- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

The day was breezy and cool, but hardly a hardly a harbinger of winter.

Still, there we were, standing on the parking lot of a huge football stadium watching a snow-making truck from Wisconsin turn ice from New York into a slushy form of snow.

The unusual scene was not as crazy as passing motorists might have thought.

It was Chrysler’s way of introducing a group of automotive journalists to new, all-wheel-drive versions of the mechanically identical Chrysler 300 sedans and Dodge Magnum wagons (sport tourers for those who still cringe at the idea of a station wagon).

Rear-wheel-drive (RWD) versions of these full-size vehicles have not only won accolades for their aggressive demeanor, cool competence and roomy interiors, they have tickled the wallets of the buying public with surprisingly affordable prices made possible by timely withdrawals from the parts bank of corporate kin Mercedes-Benz.

The introduction of all-wheel drive (AWD) simply signals the company’s intentions to expand its sweet spot in the market by offering vehicles that can appeal to buyers from Newport, Vt., as well as Newport Beach, Calif.

To demonstrate the driving differences between the two traction systems, separate but equal courses were set up, one for RWD cars, the other for AWD versions. Each began with a slog through the slippery stuff, followed by a series of tight turns on dry asphalt.

Riding shotgun in each car were professional race drivers, ready and willing to point out the nuances that separate one traction system from the other.

Hit the accelerator while turning in the slush and the rear end of a two-wheel-drive vehicle would break loose and try to switch places with the front end until the electronic stability and traction-control systems cut in to restore some predictability to the car’s path.

Repeat the same exercise with an AWD auto and it would resist turning because of the pulling power coming from the front wheels. Again, a sense of normalcy would return when the electronics cut in.

These same traits — oversteer in the RWD vehicles and understeer in the AWD cars — could be felt in the dry road turns, but the electronic systems kept the 2-ton vehicles on course whenever a driver’s right foot hit the accelerator with too much enthusiasm.

One other test was conducted. Drivers were asked to pull away from a dead stop in the middle of the “snow.”

Here the AWD vehicles had a clear advantage, although the RWD cars were able to move out once the traction-control system cut in.

The message in the exercise was clear.

Drivers who do not expect to encounter snow and ice except on rare occasions will probably be happier with the RWD cars because they handle more precisely on less slippery surfaces.

The AWD vehicles make more sense for Snow Belt dwellers and others who have reason to spend significant time in cold-weather climates. For them, the small trade-off in handling is more than offset by the ability simply to keep going when the road turns white.

The professionals emphasized one other thing. The two systems have everything to do with going, and nothing to do with stopping. To halt a vehicle, a driver will get identical help in all versions of the vehicles from the antilock braking system.

The AWD drive system is derived from the 4Matic offered on Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It adds a front differential and transfer case to the standard configuration and sends 38 percent of power to the front wheels and 62 percent to the back ones.

To accommodate the front-drive components, it was necessary to modify the independent front suspension, and retune steering effort and response.

The AWD system is just the latest piece of equipment to be adapted from a component developed by the Chrysler Group’s German partner. Approximately 20 percent of the parts in the new Chryslers and Dodges have Mercedes-Benz roots, and that includes the five-speed automatic transmission, multilink rear suspension, cruise control, steering column and front seat frames.

The demonstration vehicles all were powered by top-of-the-line, 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower V-8 engines.

However, AWD is also being offered on all Chryslers and 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6 engines.

On these vehicles, the five-speed automatic transmission replaces the standard four-speed shifter.

Dodge base prices are $27,900 for the SXT and $31,370 for the RT. Chrysler offers three AWD models — 300 Touring, starting at $29,370; 300 Limited, beginning at $31,215; and 300C, with a base price of $34,195.

Chrysler and Dodge, with an assist from Mercedes-Benz, now offer athletic, full-size vehicles for everyone — no matter where they live.

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