2010 Dodge Challenger
2010 Dodge Challenger Expert Review:Autoblog
This isn't our first sampling of the reborn Dodge Challenger. We've driven the SE, R/T and SRT8 variants before. However, this time it's different. We've secured a Challenger SRT-8 with a six-speed manual transmission – and it's a whole different breed of bull.
The six-speed-equipped Dodge Challenger SRT8 drives exactly as it looks. Unlike the countless poseurs promising handling with oversize tires, performance with monstrous exhaust pipes, or luxury with overstuffed cabins, the Challenger SRT8 delivers only what its exterior suggests – a mountain of machismo-infused muscle-car entertainment.
We had a week with Dodge's tribute to testosterone, and it's one we won't soon forget. Contrary to its automatic-equipped siblings, the manual gearbox transforms the SRT8 from merely entertaining to positively supernatural. Make the jump to find out why this husky red coupe had us shaving twice daily.
Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
We're all quite familiar with the Challenger SRT8. Introduced in 2008, it exists as 4,140 pounds of old-fashioned American muscle. Styled after the hot-rod E-body Dodge coupe from the Seventies, the Dodge Challenger is arguably the most accurate retro-styled representation in its class, followed close by the Chevrolet Camaro and redesigned Ford Mustang.
The top-of-the-line variant parked in our driveway is the SRT8 model – differentiated by its big engine, big brakes, big wheels, sport suspension tuning, racy interior and a host of other improvements. Best of all, and unavailable in the 2008 model year, our 2009 SRT8 is fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox connected to a pistol-styled shifter.
Seemingly fished dripping wet from a vat of bright red paint (Dodge calls it "TorRed"), more than a year after its introduction, the SRT8 still managed to generate an outlandish amount of attention on public roads – easily the most this author has experienced in a vehicle costing less than $100,000. Like a plus-sized red seductress, the unique Challenger drew stares and smiles at gas stations, mall parking lots, soccer fields and trundling along on the highway. Little kids begged to sit behind the wheel and dream (while their fathers simply asked for joy-rides, which we happily obliged). One afternoon after a thorough washing, there was a knock on our front door. Two strangers had been driving by in their pickup and the Challenger had caught their eye. Mesmerized, they came by to ask for a closer look.
In all its masterfully-styled manifestation, those retro-lines do become an obstacle from the driver's seat. The view from the big-man's chair is of an expansive hood, reminiscent of those "infinity pools" that disappear somewhere over the horizon. It is absolutely impossible to tell were the faux carbon fiber-striped sheet metal ends, or where the front wheels are. With its ocean liner turning radius, you get used to backing up – a lot. As expected, the view rearward isn't any better through the small back window or small side mirrors (the SRT8 is a great candidate for a standard back-up camera, but it's still better than the pony car from Chevrolet). Rounding out the poor visibility Triple Crown, the C-pillars are thick enough to support the roof over the South Portico at the White House. Sight-limited, and much to the admonishment of driving instructors everywhere, defensive driving is replaced by offensive "point-and-shoot" maneuvering. It becomes second nature.
However, the Challenger is as much about horsepower as it is about styling.
Under the hood of this range-topping SRT8 is a 6.1-liter V8 rated at 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. With a two-ton curb weight, the big coupe isn't exactly a lightweight, but the powerplant will send it past 60 mph in less than five seconds. And the six-speed manual makes all the difference.
Bolted to the rear end of the supersized HEMI is a Tremec TR-6060 gearbox. Manufactured by Transmission Technologies Corporation, the main case, extension housing and clutch housing are all constructed of aluminum alloy. The six-speed features triple cone synchronizers in first and second gears and dual cone synchronizers for third through sixth gears. The clutch is a twin-disc design manufactured by ZF-Sachs. Developed for low pedal effort and long service life, it's fitted with solenoids for a fuel-saving (and frustrating) one-to-four skip-shift and reverse inhibit features. The transmission is rated to handle up to 600 lb-ft of torque, which is more than enough for the stock 6.1-liter V8. A sturdy transmission with short solid throws, the Tremec TR-6060 is also used in the Dodge Viper. Interestingly enough, it is the same basic gearbox of choice for the Chevrolet Camaro SS and Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 – although each packs a unique set of gear ratios.
