2009 Dodge Challenger

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2009 Dodge Challenger
Available in 3 styles:  2009 Dodge Challenger 2dr Coupe shown
Asking Price Range
$13,054–$35,446
Estimated MPG

13–17 city / 19–25 hwy

Expert Reviews

    Expert Reviews 1 of 6

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Cars.com National
Early this month, Dodge invited journalists to New York to drive the 2009 Challenger, a car whose styling is likely to have middle-aged men breaking out the Steppenwolf vinyl all over again. No joke: A patrolman snarled traffic so he could snap a picture of my test car with his cell phone. I didn't get this much attention when I drove Ford's new Mustang in 2005 — but I did get some, and today that Mustang no longer turns heads. Someday, neither will the Challenger; that day may come sooner rather than later, given Dodge has expanded the lineup with affordable V-6 and 5.7-liter V-8 versions.

Catchy styling is good, but a car's staying power depends more on quality, everyday livability and bang for the buck. Dodge scores two out of three: The Challenger boasts a well-mannered ride and respectable interior, but the more affordable trims don't offer the sort of straight-line performance that muscle-car enthusiasts might hope for.

The rear-wheel-drive Challenger comes in SE, R/T and SRT8 trim levels, with prices ranging from under $22,000 to more than $40,000. I logged seat time in all three during a day driving around some of New Jersey's better parts. (I didn't know they existed, either.) After the car debuted at the 2008 Chicago Auto Show, Dodge sold an automatic-transmission SRT8 version for the 2008 model year, which you can read about here. This review covers the 2009 model in all its variants.

Big-Car Roots
All trim levels share the same basic styling — something I can't say for the Mustang, whose massive driving lights easily differentiate the V-8 from the V-6. In any trim, the Challenger seems imposing: Even the bare-bones SE model I drove, which lacked the fog lights and hood stripes of the other trim levels, had a chunky substantiality to it. Part of the credit for that goes to the standard exterior features, which include 17-inch alloy wheels, body-colored moldings and faux hood scoops.

The rest of the credit goes to the Challenger's size. Based on a shortened version of parent-company Chrysler's LX platform, which underpins the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300, the car measures nearly a foot longer and a couple inches wider than its Ford nemesis. The forthcoming Chevy Camaro roughly splits the difference between the two: It's as wide as the Challenger, but 7 inches shorter.

Size usually adds weight, and the Challenger comes in as the trio's heaviest. It also has the largest turning circle, at 38.9 feet for the Challenger SE and R/T. The SRT8's 37.5-foot circle is at least more competitive, but the V-6 Mustang has a 33.4-foot turning diameter.

Sizing Up the Competition
2009 Dodge Challenger2009 Ford Mustang2010 Chevrolet Camaro*
Design inspiration1970 Challenger1967 Mustang1969 Camaro
Overall length (in.)197.7187.6190.4
Wheelbase (in.)116.0107.1112.3
Width (in.)75.773.975.5
Height (in.)57.155.454.2
Curb weight (lbs.)3,819 - 4,1403,352 - 3,9203,741 - 3,913
Turning circle (ft.)38.9 (3.5L, 5.7L), 37.5 (6.1L)33.4 (4.0L), 37.7 (4.6L), 37.0 (5.4L)37.7 (3.6L, 6.2L)
*Preliminary specifications.
Source: Manufacturer data; excludes convertibles.

R/T models sport identifying decals within the grille and have dual exhaust pipes, while SRT8 models add brake-cooling front bumper ducts. Hood stripes are standard on the SRT8 and optional on the R/T; both trims have a trunk spoiler and aluminum fuel door. Most Challengers ride on 18- or 20-inch alloy wheels.

How it Drives: Challenger SE
The sub-$22,000 SE feels the most like a family sedan — sans two doors — but considering its slick packaging and generous features, it's a lot of car for the money. It is not, however, a lot of muscle car for the money. I've never been a fan of Dodge's 3.5-liter V-6. It seems a few dozen ponies short of its 250-horsepower rating — and perhaps it is: The engine hasn't been certified by the industry's latest SAE ratings, which typically dock a few horses; both of the V-8 engines have.

The SE's four-speed automatic feels geared for efficiency over acceleration. The early gears are mind-numbingly long: Accelerate out of a corner at 15 mph and second gear becomes your cell mate for an interminable sentence. Push the car hard, and upshifts feel clunky and strained. The engine never grows energetic until the upper revs, and even there it's only mildly entertaining. Perhaps a stick shift would help things along, but Dodge says there wasn't enough demand to justify the investment, and designing a manual transmission to fit this engine would have delayed the car's arrival. Feh.

