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2016 Fiat 500X – a Solid Contender

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2016 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus2016 Fiat 500X Trekking PlusShared Platform with Renegade – Different Mission  At a glance, the 2016 Fiat 500X is a solid addition to the Fiat lineup in the USA. Built alongside the Jeep Renegade at FCA’s Melfi, Italy plant the 500X shares the Renegade’s platform but has a dramatically different mission that demands tuning and settings to be very different.  While the Renegade Trailhawk is at home off-road, the 500X is for the cities and suburbs.


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Lincoln Continental – New for 2017

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2017 Lincoln Continental F342017 Lincoln Continental R78Lincoln Continental Concept Makes Splash at 2015 New York International Auto Show  Lincoln Motor Company has shown its new Lincoln Continental Concept at the 2015 New York International Auto Show.  Kept quiet until the week before the show, Lincoln clearly timed the release of the Continental Concept to coincide with the first public showing of the competing Cadillac CT6 sedan. Ford (Lincoln) used a similar tactic to take the wind out of the sails of the Acura NSX introduction at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show with its striking Ford GT.


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Manual Transmission RIP – Let ’em Die

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We keep watching the hand wringing of automotive enthusiasts (of which we are a member) about the manual transmission fading from the American vehicle fleet.  In fact, in 2010 our friends at Car and Driver created a Facebook page entitled “Save the Manuals” moaning about the “paucity” of manual transmissions offered in new vehicles.  The latest issue of Car and Driver continues to advertise the site.  At a recent new model introduction, a wizened old auto journalist railed on about how the car maker was killing the manual transmission.  They were not offering one on the higher priced models of the car.  Well, as experienced as he may be, he is out of touch.

Over the years, we have been proponents of automatics especially since they have become so efficient.  Based on AutoPacific research we have the data.  Here are the tidbits from the latest year’s survey (the data have changed only slightly year over year):Manual Transmission Shifter

81% of New Vehicle Acquirers Can Drive a Vehicle With a Manual Transmission  Frankly, we thought this number would be much smaller.  For the sake of their ego maybe these respondents claim they can drive a manual when they actually cannot or do so very poorly.  About 89% of men and 68% of women claim they can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission.  By age group, 52% of respondents in their 20s and 71% of those in their 30s say they can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission.  Over 40 years of age, over 85% say they can drive a manual.  We are surprised that so many in their 20s and 30s claim they can drive a manual.

94% Want an Automatic in Their Next Vehicle  81% of the respondents say they want an automatic transmission in their next vehicle.  About 14% say they want an automatic with paddle shifters.  Only 5% want a manual transmission.Automatic Transmission Shifter

Highest Preference for Manual Transmissions are in Sports and Compact Cars  About 20% of sporty car (Camaro/Mustang) owners want a manual in their next vehicle.  About 13% of sports car owners (Porsche 911, Corvette) want a manual transmission.  About 11% of compact car owners want a manual transmission.  The sports and sporty car owners want a manual because they perceive the manual gives them a more sporty driving experience and better control over the car.  Compact car owners perceive that a manual will give them better fuel economy and also a lower price.  We might have thought pickup truck owners would want a manual transmission but this is not the case.  Only 5% of pickup owners want a manual transmission in their next vehicle.

Manuals to Fade Away  In many press events AutoPacific attends, members of the automotive press continue to argue for more manual transmissions to be added to newly introduced vehicles.  This is contrary to what the people who actually buy cars want.  While there will be some bitching and moaning from the media, automakers should save their resources and concentrate on making outstanding automatics and dropping manuals in the future.Paddle Shifter

Sidenote on Paddle Shifters  Manufacturers have been adding paddle shifters to automatics to give a sportier ambiance.  In AutoPacific research over the years, we have found that drivers might use this feature for the first couple of weeks they have their vehicle.  Then they never use paddle shifters again.  While implementing paddle shifters is now an inexpensive proposition, it still might not be worth the trip.


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Ram Promaster City – MicroVan Workhorse

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First, it was the Ford Transit Connect van from Turkey that has been ubiquitous in Europe for years before being seen on American roads.  Small, styled with a brash quirkiness, tinny beyond imagination especially in taxi fleets, the Transit Connect caught on.  Then Ford replaced the original Transit Connect with a lower roof, more stylish van built in Spain that is actually fun to drive.  Nissan responded with the Nissan NV200 that is supposed to be the Taxi of Tomorrow for the New York City taxi fleet.  It is assembled in Mexico.  Not so fun to drive and assembled with more than a dollop of plastic.  Most recently is the launch of the Ram (FCA US LLC, aka FCAGroup, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Dodge Trucks) Promaster City.  How would I compare the three?