The manual transmission also comes with Hill Start Assist (HSA) as standard equipment. Working electronically, the system mechanically holds the brake for three seconds if the vehicle is on a hill so the driver doesn't have to play footsie with the pedals to keep the Challenger from rolling backwards. It's completely unobtrusive and works very well. Additionally, the six-speed manual variant is also fitted with a unique exhaust utilizing two low-restriction bottle resonators instead of the single under floor muffler – the sound coming out the back is NASCAR perfection.
We've driven the slushbox-equipped SRT8 on both the street and track. While that variant delivers most of what it promises, the manual gearbox completely transforms this bear from Teddy to Grizzly. Stick-shift junkies will tell you they like manual control – the ability to downshift and engine brake when most automatics simply coast. They like the ability to run the engine to redline, and hold it there, when most automatics simply shift up. As manual transmissions are slowly replaced by quicker (and more efficient) automatics, we welcome Dodge's generosity to still allow us manual addicts the ability to control a whopping 6.1-liters of gasoline-fed HEMI explosion with the grip of our right hand.
Sitting behind the wheel with the V8 gurgling in a smooth idle, the clutch under our left foot is nicely weighed. The gearbox, complete with short-throw shifter, is pleasantly mechanical in action. Some call it a bit clunky. We think "substantial" is a better adjective. Nevertheless, short of that maddening one-to-four skip-shift, we never missed a shift.
Launching the SRT8 is easy – preventing wheelspin is not. Imitating a dedicated drift series race car, the Challenger delightfully lights up its rear tires with very little provocation. Keep the standard traction control engaged and you'll enjoy much improved tire life – and happier neighbors. The overall gearing is taller than we would prefer. In fact, both fifth and six gears are only useful for squeezing miles out of the tank as the acceleration from normal speeds in those gears is embarrassingly slow. Our long-distance trip in the SRT8 was canceled, so we were stuck hand-calculating two tanks of premium fuel based on mostly city driving (13.64 and 14.06 mpg). We obviously had some fun behind the wheel.
Peeking through the 20-inch forged wheels (wearing 245/45R20 rubber) are upsized bright-red Brembo multi-piston brakes. The mechanical aspects of the system are exemplary, but the pedal feel isn't what we expected. We have a lot of experience with race-bred Brembo systems – they're typically firm underfoot and easy to modulate. These were soft under initial application, and then grabbed harder with more pedal travel. After a few days, we were completely used to it, but the uninitiated should be warned.
When compared to the Challenger's natural enemies from Chevy and Ford, the Dodge often finishes last in performance competitions. In this niche, the others are shorter, lighter and have smaller wheelbases giving both a distinct advantage on a road circuit. Tossing the SRT8 around, the body roll and limited outward visibility spell D-I-S-C-O-N-N-E-C-T to the driver. Dancing is not the Challenger's talent. However, finishing last among a trio of well-honed athletes is nothing to snicker at. The way we see it, the typical SRT8 buyer wouldn't pick the Ford or GM product anyway. Remember, this is a childhood dream, a weekend toy, a reward for success. It's an ego car above all else.
Driving around town, the red SRT8 is big, loud, pompous and ostentatious, and decidedly more fun during the day when others are watching. Cruise around at part throttle in second gear around 3,000 rpm... and then unsuspectingly stab your right foot to the floor. The HEMI jumps to life as the two polished bazookas under the back bumper let out a howl while you uncontrollably grunt like Tim Allen performing a power-tool demonstration. Everyone within earshot cranes their necks to pinpoint the drumfire as you screech away in a blur. Mission accomplished.
Of course, the Dodge Challenger SRT-8 is far from perfect. The driver seat's inability to fold forward made a week of family-transporting a teeth-gritting experience – everyone had to go in/out on the passenger side (and we had a child seat back there). Once squeezed in, the rear seats are small and uncomfortable considering the overall size of the vehicle (yet the trunk is huge). The interior lighting is dismal, the upgraded audio system is merely average and the manual climate control is simply unexpected on a vehicle in this price bracket.
