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Madman talks tuning OEM style

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Posted: Friday, February 24, 2012 2:55 am | Updated: 5:50 am, Wed Feb 29, 2012.

A few years ago my dad and I were in the garage changing oil when I heard a peculiar but wonderful sound. It was a deep exhaust burble that was not familiar to me.

Curiosity got the better of me so I sat up and peeked out from under the Acura I was working on. Pulling up in front of a neighboring house was a long black Mercedes coupe. The car was instantly recognizable. I had read about this magnificent auto and for that matter all of its predecessors in magazines.

The Benz looked like most other upscale CL65 models. These classy rides can be found parked in front of nice restaurants or expensive stores all over town. They are common. The CL65 I was looking at was lower, louder and wore large black wheels over huge brakes. Yep, it was a Mercedes Benz CL65 AMG.

While an AMG badge is easy to miss, it is in fact a big deal. Having one on the back of your Mercedes means nearly every pertinent bit on your Benz has been enhanced.

Things like sportier suspension, wider wheels / tires and a powerful hand-built engine are the biggest perks. However everything is a little different on an AMG model, from the aero package at the front to the AMG exhaust at the rear. Boy does it make a difference, they look and go like nothing else.

But, don’t think for a second that German rival BMW would let Mercedes have this market to themselves. Yes, BMW has turn key race cars as well. BMW’s M motorsport cars are regarded as the some of the best production performance cars available. BMW’s M cars ware born out of necessity.

BMW wanted to build a mid-engine supercar with which to go racing; but in order to race in certain classes BMW had to build a road going version of the race car. In 1978 the BMW M1 was put into production with help from Italian supercar masters Lamborghini. Despite being gorgeous and very quick the M1’s outrageous price made it impractical even by supercar standards. Even though the M1 flopped, BMW’s M motorsport division continued to make track-worthy cars out of almost every model BMW produced. Any BMW with the coveted “M” badge stuck to the trunk lid is a winner.

While all Mercedes AMG and BMW M cars are superb, there is a problem with them…price. While only the well-to-do can sport the finest Germany has to offer, there are domestic alternatives. The Europeans do not have a monopoly on manufacturer tuned track cars, the good old USA has some killer offerings.

Ford has made very special performance cars over the years. Cars Like the Cobra Mustang and the Ford GT supercar come to mind. But, there are others like the Ford Lightning supercharged pick-up truck and Focus SVT that was co-engineered by engine building legend Cosworth. These performance vehicles are very well known to enthusiasts.

The SVT or “special vehicles team” was formed around 1984 and was responsible for one of the most controversial Mustangs of all time. The SVT mustang used a turbocharged four cylinder engine instead of the ubiquitous 5.0 V8 that was dropped into the GT.

This silly little four banger proceeded to kick V8 Mustang butt all over the track and street until production of the SVT Mustang was halted. Some say the SVT was a victim of its own success, making the iconic eight cylinder Mustang look bad. Either way SVT continues to wring every horsepower out of everything from the Mustang to the Taurus. God bless America!

While SVT cars are cool no one can beat the absolute lunacy of Dodge and their SRT division. Street and Racing Technology has been responsible for the Dodge Viper for years, but in 2003 Dodge executives asked them to help with slumping PT Cruiser sales. Many critics complained about the heavy PT Cruiser’s power or lack thereof.

Performance vehicle operations, or PVO as they were known back then, were handed the ball. What came next was a powerful turbocharged engine with more than twice the power of the current four cylinder. The problem was solved. Since the PT Cruiser was based on the Dodge Neon platform PVO decided to build a turbocharged Neon to compete with the gaggle of sport compacts that were available at the time.

The engine was tweaked to produce even more power and the Neon was completely reengineered to handle the extra grunt. The Dodge Neon SRT 4 was released in late 2003 and was billed to be the fastest car available for under twenty grand. It easily dispatched every car remotely near its class and dominated every car in its respective racing class from super touring to rally.

Since then the SRT division has tuned everything from the Chrysler 300 sedan to a Ram pick-up truck with a Dodge Viper V10 engine. All of the SRT cars are completely insane.

When I first laid eyes on that CL65 AMG so many years ago, I sensed something special about it. That CL65 had evolved into something more than what the bean counters deemed necessary. When the folks at SRT looked at the Neon, they imagined what was possible not what was practical. The brilliant men and women of these tuning divisions are visionaries, dreamers and maybe a little nuts. I have nothing but love for engineers who can take a common car and turn it into a madman.

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