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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Mike Hanley
March 24, 2010
It's hard to think of a car more American than the retro-inspired Dodge Challenger — especially the one I tested, which featured a red, white and blue color scheme. For drivers and onlookers of a certain age, it's as much a time machine as it is a car.
Even though the Challenger looks like it could have stepped out of the 1970s, there's a thoroughly modern car under that classic sheet metal — and it's a surprisingly comfortable and quiet one. In short, the Challenger succeeds as a daily driver because its modern qualities and features don't get in the way of the throwback look, which Dodge nailed. If you grew up wanting a Challenger — but now don't want the headaches that come with owning a 40-year-old car — this one's for you.
I'd already driven all the Challenger trim levels except the base SE, and that's the version I tested this time around. There's no question you sacrifice performance by going with the SE and its 250-horsepower V-6, but the tradeoff is one buyers interested in cruising style — rather than stoplight racing — will find acceptable, even if the V-6's gas mileage isn't much better than the V-8 R/T's. Big & Imposing Some people love the big, brutish looks of the Challenger, and those are the people who will buy it. The Challenger is imposing in a way few cars are these days, and that's partly because it's very big for a coupe — it's nearly as long as a Chevrolet Tahoe. When the Challenger roamed U.S. streets decades ago, most cars on the road were big. Its size is more apparent today, in part because there aren't as many yacht-like cars on the road, especially ones with two doors. (To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2009 and 2010 Challenger, click here, or compare it against two key muscle-car competitors, the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang, by clicking here.)
The Challenger's size is also evident when you get behind the wheel; you get the feeling you're taking up the entire width of whatever lane you're in. The hood stretches way out in front of you, and it initially takes a little faith when nosing into tight spots, as the corners of the hood look closer to barriers than they really are.
That's not to say the Challenger is a beast to drive, because it isn't. If you already drive a larger car, it probably won't take long to get familiar with where the corners are. If all you've known are small cars, though, the Challenger will take some getting used to. Secure Handling & Comfortable Ride If you're looking for a muscle car with a lively, nimble driving experience I'd probably direct you to the Ford Mustang. The Challenger, meanwhile, is for traditionalists; it holds its own in corners when it needs to, but it's most at home cruising from stoplight to stoplight or on an open stretch of road.
Old-school muscle cars weren't known for their handling — they were straight-line machines — and some people might not expect much cornering prowess from the Challenger. These shoppers will be pleasantly surprised, because the Challenger handles better than any car this big deserves to. Most impressive is its resistance to body roll; even when powering through a corner, the Challenger stays impressively flat and feels completely in control. There's still that big-car feeling, but there's little of the undesirable body motions typically associated with large cars.
Chrysler deserves even more credit, though, because while body roll has been handily mitigated, it hasn't come at the expense of ride comfort, which is good for a performance coupe whether you get a base SE or a V-8-powered R/T or SRT8. The suspension soaks up bumps before they jar you or your passengers, and the car just lopes along. The ride is noticeably firmer in the SRT8, but it's still quite acceptable for a high-performance coupe.
As luck would have it, a snowstorm struck Chicago when I had the Challenger. My test car was equipped with all-season tires, but I was still a little apprehensive about how the rear-wheel-drive car would handle the white stuff as it piled up outside. The car did much better than I thought it would, accelerating confidently as long as I went easy on the gas. Only once did I almost get stuck when attempting to park on a street with heavily drifted snow, but turning the standardelectronic stability system off provided enough wheelspin to get the car moving again. A V-6 Muscle Car? Muscle-car purists might scoff at the idea of a V-6-powered Challenger, but for those who want the style without the higher price of the R/T or SRT8, the V-6 is a smart choice; as long as you're not a diehard V-8 enthusiast, you won't find yourself regretting your decision due to a lack of power. (For a comparison of all three Challenger trim levels, click here.)
There's a leisurely quality to the V-6's power delivery that the power-hungry might not like, but for everyday commuting the V-6 more than gets the job done. Its exhaust rumble is surprisingly stout, too, nearly matching the R/T's under light acceleration.
The only transmission offered with the V-6 is a five-speed automatic that incorporates Dodge's AutoStick clutchless-manual mode. I normally don't have a need for that, but it proved handy when cruising at interstate speeds in the Challenger, when I used it to downshift to keep the engine revving higher, improving responsiveness and power.
While you might think fuel economy would be the V-6 Challenger's one clear advantage over the V-8 R/T, it's not. The V-6 Challenger is rated 17/25 mpg city/highway, while the automatic R/T gets an estimated 16/25 mpg. When paired with the automatic, the V-8 benefits from cylinder-deactivation technology, which shuts down half of the engine's cylinders under light loads. Even so, I expected better thrift from the V-6 — especially when V-6 versions of the Camaro and Mustang make more power and get better gas mileage.
V-6 Muscle Car Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)
2010 Chevrolet Camaro
2010 Dodge Challenger
2011 Ford Mustang coupe
Cavelike Cabin "Cavelike" isn't meant to imply there's an unrefined nature to the Challenger's cabin, but rather how enclosed you feel when sitting in the car. The big reason for this is the slotlike windshield and low roofline, which severely limit how far you can look up; you'll find yourself craning your neck to see overhead stoplights if you're the first car in line. The large rear roof pillars don't help visibility, either.
Fortunately, the cave has comfortable bucket seats that provide good thigh support for taller drivers, and they're wide enough that the side bolsters don't catch the sides of your back. A power driver's seat is standard, and my test Challenger had optional leather upholstery and heated front seats.
The places where you come in contact with the Challenger's cabin — the steering wheel, gear selector and leather seats — have a high-grade feel, but the dashboard and instrument cluster are rather plain. Plain, however, is sometimes better than radical — witness the gauges and controls in the Camaro, which are hard to decipher — but the Mustang's upscale interior walks a better line between unique and ordinary. Safety Our preferred source for crash-test information is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but as of publication it hadn't tested the Challenger. Standard Challenger safety features include antilock brakes, side curtain airbags for both rows of seats, and a stability system. For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page. Challenger in the Market Despite plenty of nostalgia for certain nameplates, it's never a foregone conclusion that remakes will inspire the same passion. (The Ford Thunderbird is a good example. It returned as a 2002 model but ended its run as a 2005.) The Challenger, by comparison, inspired plenty of people when we first tested it a few years back — it's one of the few cars we've had in the Cars.com garage where you couldn't go anywhere without someone honking their horn, waving or staring at the car.
As you might expect, much of the frenzy around the Challenger has since waned and the car doesn't generate the kind of attention that it did before. That factor aside, the Challenger is still a good car — composed and comfortable. Whereas both the Camaro and Mustang have more performance-oriented bearings, the Challenger is a classic muscle car updated for the 21st-century driver. The result is an ideal blend of the past and the present.