As if I didn’t already know I was in a special car, I was about 30 seconds out of the parking lot when a roadside workman exclaimed, “Son of a bitch!” Had I run over his foot? No, he was reacting as if he had seen a ghost. In fact, he had. I was driving a 2008 Dodge Challenger, designed after the classic muscle car. Similarly extreme — if less profane — reactions would continue throughout my day of testing the rolling spectacle around Pasadena, Calif.
The Challenger is arriving a few years too late to meet its true potential in the American market, but it’s a capable, livable car that I enjoyed the heck out of simply for what it is.
Now, I’d hate for you to desert this review, but I’m duty-bound to tell you that the 2008 models are already sold out. If you want a 2009 model, which will come this fall, get in line now. You’ll have your pick of the lower-priced and lesser-powered Challenger SE and R/T as well as the SRT8. The 2008 model year’s 6,400 cars come only in the ultimate-performance SRT8 trim level.
Exterior & Styling
If Dodge had it to do over again, the company probably wouldn’t have given the Charger name to the four-door sedan on whose platform the Challenger is based. The uproar among nostalgists — and other people with nothing else to do — was predictable because the new Charger had nothing to do with the original one, which was also an iconic late-60s two-door muscle car. It didn’t look like the original Charger; it looked like many other current Dodges — unmistakable and in your face. Though I like that car, I must say that the one copy Dodge had on hand to drive at Willow Springs Raceway along with the Challengers looked a little … overdone in comparison.
Unlike the Charger, the Challenger is very much a Challenger — unmistakably so. Naturally, there are people out there who say it looks too much like the old one, and others who say not enough. If I worked at Dodge, I suppose I’d have to listen to this and bite my tongue. I do not, so I’ll say it: Shut up already.
The Challenger SRT8 looks terrific in person — I might even go so far as to say breathtaking, especially in the metal-flake black paint. The presence that wowed people at the auto shows has carried over to the street. Where I think the Challenger exceeds the current Ford Mustang — its closest competitor and itself a reworking of a 1960s design — is in the 360-degree test. The current Mustang also stunned showgoers when it made its debut, but when you walk around it, the rear end is comparatively uninspiring. The Challenger is a winner from every angle.
Each color brings out different elements of the car’s exterior. For example, in the orange and silver models, the black rocker panels and bumper extensions make the car appear to ride higher than it does, recalling the classic Challenger. The black one looks lower and sleeker. If Dodge had only three colors to offer, I think it chose the right ones. (I especially think so having seen the blue paint on the SE trim level at the auto show. Eech. Maybe it’s better in natural light.)
From the panel gaps to the way the rectangular tailpipes fit into the bumper cutouts, it looks like Dodge has cut few, if any, corners.
Going & Stopping
The nostalgia doesn’t end with the name and design. Under the hood lurks a Hemi engine. The term “hemi” refers to hemispherical, which was the shape of the combustion chambers in Dodge’s original, legendary V-8 of the same name. In today’s Hemi the combustion chambers aren’t really hemispherical. Maybe semihemispherical, but “That thing got a Semihemi?” doesn’t have quite the same marketing appeal.
No matter the details. What matters is that the modern Hemi is a powerful, smooth V-8. Being an SRT8, this Challenger has the largest of the Hemis — a 6.1-liter that drives the rear wheels with 425 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 420 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. The more common version of this power plant is a 5.7-liter that’s offered in everything from the Chrysler 300 to the Dodge Ram pickup. Where that version has gas-saving cylinder deactivation, the larger one doesn’t. The result is disproportionately lower EPA fuel economy of 13/18 mpg city/highway and a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax, versus the smaller Hemi’s tax-free 15/23 mpg (as rated in the Charger R/T).
The Challenger blasts its way to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds — that’s plenty quick for any car, and especially so for a large, two-ton hulk. The five-speed automatic transmission handles the duty well, shifting efficiently when under the gun and fading into the background under more gentle acceleration. Unfortunately, the same is true of the exhaust note. Tromp on the pedal and you get the fury of the old big blocks — a blat blat blat blat you seldom hear anymore. Given the current fuel crisis, I suggest it’s even endangered. The bummer is that the rumble also subsides under normal acceleration. I suppose it cuts down on long-term fatigue, but there’s something to be said for the restrained growl of a Mustang GT, even at idle. I’m not asking for volume, mind you. It’s about a signature tone. You can tell when a GT has pulled up next to you, and you like it.
