2011 Dodge Challenger Expert Review:Autoblog
From the instant the Dodge Challenger hit the scene in 2008, it was apparent that Chrysler had taken a different tack with its retro muscle car than Ford or Chevrolet. Larger, heavier and more comfortable than either the resurrected Camaro or rebodied Mustang, the Challenger was more grand tourer than a red light terror. But with the Pentastar's resurrection comes two new powerplants, both of which make an already solid package even more appealing for those seeking style seasoned with a healthy dose of all-American get-up-and-go.
Along with a suspension that's been spit-polished to provide more feedback and better dynamics, Mopar engineers have plopped a new 3.6-liter V6 and 6.4-liter V8 under the long, squared-off hood of the 2011 Challenger to create the new base SE and top-shelf SRT8 392 models. With the rev-happy six cylinder begging to be flogged and the new V8's voracious appetite for asphalt, both engines drastically alter the big daddy muscle bruiser's personality while offering better fuel economy than their 2010 predecessors. If you've been able to resist plopping yourself behind the wheel of a Challenger so far, your self-control may have finally met its match.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
Unless you happen to bleed Mopar and breathe Hemi, chances are you'll have a hard time telling the 2011 Challenger from its 2010 counterpart. The designers at Dodge didn't exactly go hog wild with a new fascia design, opting instead for subtle tweaks to the vehicle's air dam and iconic duckbill spoiler. Likewise, in base SE trim, the Challenger now wears a new set of 18x7.5-inch wheels, though the rollers still manage to look small on a car with this kind of girth.
Switch to the mighty Challenger SRT8 392, however, and there's no mistaking this coupe for anything other than the top of the heap. For 2011, Dodge is only offering the big-engined Challenger in two color combinations – blue with white stripes or white with blue decorations. Unlike lower-rung cars, the 392 wears a full-body stripe package, with swaths of contrasting color stretching from the lower fascia, up the nose, down the hood, across the roof and all the way back down the rear bumper cover. Those stripes may be an application nightmare, but they make a huge difference in the look of the finished product.
You won't find any faux carbon fiber on this bruiser, and for that we are thankful. Otherwise, only the large, red-numeral 392 badges hanging from both front fenders differentiate this beast from the standard SRT8 behemoth.
Unfortunately, Chrysler didn't see fit to bestow one of the company's revamped and much-improved interiors on the 2011 Challenger. While we never found fault with the simple design of the coupe's dash in the past, the instrument cluster looks downright uninspired compared to the attractive and modern driver-oriented cockpit in the 2011 Charger. Throwing in the brilliant eight-inch touchscreen from the four-door hauler wouldn't hurt our feelings, either.
As serious as the SRT8 392 looks from the outside, this muscle car loses the plot indoors. Dodge has opted to grace each and every one of the 1,492 inaugural editions of the vehicle with a set of white leather seats with blue accents and ridiculous 392 lettering. From the looks of things, Don Johnson had a hand in the buckets' design. The good news is, once you get past the initial cringe of climbing behind the wheel, you don't have to look at the seats again for the duration of your flight.
In SE guise, the Challenger comes from the factory bearing the new corporate 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Bumped to 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque, the six-pot kicks out 55 extra ponies and 18 lb-ft of additional twist compared to the old 3.5-liter V6. Even better, Dodge says all of that added power will come with no fuel economy penalty. The EPA hasn't finished putting the Challenger SE through its paces, but we're told to expect a significant increase in efficiency over the old base car. That means this mega-cruiser should see above the 21 miles per gallon combined of the current 3.5-liter V6.
And what about the new destroyer-of-worlds 6.4-liter V8, you ask? Dodge has managed to lure a blistering 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque from the cast-iron block – substantial improvements over the outgoing SRT8's 425 hp/420 lb-ft. With 10.9:1 compression breathing through aluminum heads, the company says that the new engine doesn't share a single design element with the old 6.1-liter pushrod terror, which may help explain why the 6.4-liter engine delivers 50 lb-ft of torque more than the outgoing lump. As with the V6, the EPA has yet to turn out its fuel economy numbers for the 6.4, but Dodge fully expects to see the engine deliver at least one mpg better both city and highway than the old V8 thanks to tricks like a dual-plane intake and cylinder deactivation in automatic-equipped vehicles. That would put the 392 at around 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. How's that for progress?