Ford Transit Connect Van

Ford Transit Connect Van

2015 Ram Promaster City

2015 Ram Promaster City

2014 Nissan NV200

2014 Nissan NV200

Transit Connect Most Minivan-Like  The Transit Connect ($22,330 – $29,185) is the most minivan-like.  It has a instrument panel that mimics that in the Ford Focus.  The seats are comfortable, but a choppy ride offsets the seat comfort.  Performance is adequate with its standard 2.5L 4-cylinder engine having 169-horsepower coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission.  Optionally, the Transit Connect has a 178-horsepower EcoBoost 4-cylinder.  Transit Connect is available in two wheelbases.

NV200 Spartan  The Nissan NV200 ($20,270-$24,435 in cargo van version) is the most Spartan of the three.  Its interior has been stripped bare of most ornamentation and the execution yields the most basic of transportation modules.  A passenger version of the NV200 is not available unless you get the taxicab version starting at $29,700).  Powered by a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission), the NV200 is the most anemic of the three.  Like the original Transit Connect, the NV200 can be a rattletrap.  That brings me to the Ram Promaster City.

Promaster City Best Driving Feel  Built in Turkey, the Promaster City ($23,130 for van version and $24,130 for the passenger version – maximum $29,275) probably falls between the Transit Connect and NV200 overall.  It does, however, have the best driving feel of the three.  The Promaster City is powered by the Fiat Tigershark 2.4L 4-cylinder engine mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission.  Sounds like the Dodge Dart or Jeep Cherokee.  With much of the North American development work being done in the pothole-filled environs of Auburn Hills, Michigan, the Promaster City suspension has been beefed up and given more travel.  Promaster City also has a fully independent rear suspension.  The result is the ride comfort in the Promaster City is more comfortable in most conditions than the Transit Connect or the NV200.2015 Promaster City R342015 Promaster City Cockpit

The Battle for BIC – Best In Class:  Transit Connect and Promaster City are vying for Best In Class claims.  Promaster City claims best in class horsepower at 178-horsepower.  This is correct for base engines, but if you consider Ford’s EcoBoost at 178-horsepower you have a tie.  Promaster City has a fuel economy rating of 21mpg city/29mpg highway.  Transit Connect is 20/28mpg.  Promaster City claims the largest cargo volume at 132 cubic feet – Ford has 129 cubic feet in its long wheelbase van.  Promaster City claims the highest payload at 1883 pounds – Ford has 1620.  Its 48.4-inches between the rear wheelhouses allows you to put 4-foot wide materials flat on the rear load floor.  The 72-inch load floor length does not allow a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood to be transported enclosed, however.  So, Promaster City wins the brochure war and its base Tigershark engine and 9-speed automatic transmission edges out the Transit Connect, but it is very close.


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2015 Nissan Murano – Sexy Upgrade

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3rd Generation Murano The 2015 Nissan Murano crossover SUV went on sale Friday, December 5, 2014.  The third generation of the Murano pushes the envelope on crossover styling and brings new Nissan design cues to the vehicle.  The Murano has been a sweet spot among crossover SUVs since its launch.  Each iteration has been very easy to live with and the 2015 version is no exception.  Easy to drive, maneuverable, quiet and up to date, the Murano provides Nissan with a suitable vehicle to attract its target buyer.  Media attending the product preview in Napa Valley were surprised that Nissan admitted its target market is empty nester couples 45 years of age or older.  These people do not need seven or eight passenger seating they might have required during their family formation years, but they do want reasonable cargo capacity and a spacious rear seat.  This 5-passenger crossover SUV meets their requirementsGoats Head Beach

The Murano review was held during an early December storm with gale force winds.  The Murano handled the inclement weather with aplomb.  It was very stable even in vicious cross winds.

Exterior  Given its sporty, futuristic styling, you might think the visibility would suffer, and it does to the rear, but overall visibility is pretty good.  For years many in the industry have been stripping vehicles of exterior ornamentation, but not the 3rd gen Murano.  There is a striking bright flash running from the upper edge of the front door rearward over the rear fender kickup.  Very distinctive and nicely done.  Murano follows the trend of front lighting with LED signature lights and available LED headlamps.  LED “boomerang”  taillamps are standard.2015 Nissan Murano F342015 Nissan Murano SV2015 Nissan Murano R34

Interior  The interior comfort is excellent with “Zero Gravity” seating.  Ergonomics are excellent with a large 8-inch center stack screen standard.  For those who like an open air feeling, the Murano offers a large panoramic moonroof.   The top of the line Platinum model includes leather seating surfaces and comes across as a very premium place to be.  The lower level SV model, loses the leather, but the interior retains much of the premium feel of the Platinum version.  In essence, spending less does not result in a vehicle feeling cheap.