Dodge quotes zero-to-60 mph acceleration times of 7.8 seconds for the Challenger SE. I drove a V-6 automatic Mustang back-to-back with the SE, and the Mustang was lighter on its feet from the get-go. Though it's rated at 40 fewer horses, Ford's 4.0-liter V-6 roars to redline much quicker thanks to a well-matched five-speed auto and snappier throttle response. The tail feels looser and easier to hang sideways, though the Mustang's lazy steering makes it a bit harder to reel back in. Of course, the base Camaro, with Cadillac's direct-injection V-6, could turn the field on its head, but if you want the most fun today for this price, the Mustang is the better choice.

Bang for the Buck: V-6 Muscle Cars
2009 Dodge Challenger SE2009 Ford Mustang V62010 Chevrolet Camaro LS*
Base price**$21,320$19,735$25,000 (est.)
Engine3.5-liter V-64.0-liter V-63.6-liter V-6
Horsepower (@ rpm)250 @ 6,400210 @ 5,300300 @ 6,400
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)250 @ 3,800240 @ 3,500273 @ 5,200
TransmissionsFour-speed autoFive-speed manual or five-speed autoSix-speed manual or six-speed auto
Zero to 60 mph (sec.)7.87.0 (manual)TBD
EPA-estimated gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)18/2517/26 (manual), 16/24 (auto)26 highway***
Recommended fuelMidgradeRegularRegular
*Preliminary specifications.
**Excludes destination charge.
***GM's preliminary estimates. EPA estimates are not yet available.
Source: Manufacturer data for coupes only. Ford does not provide performance numbers, so acceleration figures are from MotorWeek tests for current-generation V-6 Mustang.

As a daily driver, though, the Challenger has Ford beat. Its overall ride quality is superior; the multilink rear wheels stay put over bumps, where the Mustang's non-independent live axle skitters about. The Challenger's engine hums, while the Mustang's roars. The Challenger's steering wheel has a secure on-center feel at high speeds, and at lower speeds it turns with comfortably smooth — if not particularly precise — movements. Highway ride quality is excellent: The suspension damps out bumps with few reverberations, and road and wind noise are subdued.

How it Drives: Challenger R/T
The good: The R/T irons out most of the SE's failings, and it doesn't introduce any new ones. The bad: It still isn't as quick as you might think.

Blame the weight. With two tons of car to move, Chrysler's mighty 5.7-liter V-8 builds power in a measured swell, but it isn't available as instantly as I would like. Upgraded with a higher compression ratio and variable valve timing for 2009, the pushrod Hemi pummels the Mustang GT's three-valve V-8 in terms of horsepower and torque ratings, and it feels lustier across the tach's midrange. Yet the Mustang GT doesn't come off distinctly slower. If anything, it's primed for snappier starts: The shifter chucks hard into gear, the clutch engages abruptly and the throttle opens instantly. The stick-shift Challenger R/T feels calmer. Its tallish pistol-grip shifter has the same balky actions but shorter throws, its throttle opens more gradually and the twin-disc clutch engages smoothly.

All that shows in the car's straight-line acceleration. Dodge quotes zero-to-60 mph times of 5.5 seconds for the Challenger R/T with a manual or automatic, which is slightly slower than most Mustang GT tests.

Bang for the Buck: V-8 Muscle Cars
2009 Dodge Challenger R/T2009 Ford Mustang GT2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS*
Base price**$29,320$26,425$35,000 (est.)
Engine5.7-liter V-84.6-liter V-86.2-liter V-8
Horsepower (@ rpm)372 @ 5,200 (auto), 376 @ 5,150 (manual)300 @ 5,750400 @ 4,500 (auto), 422 @ 4,500 (manual)
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)401 @ 4,400 (auto), 410 @ 4,300 (manual)320 @ 4,500395 @ 4,500 (auto), 408 @ 4,500 (manual)
TransmissionsSix-speed manual or five-speed autoFive-speed manual or five-speed autoSix-speed manual or six-speed auto
Zero to 60 mph (sec.)5.5 (manual or auto)5.2 (manual)TBD
EPA-estimated gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)16/25 (manual or auto)15/23 (manual), 15/22 (auto)23 highway***
Recommended fuelMidgrade (auto), premium (manual)RegularPremium
*Preliminary specifications.
**Excludes destination charge.
***GM's preliminary estimates. EPA estimates are not yet available.
Source: Manufacturer data for coupes only. Ford does not provide performance numbers, so acceleration figures are from MotorWeek tests for current-generation Mustang GT.

