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Power to please, radar to love

July 04, 2008
CHELSEA, Mich. -There's no doubt the star of the show during Chrysler LLC's recent peek at its 2009 product line was the all-new Dodge Challenger, but there were other points worth noting, including a new technology that will help prevent crumpled fenders.

Chrysler annually holds a media preview at its Chelsea proving grounds to introduce what's new for the coming model year. There is an opportunity to drive the new models on test tracks at the complex, although we are sworn to secrecy (until Sept. 1) about how those vehicles perform. One exception during last week's event was the Dodge Challenger. The car on hand was a 2008 edition, although it has just rolled off the Brampton assembly plant and into dealers' showrooms.

With a design that revives the pony car look of the original Challenger of the early 1970s, the car's arrival has been greatly anticipated. To be the first Canadian journalist to take the wheel of the new Challenger was a thrill; the fact the first drive was over a high-speed autocross course at Chelsea made the moment even better.

The Challenger is available in only one trim level for 2008 -- the SRT8, with a 6.1-litre, 425-horsepower Hemi V8. However, the rear-wheel-drive coupe lineup will expand for 2009 with the addition of two other iterations -- one powered by an efficient 3.5L V6 that's expected to deliver fuel economy of about 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres and the other with a new-generation 5.7L Hemi V8 that produces 30 more horsepower and eight pound-feet more torque plus 5% better fuel economy than the current V8. A new six-speed Tremec manual transmission (with hill start assist) will also be available in addition to the current five-speed automatic.

The Challenger's performance through the autocross layout was impressive, with superb handling and plenty of power. The brakes on the SRT edition reeled the car in repeatedly with no evidence of fading, while the ride was surprisingly comfortable despite the beefed-up suspension that's part of this performance package. The front seats are well bolstered, keeping you planted during enthusiastic driving, while the rear seats actually seemed to have enough room to be functional for two adults.

It won't get the adrenalin pumping like a hot orange Challenger, but a new radar-based sensing system that will help make life easier and safer while driving on multi-lane highways or in mall parking lots was also unveiled. Buyers of the 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans will be able to order a blind spot and rear-cross-path monitoring system. Using a pair of wideband radar sensors concealed in the rear quarter panels, this system will detect a vehicle that's lurking off your minivan's stern and illuminate a warning icon in the side mirror. An audible chime signal can also be had if you choose to activate that feature. No driver input is required to boot up the system, which kicks in as your vehicle reaches about 10 km/h. Once the vehicle passes, the signal goes out, but if you turn on your turn signal to make a lane change before the pass has been completed, there's an audible warning. While other manufacturers have developed similar blind spot monitoring systems -- Volvo, for one -- this is the first application in a minivan.

Engineer Steve Buckley said the development team decided to look for other ways of applying this technology and the result was the rear-cross-path warning system -- an industry exclusive. The same radar system scans to both sides of the minivan when the vehicle is put in reverse. It detects any moving traffic that could be a threat as you're backing out and sets off both a visual and audible warning. The system is so sensitive it will detect a shopping cart on a collision course with the vehicle.

Interestingly, while the system will be offered in Canada, its availability wasn't assured without some drama. The radio frequencies used by the radar system are controlled by the CRTC and Chrysler Canada had to make a special application for permission to use those frequencies.

Both warning systems will be part of a package that also includes new "uconnect" Bluetooth-based connectivity technology being offered for 2009. Pricing in Canada is expected to be about $700 for the package.

Buckley confirmed availability of the radar system will be expanded to other products, such as SUVs, though no timetable for those moves has been announced.
LINK: Preview: 2009 Chrysler models
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