Technology  The 2015 Nissan Murano comes with the expected suite of available technology:  blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, forward collision warning, moving object detection and forward emergency braking.2015 Nissan Murano

Powertrain  The engine is essentially carryover – Nissan’s venerable 260HP 3.5L DOHC V6 (VQ).  The continuously variable Xtronic transmission has been improved with subtle “shift points” added to the shiftless gearbox.  The driving experience is effortless.

Pricing  The base price of the 2015 Nissan Murano os $29,560 for the S model.  The next step up is the SV at $32,620.  Then the SL at $35,950 and the range topping Platinum at $39,000.  Adding all wheel drive adds $1,600 to each model.  Checking all the boxes on a Platinum – adding premium paint, Technology Package and 20-inch wheels – brings the price to $44,975.

Production  While Nissan’s huge Canton, Mississippi plant is the main source for the Murano worldwide, there is a secondary source in Pusan, South Korea should the USA need more volume.  The Pusan plant is part of the Samsung Renault Nissan relationship.

Research Results  Over the years, Murano has done very well in AutoPacific’s Satisfaction Research.  The 2015 Nissan Murano promises to deliver strong satisfaction results just as did its predecessor generations.

 


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2016 Acura ILX Updated – Improved

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Acura’s entry premium compact car is being updated for the 2016 model year.  The 2016 Acura ILX is what Acura terms its “Gateway Model” – the entry to the Acura lineup.  The strategy for the 2016 Acura ILX is much like Honda implemented for its CR-V compact crossover SUV.  Honda termed that a Major Mid-Cycle Change.  Similarly, ILX has been freshened and given a better powertrain than before.

2016 Acura ILX F34 VehicleVoiceMild Styling Changes  The 2016 Acura ILX looks basically the same as the 2015 model.  It is a compact sedan with pleasant, slightly sporty styling.  For 2016, the car gets a new more aggressive front end appearance with LED accent lights and LED headlamps.  All Acuras will have LED front lights from now on.  The grille is tougher looking and the “parrot’s beak” has been toned down somewhat.  The tall lamps are upgraded and more distinctive than before.  In the industry, this is called a front and rear six – think of it as a face and butt lift.2016 Acura ILX SV Feature

The interior gets minor updates with upgraded seat material and contrasting stitching on the steering wheel, shift knob and parking brake handle.

Upgraded Powertrain with Only One Choice  The news, however, is under the skin.  The only engine/transmission choice now is a 2.4L direct injection 4-cylinder with 201-horsepower mated to an 8-speed dual clutch transmission.  If this sounds familiar it should because it is basically the same 4-cylinder used in the mid-market TLX.  Since 2016 Acura ILX is now made at Honda’s Marysville, OH plant alongside the TLX this communization makes sense.

No Manual Transmission – YEA!  The enthusiasts among you may be asking where the manual transmission formerly with the 2.4L went?  It was dropped in favor of the fast-shifting dual clutch transmission and the fact that no one was buying them.  Gone also is the hybrid model, also for lack of interest.  AutoPacific’s research confirms that this is the right direction to go.  Consideration for manual transmissions is very low and hybrid consideration continues to drop as gasoline prices in the USA fall.

Technology and Stuff  Recognizing that a premium brand has to deliver more refinement, Acura has increased the sound deadening in the ILX to make the car much quieter than now.  Also, following the CR-V strategy with HondaSense, AcuraWatch suite of advanced safety and driver assist features is available on the car for the first time.  This feature suite includes adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation,  collision mitigation braking system, upgraded rear camera.  Once again, we are seeing a manufacturer “democratize” its technology taking stuff formerly available on upper level models and making them available on lower line products.


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Dodge Challenger Hellcat

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The all-new Driver Information Display screen in the Challenger

Cruising down the scenic roads along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon can be a real treat, especially while driving a Dodge Challenger Hellcat with its mean-sounding engine roaring through the twists and turns of this pristine wilderness road.

A few months back, Chrysler invited a few journalist to test drive the 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat, along with its entire Challenger lineup. The Challenger Hellcat was a blast to drive, and delivers so much power that it is almost scary to drive. And after our not-so-mellow morning cruise along the river, we were invited to test the Hellcat’s limits by driving laps around Portland International Raceway, trying hard to keep the car in a straight line. But the real fun was just driving the Hellcat around town and watching on-lookers gaze at the car with its loud rumble and gentle supercharger whine emitting from the beast of a car that is the Hellcat. And the specs are quite impressive.