Clearly, the biggest news with the 2011 Challenger is its dynamic duo of new engines, but Dodge assures us that just as much work has gone into giving the vehicle's suspension a thrice-over. Up front, the Mopar engineers have blessed the hefty coupe with monotube shocks, new stiffer-rate springs and aggressive bushings, while the rear now wears a five-link setup with what the company calls "roll-steer geometry." Dodge says that the design allows the suspension to independently control both toe and camber fluctuations during cornering, helping to provide a more stable tail-end.
On top of that heap of changes, drivers can look forward to larger sway bars fore and aft and additional negative camber – a full 1.0 degree up front and 1.75 degrees in the rear. All told, the changes are supposed to make the Challenger less roly-poly and more of apex predator. At least that's the theory.
Unfortunately, our time with the new Pentastar V6-equipped Challenger was limited to a quick blast down a fairly straight two-lane, so we can't exactly comment on the vehicle's handling prowess... or lack thereof. We can say with some authority that the new six-pot is an amazing addition to the Challenger line. The engine comes alive at around 4,000 rpm, and while it feels odd to play with a happy-to-rev engine in a car this size, the engine seems to be right at home in its upper octaves. While redline sits at an electronically-limited 6,400 rpm, the V6 feels like it would willingly pull well past that figure. Interestingly enough, unlike the V6 in the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pentastar engine delivers its punch without the same harshness or vibration of its Bowtie rival, delivering its reps in a smooth, dangerously encouraging wave.
As you might expect, the 6.4-liter V8 is an entirely different beast. Dodge was kind enough to give us a few laps around Infineon Raceway in its new range-topping Challenger, and for all of its suspension tweaks, it was clear that this is one car that's still happier on the quarter mile than in Turn 11. As one Dodge official accurately quipped, she's still a big lady. There's simply no getting around this vehicle's 4,170-pound curb weight when equipped with the six-speed manual, and there's more than a taste of understeer in the corners. Rapid directional changes through a chicane quickly brought to light a downright unnerving tendency to overcome the grip of the 20-inch Goodyears as all that momentum sloshed from one direction to the other.
The one system that seemed up to the task of handling both the otherworldly power on tap and the planetary curb weight was the vehicle's brakes. With Brembo calipers clamping down on all four corners, the stoppers had no problem keeping the SRT8 392 under control, even after two laps of hard abuse.
But don't think for a second that we're not head-over-heels in love with this revamped bruiser. On the contrary, this beast is everything that's right with the American muscle car. While it may not be fit for track duty, on the street, the Challenger SRT8 392 is a force to be reckoned with. When equipped with the automatic transmission, this two-ton tank can dust off the run to 60 mph in the mid four-second range on its way to a high 12-second quarter mile. The 470-horse and 470 lb-ft of torque V8 delivers mind-altering acceleration, sucking up tarmac and closing in on lesser metal with dizzying urgency. It's flat-out amazing. On civilized roads, the suspension is all but perfect for quasi-aggressive touring, allowing you to set record times between countryside attractions.
We'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't take a second to mention the exhaust note on the baddest of the bad Challengers, too. Mopar's boys and girls have taken the time to install one very free-flowing set of pipes, and as such, that 392 cubic-inch V8 announces acceleration like only a big-displacement engine can. Surprisingly enough, the tone isn't overly intrusive in the cabin, even if you are setting off car alarms with hard second-gear pulls. Call it a quandary of acoustics.
The sad news is that the inaugural edition Challenger SRT8 392 will only see a production run of 1,492 units next year, with a full 392 of those slated for the Canadian market only. That means that while the car may carry an MSRP of $42,555, the reality is that dealers will likely demand a fairly serious markup over that price. Of course, buyers can opt for the V6-powered SE with a more manageable base price of $24,670 if their hearts so desire.
The 2011 Dodge Challenger may not be a completely new model from the ground up, but its fresh drivetrain options and revised suspension geometry make for a compelling package, especially for buyers looking for a vehicle capable of comfortably and quickly covering large distances in style. It's a genuine American grand tourer in the purest sense, and it's exactly what the Challenger should have been out of the gate.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
New Car Test Drive
The modern classic muscle car.
The Dodge Challenger brings muscle car performance and styling to everyday driving. The Challenger harkens back to 1970 and the current generation, launched as a 2008 model, amuses and delights us. For 2011, there are significant changes to engines and suspensions as well as changes to the interior.
The 2011 Challenger SE boasts substantially more power than last year's model yet significantly better fuel economy at the same time thanks to an all-new 3.6-liter V6 engine. The new Pentastar V6 produces 305 horsepower, 55 more than the engine it replaces, and 268 foot-pounds of torque. It comes with a 5-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift capability, an improvement over last year's 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy has improved and the 2011 Challenger SE now gets an EPA-rated 18/27 mpg City/Highway.