The Dodge Challenger SRT8 is hardly a smart financial purchase (in all honesty, the Challenger R/T offers the best performance for the dollar). It's far from the optimal commuter car, its fuel efficiency borders on embarrassing and it's a literal pain in the neck to maneuver in parking lots.
So, why do we like it so much?
Because the Challenger SRT8 secretes masculinity. From its big and brawny stature to its angry exhaust note, there isn't a molecule of femininity to be found in this testosterone-dripping Dodge. Spend time in the driver's seat and you'll have to double-up on antiperspirant, shave both morning and night, and find yourself wearing dirt-laden baseball caps to dinner. Unlike those all-too-common wannabe muscle cars with slushbox transmissions, the engaging six-speed SRT8 is a man's car.
And, like us, the guy who craves this involving Dodge in his well-swept garage really doesn't care about passenger space. He doesn't care if he has to twist his wrist to change the fan speed, how much gas it consumes, or what's outside the rear window when he backs up.
This bright red beast has nothing to do with rational thought – it screams insanity. Recalling Dukes of Hazzard glory, this thing is fast, loud and positively garish. It tickles childhood memories of taping bottle rockets to the top of Hot Wheels cars just to watch them zoom down the street and blow up with a bang. As practical family transportation, the Dodge Challenger SRT8 six-speed is entirely wrong. But as a vial of kick-ass adrenalin, it remains unequaled.
Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
The new modern classic musclecar is a home run, in spite of the times.
After a hiatus of more than 30 years the Dodge Challenger returned as a new model for 2008. And Chrysler's biggest styling hit since the PT Cruiser promptly sold out. For 2009, the Challenger lineup is expanded to three models: the new SE, the new R/T, and the high-performance SRT8.
Challenger is all about the in-your-face attitude that's a Dodge hallmark: big car, big presence, big power. Style rules, yet asks few compromises. Some will opine about the timing of the Dodge musclecar's return, while others will note Chicken Little was last seen impaled in a Viper grille somewhere. Much as happens with its principal competitor, Ford's Mustang, each version of the Challenger will appeal to a different buyer.
SE owners will be swayed by the look, a desire to be seen in something more visually amusing than the average V6 sedan or big coupe, and using it every day. SE comes with a 250-hp 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic EPA-rated 18/25.
R/T buyers may be older and wanting to replace the Challenger they lusted after in younger days; some will choose the new one over a far-more-expensive auction car that goes like stink but needs considerable acreage to stop or change directions. Others still, not content to leave anything alone, will buy the R/T as the basis for their next hot rod and blow all the money saved on an SRT8 on more power, accessories, and modifications. The R/T can be used as a daily driver, at least for shorter distances and fuel consumption, and will compete with the Mustang GT, over which it has both advantages and disadvantages. Challenger R/T runs a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 rated at 370 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque with the standard five-speed automatic; power increases to 375 hp and 404 pound-feet of torque on premium fuel with the optional six-speed manual/Track Pak group. The Hemi uses a multiple displacement feature that switches off cylinders to save fuel, but EPA ratings are 16/23 mpg with the automatic and 15/23 mpg with the six-speed manual.
SRT8 buyers want the ultimate performance model. The SRT8 is fast, stable and ready to go to any track, Dodge's fastest car this side of the twice-the-price Viper. Yet it's compliant and controlled just enough that it won't beat you up on daily chores or weekend cruises. At $10/pound, you'll enjoy it a lot longer than that sirloin on your barbecue. Challenger SRT8 comes with a 425-hp 6.1-liter Hemi (EPA 13/19 mpg), the same transmission options as the R/T, big Brembo brakes, the firmest suspension; and a limited-slip rear differential.