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Kia K900 – Kia Range Topper

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Kia introduced the K900 premium luxury car for the 2014 model year.  Based on Hyundai/Kia’s rear wheel drive platform shared with the Hyundai Equus and loosely the Hyundai Genesis sedan, Kia’s entry into the luxury market is controversial.  Internally and externally there were concerns that the brand was not ready to take the leap into the $60,000 price range.  But as is often the case in the life of an import distributor, the parent company demands that you take the “gift” of a vehicle you might not think fits the lineup at the time.

KMA – AutoPacific Neighbors  Full disclosure, Kia Motors America headquarters in Irvine are less than a mile from AutoPacific’s headquarters in Tustin, California.  Every day our roads are filled with Kia Optima mid-size cars (to our eye, the best looking mid-size car presently on the market), Kia Soul hamster cars and Kia Forte compact cars.  Given the population of cars within a mile radius, Kia is the best selling brand on the market.  K900s are rarer, but does K900 hurt KMA’s position in the American market?  We don’t think so.2014 Kia K900 F34 VehicleVoice2014 Kia K900 SV VehicleVoice2014 Kia K900 R34 VehicleVoice

Conservative Design Will Not Offend  The exterior of the car is conservative and tasteful.  There is little flamboyance with the exception of Kia’s outstanding white pearlescent paint (I don’t like white cars, but the white available on the Optima and K900 is a very rich looking color).  The K900 is a large car with generous greenhouse that provides excellent visibility except rearward where the headrests get in the way.

Kia K900 Interior Outstanding  The K900 interior is a work of art.  The seats are nicely styled, supportive and infinitely adjustable with Mercedes-like seat controls on the door trim panels.  The instrument panel is electronic wizardry with a very well designed programmable 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 9.2-inch center stack screen with Kia’s UVO eServices telematics system.  Radio controls are actually easy to use with KNOBS (!) and source buttons.  The rear seat is very spacious and comfortable.  In the uplevel VIP executive package (a $6,000 option) designed for Korean CEOs to ride in the rear there are redundant controls in the center arm rest.  In the particular example we have been driving for a week, the interior trim is a very light grey or off white which makes it seem open, airy and spacious.  The contrasting grey environmental color gives a very upscale ambiance.2014 Kia K900 IP VehicleVoice2014 Kia K900 Cockpit2014 Kia K900 Rear Seat VehicleVoice

Lexus-Like Dynamics  Dynamically, the K900 harkens back two generations to the Lexus LS430, before Lexus decided to try a more sporty route.  The ride is very isolated, soft and cushion-like.  The 5.0L gasoline direct injection V8 is powerful and smooth.  Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission we saw an average fuel economy of about 15mpg.  While the fuel economy is not sterling, it is about what you’d expect in a car like this.

So, the Kia K900 is not a German luxury car and is not what the Lexus LS460 has evolved into.  The Kia K900 is a very competitive, traditional luxury car that will be comfortable for the long haul and easy to live with.


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Mercedes Sprinter Updated for 2015MY – Additions to Mercedes Van Lineup

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The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van was the first European-style full size van sold in the United States.  Ford has added the European-style Transit van to its huge plant in Kansas City, Missouri.  Ram is importing ProMaster vans from Europe.  Nissan manufactures its NV vans in Canton, Mississippi and it is somewhere between a traditional American van and a European van.  Only General Motors is left with a traditional American van with the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana.  In the overall scheme of things, Ford is the top dog by a wide margin and Mercedes is in fourth or fifth place depending on the month.2015 Sprinter 4x4 VehicleVoice

Mercedes Sprinter Update for 2015  For 2015, the Mercedes Sprinter is getting a minor update including new front end appearance with more distinctive headlamps and grille.   Optional safety features now commonly found in cars are available: blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, collision prevention assist and highbeam assist.  On the Sprinter 2500 model, Crosswind Assist is standard.  Because big vans present a large flat surface to the wind, they are susceptible to being knocked around in crosswinds.  The Crosswind Assist system alleviates Crosswind threats at speeds over 50mph.

Of significance, the Mercedes Sprinter receives a 4×4 model for 2015.  The base 4×4 system is prices at $6,500 with an additional $300 for low range capability.  The 4×4 will likely be popular in the Snow Belt and Mercedes predicts between 6% and 9% of its mix will be 4×4.  Sounds a bit low.

Diesel Engines  The base engine in about 50% of Sprinters is a 161HP 2.1L 4-cylinder diesel with 266 lb-ft of torque.  The 4-cylinder diesel is mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission.  The optional 188HP 3.0L V6 diesel has 325 lb-ft of torque.