Purists are sure to bemoan the standard automatic transmission, and I’d harp on it too were it not for Dodge’s promise to offer a six-speed manual in V-8 Challengers in 2009 (something it never did for the other SRT8s from Dodge, Chrysler or Jeep). For the time being, 2008 owners will have to settle for the AutoStick clutchless-manual mode, which lets you shift sequentially using the gear selector. There are no shift paddles on the steering wheel.
I grew up driving huge American cars with V-8 engines and automatic transmissions, so I was in my element in the Challenger. What I miss is the way the front end would rise when the old cars lurched off the line. Technically that’s a bad thing; you don’t want your directional wheels lightening up. To that end, Dodge designers and engineers put no small effort into the car’s aerodynamics to keep it planted at higher speeds, too. The prominent black chin spoiler exists to keep the Challenger from getting too light on its feet. Rising hoods and rear-end squat are considered failings, but I do miss the drama.
The Challenger’s sophisticated independent suspension with Bilstein-brand shock absorbers and sport tuning bring 21st-century dynamics to an old nameplate. It doesn’t keep the car’s weight perfectly flat in aggressive cornering, but body roll is what I’d deem appropriate. Dodge set journalists loose in Challengers on California’s Willow Springs Raceway, where the cars proved reasonably agile and capable in situations more intense than any owner is likely to encounter. The weight distribution is decent, with understeer the default, and the Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer-performance tires are a good match. The standard tires are all-seasons rated P245/45ZR20, front and rear. The summer tires are the same size in front and wider in the rear, at P255/45ZR20. They’re a mere $50 option, but come replacement time the same models will cost you $263 apiece, according to TireRack.com. Even the all-seasons are $221. Welcome to the world of 20-inch wheels.
The car’s rear end remained in control, thanks in part to the standard limited-slip differential and the multilink rear suspension. This is an advantage over the Mustang, which has a non-independent design. In terms of handling, I’m actually pretty impressed with the Mustang’s performance, but you can’t really argue with the Challenger’s more sophisticated and expensive approach. Independent arrangements also tend to do a better job isolating the cabin from bumps. Overall the ride quality and feel is similar to other SRT8s on this platform. The ride is firm, and it stands out more now than it might have in the past because so many cars deliver unmitigated performance without sacrificing much in terms of ride quality (though many of them employ adaptive suspensions). The SRT8 is certainly livable. Bear in mind that the upcoming lower trim levels will ride softer by design.
The steering could be better. Under the forces of track driving, it performed well enough and had a decent level of power assist, but in normal circumstances I found it a bit ponderous and deficient in steering feedback. Given low-series tires and rear-wheel drive, I expect more road feel. As helpful as it was to test the car’s limits and know that it’s safe, this isn’t the kind of car I’d choose for driving on a racetrack. Despite the theoretical superiority of the Challenger’s rear end, to me the Mustang feels more like it was built as a sports car on a sporty platform. The Challenger’s foundation started its life underpinning family cars. The engineers have made the best of it, but some things can’t be overcome.
Fortunately, weight isn’t one of them. The standard antilock brakes with Brembo four-piston calipers and large discs are able to halt the hulk in less than 110 feet from 60 mph, according to Dodge. That said, I’m not completely satisfied with them. Yes, they do the job to keep you safe, but the pedal feel is so-so and it’s hard to modulate. This is a chronic problem with Chrysler/Dodge full-size cars, and there’s definite improvement in this system, but it’s not what it should be — especially in a performance version.
To be perfectly clear, the SRT8 version of this car does things many, many cars — not the least of which being its late-60s predecessors and their competitors — can’t. For all the romanticism, the reality of classic muscle cars is that they did their best work when the steering wheel was in the center position. They specialized in looking and sounding good while sprinting to highway speeds — be they on the highway or not.
The interior, too, improves upon the earlier SRT8 models, but it’s really only by a bit. Exclusive to SRT8 cars, the front seats are really nice: well bolstered and fitted with suedelike inserts to keep you in place during aggressive maneuvers, yet comfortable enough for day-to-day driving. The orange stripe and SRT logos are nice touches, as is the faux suede on the door panels. An homage to the classic, this Challenger has a black ceiling liner made of a nice, woven material rather than the dreaded mouse fur.
