With Challenger and Imperial concepts, Chrysler shows versatility of rear-drive 300C chassis By BOB GRITZINGER AutoWeek | Published 01/02/06, 7:21 am et Get out your ruler and mark off seven inches. Technically, that’s the total distance, measured in wheelbase, separating the beefy muscle car image of the Dodge Challenger concept from the highbrow extravagance of the Chrysler Imperial concept. In reality the two Chrysler 300-based concepts on the company’s stand at the North American International Auto Show couldn’t be farther apart if one was the moon and the other the stars. The lead pony is the Challenger, the Hemi-powered beast of a four-seat coupe for which we’ve all been screaming since the awkward silence that greeted the debut of the highly anticipated Charger as a four-door sedan. With a nod to Paul Harvey, with Challenger, now we know the rest of the story. In concept guise Challenger’s wheelbase is chopped by four inches (to 116 inches) compared to a Charger or 300C. But with an eye trained closely on proper proportion, exterior designer Micheal Castiglione of Chrysler’s Pacifica studio in California kept the length in check. Compared to the original 1970 Challenger—the styling inspiration for the new car—the concept is six inches shorter and two inches wider. The result is squat and tough, the kind of styling for which Challenger is remembered. “Instead of merely re-creating that  car, the designers endeavored to build a Challenger most people see in their mind’s eye—a vehicle without the imperfections like the old car’s tucked-under wheels, long front overhang and imperfect fits,” says Tom Tremont, vice president of advanced vehicle design for Chrysler. Says Castiglione of the 1970 model, “For me that car symbolizes the most passionate era of automotive design. We wanted the concept car to evoke all those sweet memories... everything you thought the Challenger was, and more.” Challenger keeps a lot of the good: the signature horizontal “thrust” line that creases the fender and door and kicks up just ahead of the rear wheel; the wide look at front and rear; and the long, low hood accented by twin diagonal scoops fitted with functional butterfly valve intakes. Inside, deep gauge holes, a leather-wrapped steering wheel (with ribbed steering column, of course) and a pistol-grip shift handle evoke Challengers of old. Like Challengers past, this concept packs more than its share of muscle under the hood in the form of an SRT-tuned 6.1-liter, 425-hp, 420-lb-ft Hemi V8, linked to a six-speed manual transmission. Chrysler estimates the fully functional concept should rocket 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, clip the quarter-mile in 13 seconds and attain a top speed of 174 mph. At the opposite extreme lies the luxurious Imperial riding on a 123-inch wheelbase, a three-inch stretch over the 300C. To achieve the proper proportions for the concept, the overall length grows 17 inches to 214 inches, and the overall height is six inches taller than a 300C. The car rides on massive 22-inch turbine-finned wheels and tires, with passengers sitting nearly seven inches higher than in the 300C. Envisioned as a “noble” yet attainable flagship positioned a cut above the 300C (“It’s a six-figure image but at a much lower price,” says Tremont), the concept designed in Chrysler’s Auburn Hills studio doesn’t mimic Imperials of the past, but it does draw on some of the styling cues from those older cars. It also carries expressive attributes from Chrysler’s long line of concept cars, from the 1953 d’Elegance to the Fire-power that premiered at last year’s Detroit show. Among the design details incorporated into the concept: the long flowing hood and front end dominated by an upright radiator and strong horizontal grille; brushed and polished aluminum pods that evoke free-standing headlamps of Imperials from the 1930s and 1960s; circular LED taillights with floating outer rings that bring back the “gun sight” taillight look of early 1960s Imperials; and a roofline pulled rearward to enlarge the cabin and create a strong profile. The wide-open, B-pillar-less doors allow a panoramic view of the show car’s opulent four-seat, two-tone interior, where no expense is spared when it comes to use of leather, suede, California burl wood accents and satin-finished aluminum. Designers also paid considerable attention to handcrafted components like the sculptured instrument panel with large dual gauges, coved ceiling, and the floating oval armrests in the doors, all bathed in warm light. Dynamically, Imperial also is diametrically opposed to Challenger, with the latter adopting a full-throated roar while the former is loaded with sound-deadening insulation and is tuned for smooth and silent running. But even in its subtlety, the stately Imperial is more driver’s car than chauffeur-driven limousine, says Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed. Power for the concept comes from the standard 5.7-liter, 340-hp, 390-lb-ft Hemi V8, linked to a five-speed transmission lifted from the Mercedes E-Class. “This is the car for somebody who has made it, who takes great pleasure in driving from place to place,” says Creed. Though Chrysler execs won’t commit to production plans for either car, there are obvious advantages to building the concepts on the so-called LX platform that underpins the wildly successful 300C, Dodge Magnum and Charger production cars. Not only does using existing hardware help contain the astronomical cost of building show cars, but in the event one or both concepts gets the green light, Chrysler has a much easier path to building production versions, and gets even more return on its engineering and tooling investment in the rear-drive LX platform. “These are strictly concepts, but we like to see people get excited because it might help make the case to take one or the other to production,” says Tremont. “There will be a completely different draw to these cars—the Mopar followers will have their Challenger, and the Imperial will appeal to a completely different audience. But they will both stimulate people’s thought processes about what could be a Chrysler.” We can only hope that, given a few inches, Chrysler designers and product planners will take the whole foot—and mash it on the accelerator all the way to the showroom.