We’ve had novel many experiences piloting vehicles.
Once a motorist forced a Mazda sports car onto the shoulder of the road to get a closer look.
An officer flashed his red and blue lights for an up-close-and-personal inspection of a Pontiac Solstice.
But the 2008 Dodge Challenger set a new benchmark:
There was the guy who made a U-turn to give chase-and a thumbs up.
Another guy dropped his beer when circling a tree on his riding mower to get a better look.
And, finally, the man for whom Challenger was-almost-a religious experience. He followed us into the church parking lot on Sunday to take pictures with his cell phone to show his co-workers-at the Toyota store.
If we had a dollar for every thumbs up during a weeklong test drive, we’d have the down payment for one of the 6,400 2008 Challenger SRT8s to be built.
Sadly, however, all are spoken for. The car is sold out, unless you bid on one of a couple dozen some dealers are offering on eBay for up to $25,000 over sticker.
After a 35-year absence, Challenger has returned, an update of the muscle car that debuted in the fall of 1969 for a five-year run before high insurance rates and demands for greater fuel economy halted production.
The 2008 Challenger tested looks strikingly similar to the original. Dual hood scoops, double wide hood stripes, bulging chrome gas cap, Hemi chrome hood badging, 20-inch radials stuffed into the wheel-well openings and only orange, black or silver body panels. Just the right touches.
The rear-wheel-drive coupe is built off the same platform as the Chrysler 300 sedan-after the wheelbase was snipped about 4 inches. The SRT8 is powered by a 6.1-liter, 425-horsepower Hemi V-8 with 5-speed automatic with one of those faux manuals that allows shifting with an awkward sideways push on the lever.
Still it’s a blast. Quick to react to pedal input. The exhaust obediently growls as the coupe propels you rocket style from zero-to-60 m.p.h. in about 5 seconds and into three digit territory a couple blinks after that. We tickled 110 m.p.h. at the Elkhart Lake, Wis., track on a play date.
With performance radials designed plus standard traction and stability control, Challenger takes off like a slingshot, without the radials smoking or rear end slipping, sliding or dancing.
The brakes bring you back from warp speed in a straight line without having to stand on the pedal and the radials stuttering to a stop.
This fall the Challenger lineup expands with a 5.7-liter, 370-h.p. Hemi R/T companion with cylinder deactivation to conserve fuel and a 3.5-liter, 250-h.p. V-6 SE for those who want the look without the gas guzzling.
Rated at 13 m.p.g. city/18 m.p.g. highway, the 6.1-liter is saddled with a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax. Tweaks to engine breathing this fall will bring mileage to 13/19 for 2009 with the 5-speed automatic to lower the tax to $1,700. Mileage on a 6-speed manual is expected to reduce the levy more, but no numbers yet.
With a sports suspension, ride is a little firm. It doesn’t feel as if the pavement is covered with railroad ties, but the more blemishes, the more bumps and bounce. Excellent handling in corners without sidewalls scraping for grip, and precise steering response takes you right there. The ’70s icon would stumble.
Challenger puts a lot of pressure on the Chevy Camaro to be as energetic yet as civil when it bows-now not until next February.
Nice touches include leather seats with suede inserts that keep butt and back planted in aggressive motoring, power plugs in the dash and under the center armrest, cell phone/iPod holder next to the cupholders in the console, and good trunk space, which can expand into the cabin when you lower rear seat backsif front seats are far enough forward.
Gripes include sideview mirrors that are small to reduce wind noise, but so small they reduce side vision as well. And wide rear roof pillars obstruct the view when backing out of the lot. Getting folks in back is a process: Fiddle to slide front seats forward to create as aisle that’s blocked by safety belts that grab and hold on. And, if do you manage to get in back, there’s no place to put your legs.
When not on eBay, SRT8 starts at $37,320. Only options are power sunroof at $950, navigation added to the MyGig multimedia system at $890 and a switch from all-season to summer performance radials for $50.
Fast, fun, fashionable and, as witnessed, a car that brings folks closer to God-even if only for a photo op.