The Challenger is a big two-door, but expect it to face some competition from Pontiac's G8 GT, a four-door sedan. Not Challenger-distinctive in appearance, it does offer the same rumbling V8, rear-drive musclecar recipe (without a manual gearbox option), and again like the Challenger, good independent suspension and brakes for about the same price as an R/T.
Challenger features an entirely new body, but many of its parts, systems and structures are shared with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger (and Magnum). If you can't locate a Challenger to test drive before ordering, driving Chargers will give a good indication of the relative differences between engines. With the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger having proven their reliability, the potential for new-car bugs and quirks should be significantly lower in the Challenger than in most new cars.
The 2009 Dodge Challenger is available in three models, the economy-oriented SE, the more sporting R/T, and the bruiser SRT8. (All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices and do not include the $675 destination charge.)
Challenger SE ($21,320) comes with a 250-hp 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic. It comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, 60/40 split-folding rear bench, tilt/telescoping steering column, cruise control, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 four-speaker stereo, visor vanity mirrors, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Options include leather upholstery, eight-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, moonroof, disc changer and navigation with real-time traffic, 276-watt Boston Acoustics audio system, 18-inch aluminum wheels, compact spare tire, ABS and electronic stability control and traction control.
Challenger R/T ($29,320) features a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 rated at 370 horsepower and 398 lb-ft of torque with a five-speed automatic. R/T adds heated outside mirrors, body-colored rear spoiler and mirrors, metal fuel filler door, leather-wrapped wheel and shifter, illuminated visor mirrors, dual chromed rectangular exhaust pipes, and fog lamps. Mechanical upgrades to accompany the added power include 18-inch aluminum wheels and wider tires, stability control, bigger antilock brakes, and firmer suspension. Options include leather upholstery, navigation system, 368-watt Boston Acoustics audio system, bi-xenon headlamps, 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, hood-into-fender stripes and functional hood scoops, keyless go, remote start, compact spare tire, HomeLink, a trip computer with performance pages (128 functions total), and steering-wheel audio/data controls. The Track Pak ($995) adds a six-speed manual gearbox with twin-disc clutch and pistol-grip shifter, limited-slip differential, load-leveling shocks, performance steering, hill-start assist, bright pedal covers and different mufflers.
Challenger SRT8 ($39,320) has a 425-hp 6.1-liter Hemi V8, Brembo brakes, a special suspension, and a limited-slip differential. Many bits optional on the R/T are standard here, including a better audio system, bi-xenon headlamps, trip/data computer, leather, keyless go, and Sirius satellite radio. The SRT8 rear spoiler is flat black, the front spoiler deeper and ducted for brake cooling, hood scoops are functional, the fuel filler is polished aluminum, and 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and heated sport seats are standard. Options are the Track Pak, 522-watt 13-speaker Kicker audio system, navigation, hood stripes, remote start, and high-performance staggered-size tires.
Safety features on all Challengers include dual frontal airbags and side curtain airbags front and rear. Antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control and traction control are available on the SE and standard on R/T and SRT8.
The Challenger is the third in Chrysler's triple-play of styling hits, following the retro-look PT Cruiser and the Chrysler 300/Dodge Magnum/Charger from which it's derived. Get one early (the 2008s were sold out before the 2009 was announced) and it will make your day longer because everyone wants to drool over it and quiz you: 'Is this the new Challenger?' Duh. 'Is it fast?' Duh again. 'Can I drive it?' Duh, no.
Although it's quite faithful to the 1970-vintage Challenger that powered its creation, the current Challenger avoids coming across as a retro car or a new car; it's the sort of middle ground that may better stand the test of time. It was unanimously praised by on-lookers as a cool-looking car and is as faithful to the original as has been done in recent years.
Part of the Challenger's appeal comes from its commanding presence; it's a big car. Just four inches shorter than the Charger sedan but wider and lower, it's also just five inches shorter and two inches narrower than Dodge's big Grand Caravan box and fills the average garage slot. The Challenger is also about 10 inches longer than the Ford Mustang, its closest competitor until the Chevrolet Camaro returns.