The tilt and telescoping adjustments are a must, but I otherwise don’t like the steering wheel; it’s too large in diameter, too thin at the rim and has too many spokes. The fake metal really has to go — especially from the steering wheel. A nice aspect is the woven leather on the upper segment, which also appears on the shift knob and door handle. It recalls carbon fiber; sadly, the patterned bezels on the center console aren’t as successful. Still, it’s better than faux metal.
Though it’s nice to have different gauges than the Charger, the shapes and sizes are almost identical throughout the car. The materials quality is a mix, with surfaces that are low-gloss and soft to the touch yet somehow uninspiring. The big plastic shoulder belt loops attached to the head restraints look like they’re classics, too, and in this case that’s not a compliment. The Chrysler Group has acknowledged falling behind the curve in interior quality, so improvements are likely to come. I’m not seeing them here, though, and they’re not the kind of things that are easily slipped in between model years.
Backseat & View
Coupes don’t make getting into the backseat easy, but at least this one’s relatively big once you get there. The center seat isn’t for everyone; it’s raised and the center floor hump is literally about a foot high. The outboard seats, though, are workable for adults, especially if the front occupants spare you some legroom. The fixed head restraints aren’t the best approach, though. They’re a decent height to protect most adults, but because they don’t collapse they further obstruct the driver’s rear view, which is already compromised by a huge C-pillar. For that matter, the C-pillars flank the rear passengers’ heads, so it feels like a cave. If you’re someone who gets carsick if you don’t have a window nearby, the Challenger’s backseat is a vomitorium waiting to happen.
As of this report, the Challenger has not been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Along with the required airbags come standard side curtains that protect front and rear occupants in side impacts. The standard antilock brakes include brake assist. An electronic stability system specially calibrated for SRT comes standard and includes all-speed traction control.
Making the backseat accommodating steals some space from the trunk, but fortunately the car is large enough to still provide more than 16 cubic feet. Another plus, the backseat is split 60/40 and folds forward to extend the cargo area. This might seem mundane, but I’m constantly surprised by how many full-size cars don’t offer folding seats.
Dodge makes (er, made) ordering easy by loading the SRT8 with features and offering only a few options: a moonroof, the aforementioned all-season tires and a navigation system with MyGIG music storage and a digital interface for MP3 players. You can see all the standard and optional features by clicking on the buttons above, to the left. Notable standard features include racing stripes, heated power front seats and a CD/DVD-capable six-disc changer with an analog MP3 player input. The xenon headlights are nice to have standard, but their high-beam shutters are among the noisier ones I’ve heard.
Challenger in the Market
There’s no doubt the Challenger’s debut would have been better timed 10 or even five years ago. High fuel prices are no friend of the V-8 engine, and I don’t imagine people who give up their SUVs and trucks will do so for a large two-door sedan, even if it does have a decent-sized trunk.
That the first Challenger happens to be an SRT8 with the model line’s largest V-8 is convenient fodder for environmentalists and Detroit-bashers alike. Make no mistake: We’ve painted ourselves into a corner regarding fuel consumption. We’ve all played a part and we all pay a price. Someday a car like the Challenger might be unfeasible, unwanted or even unlawful. At this point, it’s not. Automakers are still free to build what they want, or — more to the point — what you want. The 2008 has already sold out, and I suspect the Challenger will do at least reasonably well in 2009. Cars are like people; they can succeed on looks alone, and this one has the look. I believe buyers will happily accept a V-6 engine to drive around in a classic, be it a reinterpreted one or not.
We spend a lot of time and effort now poring over mileage specs and new powertrain technology and life-cycle environmental-impact studies for alternative fuels. It’s absolutely necessary; it’s also enough to make your head hurt and your car-loving heart ache. The Challenger hits you in the chest. We Americans will always love cars, but there was an era when Americans mainly loved American cars. Driving the Challenger reminded me of that time, which is pretty impressive when you consider I was 4 years old and don’t actually remember a thing about it. Despite what we hear from many of our own critics — that we’re too tough on American products — no one is happier than we are when the home team scores. Dodge came late to the game but stepped up to the plate and took a mighty swing. The Challenger came squarely off the bat and is climbing, climbing, heading toward the bleachers. Could it beeeeeee? It might beeeeee…
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