Re-Assembly Strategy for US Cargo Vans  Mercedes Sprinter cargo vans are “re”-assembled at a small plant in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina.  The former Western Star/American LaFrance plant is now the sole source for Sprinter cargo vans in the USA.  Only about one third of the plant is used at present with plenty of room for expansion.

Now with 3 Roof Heights

Now with 3 Roof Heights

Chicken Tax Avoidance Strategy  Because of the 25% “chicken tax” (tariff) in place since 1967, truck manufacturers have used various schemes to avoid the crushing price penalty.  At one point, Toyota added pickup boxes to its small pickup at the port in Long Beach, California.  Ultimately, the major Japanese truck manufacturers added assembly capacity for their trucks in the USA.   Toyota manufactured Tacoma pickups at NUMMI (a joint venture with General Motors) in Fremont, California and now manufactures Tundra and Tacoma pickups at a plant in San Antonio, Texas.  Nissan has a huge truck plant in Smyrna, Tennessee and another in Canton, Mississippi.  Even Honda has truck capacity for its Ridgeline in Ohio.

Mercedes avoids the chicken tax by re-assembling Sprinter vans in the USA.  They are first completely manufactured in a plant in Dusseldorf, Germany.  They are disassembled so that the powertrain is separate from the body.  The bodies are loaded into containers (one or two per container depending on configuration) and shipped to Charleston.  The powertrain components are shipped separately in lots of eighteen.  Unloaded at the plant in Charleston, the body moves through thirteen six-minute stations.  The Charleston plant can re-assemble between 60 and 75 Sprinter cargo vans per day.  In 2013, the plant produced over 14,000 units.  The top customers for these vehicles are FedEx (who insisted Mercedes add the vehicles for the American market) and Winnebago.

Saving the 25% chicken tax results in a 12% to 13% increase in the cost of the Sprinter in the USA, but the savings are still 12% to 13% lower than if the tariff had been paid.

Future Mercedes Vans in the USA  Mercedes is adding more vans to its lineup in the future.  The European mid-size Vito van (with the “Metris” name in the USA and Canada) will be added in Fall, 2015 in passenger and cargo versions.  Another passenger van – the V-Class – was introduced in Munich in January 2014 and on sale in Europe from Spring 2014.  Think of the V-Class as a van equivalent to the Mercedes S-Class sedan.  Also in the offing for the USA is the smaller Mercedes Citan van introduced in Europe in 2012.  Given the capacity available at the Mercedes van plant outside Charleston, it would not be surprising to see the Metris cargo vans assembled there similar to the Sprinter cargo vans.

 


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Dodge Charger Hellcat – What Were They Thinking?

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Dodge Hellcat Logo

One of the benefits of writing about cars is that you get to drive some insane stuff occasionally.  The most recent insanity is the 2015 Dodge Charger Hellcat an insanely fast 4-door sedan that Dodge actually displayed with two child seats in the back showing that it can be a responsible family hauler as well as a berserker.  And berserker it is.

Powered by a 707-horsepower 6.2L Supercharged HEMI V8, the Hellcat is a range-topping $64,000 handful.  Dodge staged the review of the new 2015 Dodge Charger out of Washington DC and offered on-track driving at Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia.  On a chilly, drizzly day, taking the Hellcat out on the rural roads around Summit Point allowed only about 20% of what the car is capable of.   Punching it on a clear straightaway spooled up torque that pushed the car sideways. Careful, careful, it felt almost as if you were idling and the car wanted to surge ahead.  You always knew that there is more there that can be used.707-horsepower2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat

Multiple Keys Can Tone Down Hellcat for Valets  Dodge knows that in the wrong hands 707-horsepower can be abused so they have two keys and three horsepower modes.  Red key gets you unlimited use of its 707-horsepower.  Black key gets you about 500-horsepower – still a lot for your teenage son or the valet.  The answer for that is a valet mode accessed through the vehicle system that reduces the power to around 200-horsepower so they can’t get in too much trouble.

Something for Everyone in the Charger Lineup  With the 707-horsepower Hellcat out of the way, a serious, serious car, the happiest Charger is the 292-horsepower Pentastar V6 with all wheel drive.  This lower level sedan is a delight to drive.  Nimble and forgiving in all the ways the Dodge Charger Hellcat is not.  Simply, the new Charger lineup seems to have something for everyone from happy and pleasant starting around $28,000 for the SE or SXT models with the Pentastar V6, to a $32,000 370-horsepower 5.7L HEMI V8 in the R/T, to a $40,000 R/T Scat Pack with a 485-horsepower 6.4L HEMI V8, to the monster Hellcat with the 707-horsepower HEMI V8 at a fully loaded price over $60,000.


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