Unlike most new cars, the maximum width is carried well out to the ends resulting in a broad, menacing car. The very wide, horizontal grille, spoilers and tail lamps accentuate the width, as does a turret-like roof and window treatment, and the haunches over the rear wheels where the roof fairs into the trunk and the character line kicks up. The proportions all seem just right, from the carrier-deck expanse of flat hood larger than most modern pickups, to the foot-high side glass and dark lower body trim, and into the massive rear roof pillars.
The major lines are only part of the equation, with details just as well executed. The four round headlamps and deeply inset grille of the original are still there, though now the inside lights are turn signals and the outer pair the headlamps. Where signals rode below the bumper on the '70 the new one has fog lamps, and careful sculpting has maintained the classic look without destroying aerodynamic efficiency.
From the side, the SRT8's 20-inch wheels frame bright red brake calipers and slotted discs and fill large fender openings that are creased along the edges. Hood scoops carry Hemi badges on V8 cars and are functional in that cool air goes in or warm air vents to atmosphere, but they do not feed cold air straight into the engine; the ducts in the spoiler direct cooling air to the front brakes and small winglets at the front wheel openings better define airflow. The fixed side rear windows do not allow the full open hardtop of the original with its frameless doors but in a nod to that look Dodge kept the pillars behind the glass so they aren't so obvious. A bright fuel filler cap on R/T and SRT8 finishes off the driver's side. The door handles look retro and stylish, but they're hard to grab.
Out back, a full-width panel of red lights with a pair of backup lights wedged in the middle of it, along with chrome DODGE lettering in a font right out of 'That '70s Show.' While only the outer pairs of bulbs light for brake and turn functions, the entire width is used for tail lights. On SRT8 the trunk spoiler is a flat black low-profile piece like that on the original T/A, and of course V8 cars have dual chrome rectangular exhaust outlets in the lower bumper.
Paintwork on the cars we saw was very good, as it must be, given the vast surfaces lacking any ornamentation or style lines. The paint feels smooth to the touch and looks great. But, at least in V8 form, the Challenger is a muscle car that many insist requires stripes, so plenty of wallpaper is optional if you don't want to paint your own.
The interior harkens back to the muscle car era in that many muscle cars were born of generic sedans and had similar interiors, and so too does the Challenger mimic recent Dodge and Chrysler sedans. It appears functional and well put together, yet has the least emotional impact of any aspect of the car.
To preserve the ensconced feeling the headliner is a dark material; in fact almost everything is dark. On the SRT8 we tested the monotony is broken with chrome highlights on door handles, control knobs and gauge bezels, light-faced instruments, semi-glossy carbon-fiber-look center panel trim, a big chrome band around the shifter that bounced sun glare all over, and dark orange leather stripes across the front seat backrests. Everything else inside, seats, carpet, trim, was dark.
While a race-inspired interior is one of the SRT division's major criteria, the primary inspiration here is manifested in the front seats. The contrast-stitched, heavily bolstered buckets in the SRT8 with their leather outers and velour inserts do an excellent job of keeping you in place. However, unlike many so-called sport seats these do not feel overly firm: The driver lumbar can tune out some squish in the backrest. Nor are they confining: Big bodies are more prone to be comfortable here than in a BMW or Infiniti sport seat. Front-seat headrests are adjustable for height only and the seatbelt loop goes with it to avoid belt chafing.
Although the pillars are on the wide side, you sit far enough away from the windshield to avoid forward blind spots. With the seat positioned low to the glass line, you can see most of the hood. The view to the rear is fairly good, too, because the side glass goes well back and the rear window's as big as the mirror view. However, the wide rear pillars block your view when backing out of parking spots. We'd prefer wider rearview mirrors to show more traffic behind and to the sides. Here, the Mustang has it over the Challenger.
A manual tilt/telescope steering column allows plenty of adjustment and a view of the instruments but its overly generous diameter is more appropriate for a small power yacht than a sporty car. The fingertip button arrangement is good.