The R/T automatic drops a few horses compared to the manual, but it can run on midgrade fuel rather than the premium the manual recommends. The automatic transmission has five speeds instead of the four the SE gets, and the extra cog helps. I logged a few dozen miles in an automatic, and it suffers none of the SE's highway kickdown lag. The shifts come more smoothly, and a manual-shift function at the base of the gated shifter — which the four-speed lacks — won't override your choice with a lower gear like the ones in the non-SRT Charger and Chrysler 300 do.

The R/T's retuned steering and lower-profile tires — it has 18- or 20-inch wheels versus the SE's 17- or 18-inchers — contribute to a heavier steering feel and better turn-in precision. With 20-inch wheels, the manual R/T also shares the SRT8's 3.91 final drive ratio; 18-inch wheels are paired with a pokier 3.73 final drive. Make a quick lane change and the R/T's sport-tuned suspension exhibits little of its sibling's moderate body roll, yet its highway ride comfort is in the same league. Between the softish SE and the hardscrabble SRT8, this is the best choice. I'm not surprised Dodge expects it to be the volume seller.

How it Drives: Challenger SRT8
Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology team tuned the Challenger SRT8, whose bored-out 6.1-liter Hemi yields the same 425 hp as it does in the SRT-tuned Charger and 300. Dodge quotes 4.9-second zero-to-60 mph times with the stick or automatic, which is Porsche Cayman S territory. (The Shelby GT500, to Ford's certain glee, is quicker still.) On normal roads, however, the extra straight-line thrust over the R/T doesn't justify the additional 10 large you'll spend.

Bang for the Buck: High-Performance Muscle Cars
2009 Dodge Challenger SRT82009 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Base price*$39,320$42,685
Engine6.1-liter V-85.4-liter supercharged V-8
Horsepower (@ rpm)425 @ 6,200500 @ 6,000
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)420 @ 4,800480 @ 4,500
TransmissionsSix-speed manual or five-speed autoSix-speed manual
Zero to 60 mph (sec.)4.9 (manual or auto)4.5
Gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)14/22 (manual), 13/19 (auto)14/20
Recommended fuelPremiumPremium
*Excludes destination charge.
Source: Manufacturer data for coupes only. Ford does not provide performance numbers, so acceleration figures are from MotorWeek tests for current-generation Mustang Shelby GT500.

All of this changes at the track. The SRT8's hunkered-down suspension trades the R/T's twin-tube shock absorbers for Bilstein monotube units. Ride height drops half an inch, and the 20-inch wheels can wear optional P245/45ZR20 front and P255/45ZR20 rear summer tires. A limited-slip differential, installed only on the manual-transmission R/T, is standard on all '09 SRT8s.

I drove R/Ts and SRT8s at Elizabethtown, N.J.'s, Raceway Park, a relatively small course with some tricky corners and no triple-digit straightaways. The differences are immediate: Toss the R/T into a hairpin and it understeers all the way to apex. Ride the gas coming out the other side, and you'll have to manage the resulting oversteer against a loose, ungainly steering wheel. I expected less slippage overall, given the R/T I drove had an electronic stability system that, unlike its traction control, couldn't be switched off. The good news is that in response to feedback from the media and potential customers, Dodge says production R/Ts will allow complete deactivation. The SRT8 always has.

I logged a few laps in the SRT8 with stability control off. Though its steering carries the same ratio, it feels both heavier and sharper than the R/T's. Overall chassis response is seductively neutral: The car hunkers down, sticks to its vectors with just a hint of understeer and remains controllable as you unwind the wheel. The rear wheels push wide at your right foot's discretion, but they're easy enough to rein in, so four-wheel power slides become part of the fun.

Fun, too, are the SRT8's brakes. Enormous 14.2-inch slotted discs sit up front, with 13.8-inch discs in back. Both sets wear Brembo four-piston calipers, and lateral acceleration sensors can prime the braking system in anticipation of use. Dodge says the SRT8 stops from 60 mph in just 110 feet. That's serious stopping power: Our friends at MotorWeek tested a $119,000 Audi R8 supercar and found that it stopped in 113 feet. After stomping the Challenger SRT8's brakes around the track, I don't doubt Dodge's claim.

In everyday driving, the pedal feels a bit grabbier than that of the R/T and SE; Dodge says the two lesser Challengers can stop from 60 mph in 125 and 130 feet, respectively. Other daily aspects of the SRT8 are harder to live with. Neither the suspension nor the thickly bolstered seats filter out road imperfections. The throttle seems sometimes abrupt, yielding lurches of unsolicited torque, where the R/T's accelerator feels more naturally progressive. If the engine's constant thrum doesn't stifle all conversation, road noise certainly will. I drove back from Elizabethtown to lower Manhattan in an SRT8, and by the end of the drive my spine was crying uncle.

