During a recent rigorous test drive of DaimlerChrysler’s 2005 Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300, worries over rear-wheel-drive performance were put to rest for many fleet managers. In fact, many on hand said the vehicles out-performed their front-wheel-drive competitors.

This past Feb. 16-18, more than 50 of DaimlerChrysler’s largest fleet customers test drove the Magnum and 300 in winter conditions on an engineering test track in Houghton, Mich.

DaimlerChrysler rents, for exclusive use, the Keeweenaw Research Center for 10 weeks out of the year (January through mid-March). DaimlerChrysler and its suppliers utilize this facility to perform dynamic snow and ice system testing on its products. Suppliers use the facilities to test items such as tires and brakes.

“As you might expect, the concern about rear-wheel-drive technology existed right here within Chrysler Group Fleet Operations starting from the time the decision was made to replace the Intrepid with rear-wheel-drive technology,” said Bick Pratt, business development director, DaimlerChrysler Fleet Operations.

“A year ago our senior executives went north to the upper peninsula of Michigan to test the prototypes. They came back convinced that the product did the job.”

Chrysler Group Fleet Operations decided early on to take the same approach with key accounts. “Because of the remote location and test facilities, we couldn’t invite everybody, but we could get the right people to test the units,” said Pratt.

“We had many concerns: snowed out, snowed in, the Best Western instead of Palm Springs, skeptical customers, and so on,” he said. “It was nerve racking right up to the point of the debrief from the first group. For the balance of the trip, it was relief, satisfaction, and excitement. The skeptics were not just converted; all were convinced and most became zealots.”

Event attendees drove several tracks with DaimlerChrysler’s products, as well as competitor vehicles. The test tracks included: Circles and Handling Track, and Ice Pad and Grades.

Rear-Wheel-Drive Vehicles Use Industry-Leading Technology

The Magnum and 300, which replace the LH series — the Intrepid, Concorde, and 300M — are built on Chrysler Group’s all-new rear-wheel-drive platform that uses rear-wheel-drive systems and technology developed by DaimlerChrysler AG. The standard engine is a 2.7L V-6. The two optional engines are the 3.5L V-6 and the 5.7L V-8 Hemi.

“The key benefit of rear-wheel drive for commercial fleets is safety, which is provided by improved drive, stability, and handling,” said Pratt. “This is not traditional rear-wheel-drive technology. It includes ABS, traction control, and an Electronic Stability Program (ESP) system.”

In addition to offering competitive fleet incentives for both vehicles, DaimlerChrysler Fleet Operations will offer a safety convenience package on base Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 models. This package includes ESP, ABS brakes, All-Speed Traction Control, and power driver seat, for less than the price of ABS alone.

The Electronic Stability Program helps the driver maintain directional stability on dry pavement, rain, snow, or ice. The All-Speed Traction Control system helps prevent wheel slip when accelerating on slippery surfaces.

In addition to ABS, the vehicles also include Brake Assist, which electronically notifies the active brake booster of the need for increased brake output, helping provide shorter stopping distances in emergencies.

The switch to rear-wheel drive also created an opportunity to engineer the 300 and Magnum with a longer wheelbase for a safer and more balanced ride. The wider track also provides better stability and handling and traction control.

Fleet Managers Test Drive Magnum/300 in Severe Conditions
Before the Houghton test drive, Jim Anselmi, director of fleet & travel for Lorillard Tobacco in Greensboro, N.C., was skeptical about the new rear-wheel-drive vehicles, having used front-wheel-drive vehicles for many years.

“My most memorable experience was doing a couple of major 360s in a front-wheel-drive vehicle after over-steering in the lane-change course,” said Anselmi. “I ended up so deep in a snow bank that I needed to be towed out. I tried to duplicate my previous lane change maneuver while driving the 300. At first, I thought I was again headed for my favorite snow bank. But before it started to spin out, the 300 regained stability, and I proceeded straight to the next turn. I’m a true believer that technology may have resurrected rear-wheel drive.”

Rear-wheel-drive vehicles with advanced traction-control systems will be considered in Anselmi’s cost benefit analysis for next year’s selector.

Debbie Mize, corporate services manager, fleet & relocation for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., also enjoyed the vehicles’ performance. “The Magnum and 300 handled very well and outperformed the intermediate front-wheel-drive vehicles they were put up against in all types of inclement driving conditions,” she said. “The front-wheel-drive competitors did have anti-lock brakes and traction control, but it just wasn’t enough.”

The single most impressive test, according to Mize, was stopping halfway up an incline with one wheel fully on ice. “None of the front-wheel-drive vehicles could make it up the 15-degree incline when stopped halfway,” she said. “The Magnum and 300 made it up the 20-degree incline, which was a very steep incline.”

Mize admits that she was somewhat reluctant about how well the rear-wheel-drive vehicles would perform before testing them.

“My main concern wasn’t so much around not being able to stop, but about being able to go,” said Mize. “I wasn’t really concerned about the overall control of the vehicle until I actually experienced how improved it was compared to what we have become accustomed to driving.”

Mize was impressed with the Keeweenaw Research Center and its variety of courses. She was pleasantly surprised at her ability to put the vehicles to the test without being afraid of losing control and causing an accident or leaving the road.

“I think both the Magnum and the 300 will be excellent fleet vehicles,” said Mize. “They will be an advantage in those states that get snow and ice on a regular basis.”

Advanced Technology Helps Drivers in Extreme Situations
Keith Smith, director corporate services with Harcourt Education Group in Orlando, Fla., felt the Magnum and 300 did surprisingly well during the test drive, handling the worst of winter road conditions in comparison to front-wheel-drive sedans built by competitors.

“The two vehicles have amazing ESP technology to correct and stabilize oversteer and understeer conditions in the worst of road conditions,” said Smith. The ABS, traction control, and ESP provided comparable or better vehicle control in every situation given the same comparison speeds between vehicles tested, he added.

“The value of the yaw sensor in the ESP module of the DaimlerChrysler sedans was best demonstrated in slalom testing on packed snow, and it was the ideal solution when compared with front-wheel-drive sedans equipped with antilock brakes and traction control,” he said. “The ESP program actually takes over and corrects inappropriate driver input to the steering wheel. The wheel sensors and engine power controls react faster than even an experienced driver can to correct the vehicle from careening off the road.”

Smith found the Magnum and 300 considerably stylish. “The two vehicles have a solid, well-built feel with a much quieter interior than previous generation sedans, and have the styling that will find appeal in the resale market,” said Smith.

Sharon Cozort, fleet & travel administrator with Emerson in St. Louis, Mo., was also impressed with the advanced rear-wheel-drive technology. After subjecting the vehicles to the tough inclement driving conditions in Houghton, she now recognizes the vehicles’ safety.

“The stopping power gave me a lot of confidence in driving in those winter conditions,” said Cozort. “The brake assist, traction control, and ABS, combined with the rear-wheel drive, have opened my eyes to the safety the Magnum and 300 offer.”

According to David Fowler, national fleet manager with Compass Group USA in Charlotte, N.C., the vehicles’ componentry senses the position of the steering wheel and direction the car is traveling. “For skid control, ESP combines the braking power of ABS and the engine retarding properties of traction control,” he said. If there is a discrepancy, as in oversteer (fishtailing) or understeer (snowplowing), the system compensates by sending a brake signal to the appropriate wheel to bring the car back in line. This is done without any input from the driver.”

Fowler says the Magnum and 300 have made severe weather acceleration concerns a non-issue. “While laws of physics still prevail, skids/loss of control is greatly reduced and driver confidence increased.”