Lights and the trunk release are to the left on the dash, and the single stalk on the left shows evidence of Dodge's old relationship with Mercedes: It has auto-blink signals (one touch gives 3 blinks) and high beams/flash-to-pass, plus wash/wipe controls that require you to take your hand off the wheel to activate them. Cruise control is on a smaller stalk to lower right.
Gauges include fuel on the left, which descends progressively more quickly as the tank is consumed, tachometer, speedometer (140, 160, 180 mph on SE, R/T, SRT8 respectively) and numbered coolant temperature. On the SRT8 these are light-faced with dark numbers and blue-green illumination that matches the various digital displays.
Standard on SRT8 and available on R/T is a message center in the tachometer that does the display work for 128 functions from radio station to performance data; you can do your own 0-60, 1/8-mile, ¼-mile, braking distance and lateral acceleration. It does fuel economy, too, but you don't need that reminder.
Also available on some models is keyless go, a no-ignition-switch setup that uses a simple pushbutton to start the car. However, unlike every other similar system we've tried the Challenger does not have a lock/unlock touch surface outside, so you still have to use the key remote to lock or unlock the doors, essentially defeating any convenience aspect.
Below the center vents is the audio/navigation syste.
The Challenger is a big, rear-wheel-drive car and feels like it. Yet the further up the power and performance scale you go, the lighter it seems to feel. You won't mistake it for driving a Mustang, it's too soon to tell about the Camaro, and other 2+2 two-doors in a similar price range, such as a BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G37, or Audi A5 aren't going to be cross-shopped because they're different animals. And it's okay to think of the Challenger SRT8 an animal: A well-behaved animal, but always ready to flex its muscles on the prowl for prey.
The Challenger SE drives a lot like the Charger because the Challenger is based on the Charger with just four inches taken out between the front and rear wheels. There's enough oomph to keep up with brisk traffic, though probably not a Mustang V6 automatic. The Challenger SE comes only with a four-speed automatic. As much as the engine and weight, the automatic is one reason the SE rates only 2-3 mpg better on the EPA City cycle than the R/T models with 50 percent more power. If you seek distinct appearance with space for the family on a budget the SE will do, but take note it won't be long before somebody in a Mustang ponies up as a challenger to your Challenger.
The next step is the Challenger R/T. We think the extra $9000 above an SE will have more effect on sales than gas mileage. The R/T features a Hemi V8 producing 371 to 376 horsepower, along with a firmer suspension, bigger brakes and tires, and a choice of a hefty-shifting six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. One could arguably have the most fun with the R/T. There's no need to park it in the winter and no miserable ride just because the roads are bad. The R/T goes quite well. Dodge quotes a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds with the new six-speed manual. That power comes on strong, but we found it runs out quickly, as the redline is only 5700 rpm. That means drivers choosing the manual will have to do plenty of shifting during performance maneuvers. Sixth gear doesn't do much on the track or around town. It's strictly a highway gear meant for fuel economy; in sixth, the R/T cruises like a pussy cat, churning out 1800 rpm at 80 mph. We think the R/T will be the most popular model. The $10,000 saved versus an SRT8 would buy brake/suspension/tire upgrades to your preference and specification, or a serious engine upgrade that would keep you well ahead of any Dodge not labeled Viper.
Stacked up against a Mustang GT500 with a six-speed manual, the SRT8 with its automatic transmission is just slightly slower, although you can't call 0-60 in the high 4s and a 13-second quarter-mile 'slow' in production $40,000 cars. Against a lower-priced Mustang GT, the SRT8 is faster, suggesting that in acceleration bang-for-the-buck you get what you pay for. Against a Charger SRT8 the Challenger is just marginally quicker, and the rear seat of a slope-roof Charger is not significantly more comfortable than the Challenger's.
It's easy to make an SRT8 go fast, you just stand on the gas and point it where you want it to go. Traction control does a very good job of turning controlled wheelspin into thrust and is easier than launching most high-performance manual transmissions; there's a solid feel to quick upshifts. It does not make manual downshifts as fast, but it will downshift into first gear. At the other end of the straightaway the SRT8's big brakes do a commendable job of slowing the pace, matching the GT500 and just a bit off some benchmark lighter coupes; there is a lot of travel in the brake pedal so initial bite might not be what you expect but keep pushing and you'll stop quickly.