The Inside
The Challenger's cloth seats feel higher-end than the Mustang's, with firm but comfortable lateral support and thick center cushions. SE and R/T models share the same seats, and leather upholstery is optional in either trim. The SRT8 has superb leather buckets with larger hip and shoulder bolsters; all trims include a standard eight-way power driver's seat and tilt/telescoping steering wheel, so drivers of all shapes should have no trouble finding the right fit.

Last year's SRT8 came more or less loaded, but the lesser models' equally sinister — not to mention cavernous — interiors hold up well. The trapezoidal dash doesn't look as much like the original Challenger's as the Mustang's twin-cowl design recalls its forebear, but panel fit and materials quality are acceptable. The center panels and transmission tunnel have attractive gray plastic — which is a compliment I don't often pay that sort of stuff — and the upscale chrome door handles come standard. Upper-dash materials have soft surfaces, and the climate dials are straightforward.

The rear seat sits three, rather than the typical two, and the outboard seats boast adult-friendly headroom and legroom. That isn't something I could say about the Mustang or, at least based on its published dimensions, the upcoming Camaro. One shortcoming of the Challenger: Only the front passenger seat has a fold-forward release for backseat entry; in the Mustang and most other coupes, both front seats release forward.

Cargo space, at 16.2 cubic feet, leads the class, and a 60/40-split folding backseat is standard. Like the Mustang, the Challenger has narrow trunk openings both from the outside and into the backseat.

Cabin Dimensions Compared
2009 Dodge Challenger2009 Ford Mustang2010 Chevrolet Camaro*
Seating capacity544
Headroom, front/rear39.3/37.238.6/34.737.4/35.3
Legroom, front/rear42.0/32.642.7/30.342.4/29.9
Cabin volume (cu. ft.)91.584.7TBD
Trunk volume (cu. ft.)16.213.111.3
*Preliminary specifications.
Source: Manufacturer data; excludes convertibles.

Safety
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the Challenger. Six standard airbags include the required frontal devices as well as side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-wheel-disc brakes are standard, but antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are bundled into an option package on the SE. All three are standard on the R/T and SRT8.

Worth note: The current Mustang doesn't offer a stability system, which a rear-wheel-drive car these days really ought to do.

Equipment & Pricing
The $21,320 Challenger SE comes standard with express-down power front windows, power locks with keyless entry, A/C, a power driver's seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control and a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. Eighteen-inch rims, an upgraded stereo and heated leather seats are optional. The sub-$30,000 R/T adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and upgraded wheels, among other things, while the sub-$40,000 SRT8 comes more or less loaded. A moonroof and navigation system are optional across the line. A fully loaded Challenger SRT8 tops out around $45,000.

Challenger in the Market
The Challenger leapfrogs the Mustang in most respects, but that isn't very hard: Ford's pony car is in its fifth year on the market, which is AARP age in automotive terms. There is an upgraded Mustang in the works for 2010, and Dodge can bet GM's Camaro will come out fighting.

The Challenger will likely be the slowest of the group, but that may not matter much. All three cars will sell initially on power and looks, but barring a vast increase in gas mileage — and I'm not holding my breath — their viability depends less on performance and more on everyday livability. The Challenger comes out ahead here, and that could give Dodge a much-needed winner.

Send Kelsey an email 


Related Images
Front and side
Front and side

Rear
Rear

Challenger R/T
Challenger R/T

Challenger SRT8
Challenger SRT8

Hood decals
Hood decals

Spoiler alert
Spoiler alert

Fill 'er up
Fill 'er up

SE, R/T wheels
SE, R/T wheels

SRT8 wheels
SRT8 wheels

Retro outside
Retro outside

Not-so-retro inside
Not-so-retro inside

Dashboard
Dashboard

Steering wheel
Steering wheel

Gauges
Gauges

SRT8 gauge display
SRT8 gauge display

Center controls
Center controls

Cabin quality
Cabin quality

Cheap controls
Cheap controls

Amenities, annoyances
Amenities, annoyances

Storage areas
Storage areas

Front seats
Front seats

SRT8 seats
SRT8 seats

Backseat
Backseat

Trunk
Trunk

Rear visibility, part 1
Rear visibility, part 1

Rear visibility, part 2
Rear visibility, part 2

SE and R/T engines
SE and R/T engines

Automatic transmissions
Automatic transmissions

Manual transmission
Manual transmission

SRT8 drivetrain
SRT8 drivetrain


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