First Drive: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE, RT


Fun as the tire-pulverizing Challenger SRT8 is, Dodge cannot survive on 425-hp cars alone. (Or trucks, apparently.) For 2009, the automaker expanded its Challenger lineup to include a full crop of trim levels and drivetrains, and not a moment too soon: Ford has an upgraded Mustang in the works for 2010, and, um, we hear there’s this new car from GM...

Dodge held a press preview of the ’09 Challenger in New York early this month, where we drove the full range — SE, R/T and SRT8 — along with a couple ’08 Mustangs to compare. As you might expect of a car built off Chrysler’s 300/Charger LX platform, the Challenger is big, but balanced. Refinement can be a double-edged sword: Though the R/T feels quicker than a Mustang GT — and all trims remain unfazed when the road gets rough — the Challenger lacks the Mustang’s brash, hang-the-tail-out demeanor. This design might have more staying power, though: It garners more attention than the current ‘Stang did in late 2004. Provided Dodge doesn’t flood Hertz with V-6 models, it could draw stares for some time.

Stay tuned for a full review. Below is our two-minute rundown for each trim; prices exclude a $675 destination charge. There’s also a full photo gallery.

Challenger SE — $21,320, 18/25 mpg: I’ve never been a fan of Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V-6. It delivers so-so power, especially hooked to a four-speed auto with longish first and second gears, and by the upper revs it sounds overtaxed. A combination of 65-series tires and cushy suspension tuning give the car an equally sedate drive, and alas, there is no manual transmission. I drove an SE back-to-back with a Mustang V-6 automatic — which, incidentally, is a much smaller car. Though down by 40 horses, the lighter Mustang’s short early gears (it’s a five-speed auto) and torquey 4.0-liter engine deliver a huskier exhaust note and quicker off-the-line power. Its suspension seems a better accomplice for hanging the tail on an empty corner. It’s just more fun to drive. The Challenger comes out ahead in total refinement: The highway ride remains hushed, the brakes are solid and the rear axle stays put, while the Mustang’s chatters like Fran Drescher. The value equation isn’t bad, either: 17-inch alloys, nicely contoured bucket seats with power adjustments for the driver, a telescoping steering wheel and six airbags are standard. We wish antilock brakes and stability control were, too, but at least Dodge includes them in the most basic option package.

Challenger R/T — $29,320, 16/25 mpg (auto or manual): This one’s my favorite. Lower-series tires and stiffer suspension tuning strike a sweet spot: The R/T tracks curves significantly better than the SE, yet it remains easy on the spine for regular cruising. Did we mention the 5.7-liter Hemi? It delivers a wallop at any speed; I also drove a manual Mustang GT, and while it didn’t feel much slower, its power requires winding out the tach a bit more. The Challenger’s six-speed manual, a first with this engine, has a chunky, substantive feel. The clutch is heavy but smooth — the Mustang GT’s has snappier, rougher engagement — and the positions feel well-defined. I’m not crazy about how close the gates are; on fifth-to-fourth, I accidentally put it into second a few times. (Yeah, go ahead and make fun of me.) I logged a few dozen miles in a five-speed-automatic R/T, and it manages crisp shifts where the SE’s four-speed hesitates. The manual function sticks to its gear, too. In the non-SRT Charger, manual mode will override you with a downshift when it thinks it knows better. Nice to see Dodge fixed that.

Challenger SRT8 — $39,320, 13/19 mpg (auto), 14/22 mpg (manual): With the R/T’s next-gen Hemi, there really isn’t as much reason to get an SRT8. Its 6.1-liter engine no longer feels remarkably quicker, so unless you’re taking your car to the track, there’s little reason to get it. Track drivers, take note: We took R/Ts and SRTs to New Jersey’s Englishtown Raceway Park, and the SRT exhibits much more neutral handling – quicker steering, better grip and none of the R/T’s mid-corner understeer. The manual shifter feels no different from the R/T’s, and, expectedly, the suspension beats you up on the highway. The SRT’s six-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo sounds much better than the R/T’s weak-sauce four-speaker system, but, fortunately, upgraded audio is optional on lesser Challengers. Now if they just found a way to get the SRT seats in those…

Stay tuned for that full review later this week.

Dodge Car Reviews


Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey

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