When cruising, the Challenger is civilized. There is authority in the exhaust note but it doesn't sound like authority grabbed the bullhorn until you get into the gas and are rewarded with a satisfying rumble that becomes more howl as it winds up; manual gearbox cars use different mufflers and have a deeper tone. The automatic delivers crisp-not-jarring upshifts and gets out of first gear in a hurry unless you are hard on the gas. It will downshift once, or again, if you give it the boot.
The Challenger is too big and heavy to merit any consideration as a sports car and isn't ideal for tossing around on tight racetracks or mountain roads. However, it is close to surprising (if you didn't know the SRT division) how well the SRT8 copes with the weightand doesn't feel like the big, nose-heavy car it is. Body roll is considerable, but grip from the optional Goodyear F1 Supercar tires is substantial and the car is surprisingly well balanced in turns. In fact, it's quite easy to steer the SRT8 with the rear wheels or make it drift. That speaks well to the job Dodge and SRT did with the suspension geometry. The R/T model, by comparison, acts very much the same way, but its reactions are a bit slower. Power isn't as sudden, steering isn't as sharp, the brakes are as strong, and the weight doesn't transfer as quickly. It is possible to upset both versions, but you really have to be working at it or totally inattentive. Driven smoothly you will rarely be reigned in by the stability control, and for those times and tracks that stability control can be a detriment to advanced drivers, it can be completely turned off on manual transmission cars.
Many of the reasons the SRT8 displays such performance (among them the lightweight forged aluminum wheels, aluminum-intensive independent suspension all around, good spring and shock calibrations) also contribute to a decent ride. The SRT8 is smooth and quiet enough to cover long distances and deals well with even marginal roads; on sheet-flat roads it won't enjoy a significant advantage over the Mustang's solid rear axle, but as the surface gets rougher the more balanced Challenger should cope better even though it's heavier. The Challenger's mass becomes most apparent under heavy braking on a rippled road, a place many lesser-tuned lighter cars have the same issue.
Whether it's amplified by the oversize steering wheel or just part of the tuning like the long-travel brake pedal, the steering feel, even in the SRT8 with its performance-tuned steering, isn't as precise as the Mustang's. The steering is quick enough, with less than three turns lock-to-lock, yet it feels like shuffling the bottom third of the wheel through your hands is the most effective at making good time because you don't get a lot of feedback and this way are more inclined to make the minor corrections the car likes rather than yanking the big wheel too far. Maneuverability at low speeds is par for a big car.
On a fuel economy basis the SE is the only one you'd want to use for a commuter car, but until they get more popular you'll be an unintentional target as people zero in for a closer look. The others are better suited to local romps, weekend or special occasion drives, be it on a track, the street, or both.
One of the biggest advances over the original Challenger's era has been in lighting, and the SRT8's bi-xenon headlights allow it to be safely driven at freeway speeds or along rural highways in no-moon darkness. And with a bit of German in the bloodlines, the fog lights can be used without the headlights, at least where it's legal to light up the road instead of the fog.
Finally, with aerodynamics ever-more-frequently dictating shape and wind patterns, it was refreshing to find the new Challenger can comfortably be driven windows down without buffeting the occupants or thundering their ears. Admit it, at least part of the reason you buy one will be to be seen.
The 2009 Dodge Challenger boasts a distinctive look that attracts a lot of attention and positive comments. The V6-powered Challenger SE comes with a moderate price, while the V8-powered R/T is a good performance value. The SRT8 is the ultimate Challenger. Regardless, the Challenger avoids the compromised rear seat and trunk of most coupes because of its size, and carries its bulk well on the road. In Hemi Orange Pearl you won't own the road but it will feel like you do.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report from Los Angeles, with correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from New Jersey.
Dodge Challenger SE ($21,320); R/T ($29,320); SRT8 ($39,320).
Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
high-performance tires ($50).
Dodge Challenger SRT8 ($39,320).
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