Torque 172bhp @ 6000rpm / 165 lb ft @ 4400rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Performance 0-62mph: 7.1sec / Top speed: 130mph
Price £20,000 (estimate)
Verdict Entertaining, practical and desirable
Date of release 2009-10
Model BMW Z4 2.0i SE Roadster £24,005
For Stylish, quality sportster
Against Pricey, not very fast
Model Mazda MX-5 Roadstar Coupe 2.0i Sport £21,030
For The definitive budget sports car
Against A bit cramped, noisy
Dodge Demon Picture Gallery