The 2011 Challenger R/T benefits from a new cold-air induction system for its 5.7-liter Hemi V8. The V8 is rated at 372 hp and 400 pound-feet of torque with the 5-speed automatic, or 376 hp and 410 pound-feet of torque with the optional 6-speed manual. The Hemi uses a multiple displacement feature that switches off cylinders to save fuel, but EPA ratings are 16/25 mpg with the automatic and 15/24 mpg with the manual. We think the Challenger R/T is the sweet spot in the lineup. It can be used as a daily driver with a more compliant suspension than that of the SRT8 yet it's sportier and more fun than the SE. Challenger R/T competes with the Mustang GT and Camaro SS.
2011 Challenger SE and R/T models benefit from new suspension geometry and tuning, electro-hydraulic power steering, a new front air dam, larger wheels, revised gauges, a new steering wheel, improved seats, new Rallye and Super Sport packages, and more standard equipment.
The 2011 Challenger SRT8 392, as the SRT8 is now called, is named after its Hemi V8 in reference to its 392 cubic-inch displacement and that of the legendary Hemi engine of the late 1950s. The 2011 Challenger SRT8 392 comes with a new 470-hp 6.4-liter Hemi V8 that includes cylinder deactivation technology. The 6.4-liter engine replaces last year's 6.1-liter and power increases from 425 to 470 hp and torque is up from 420 to 470 pound-feet. EPA ratings are 14/23 mpg with the 6-speed manual and 14/22 mpg with the 5-speed automatic. The 2011 Challenger SRT8 392 also gets revised front end styling, new gauge graphics, quicker steering, and revised suspension tuning. The SRT8 comes with big Brembo brakes, the firmest suspension and a limited-slip rear differential. We found the SRT8 392 fast and stable. It's ready to go to the track yet we think it's compliant and controlled just enough that it won't beat you up during daily chores or weekend cruises.
The Challenger is an enjoyable muscle car. Driving it brings a smile to our face and it seems to light up others as well, in spite of any gasoline crises. Everyone seems to like the Challenger. We've driven all the models and like all of them. They all have their own merits but there are distinctions.
The cabin is mundane. Like muscle cars of the past, the Challenger is based on a sedan and the interior borrows heavily from existing materials. A new steering wheel is an improvement and the new 392 sport seats hold you in place in corners and are designed to accommodate large drivers. Climbing into the back seat is a struggle and legroom is tight but there's plenty of headroom, so it's fine for children and teens.
The 2011 Dodge Challenger SE ($24,670) comes with a 3.6-liter V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, 6-way power adjustable driver's seat, four-way manually adjustable front passenger seat, automatic climate control, interior air filter, power windows and locks, power mirrors, keyless access and starting, 60/40 split-folding rear bench seat, tilt and telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 6-speaker stereo, auxiliary input jack, trip computer, theft-deterrent system, and P235/55R18 tires on aluminum wheels.
Option packages include the Super Sport Group ($1,500) with P245/45R20 tires on chromed alloy wheels, 3.06 rear axle ratio, performance disc brakes, performance steering and performance suspension; Electronics Convenience Group ($695) with body color exterior mirrors, power fold-away heated mirrors, remote engine starting, alarm, outside temperature display and compass, tire-pressure monitor display and a universal garage door opener; the Mopar Interior Appearance Group ($945) with Mopar-branded bright door sill guards, bright pedals, car cover, floor mats with logo and T-grip shifter; and a Rallye Group ($2,000) with fog lamps, leather upholstery, heated front seats, Sirius satellite radio with one-year subscription, Boston Acoustics sound system with 276-watt amplifier, automatic headlamps, Bluetooth streaming audio, USB port, auto-dimming rearview mirror and Uconnect phone hands-free cell phone link. Also offered are Sirius satellite radio ($195), Uconnect phone ($395), sunroof ($950), Media Center 430N ($790) with Sirius satellite radio, Garmin navigation system, Sirius travel link, 6.5-inch touchscreen, and 30-gigabyte hard drive; and Sound Group II ($1,565) with 368-watt amplifier; seven Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer, 6.5-inch touchscreen, and 30-gigabyte hard drive.
Challenger R/T ($29,670) features a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with a 6-speed manual transmission or 5-speed automatic ($995). R/T adds automatic headlights, Sirius satellite radio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated outside mirrors, body-colored rear spoiler and mirrors, metal fuel filler door, dual chromed rectangular exhaust pipes, fog lamps, Bluetooth wireless cell phone link, and a USB port. Mechanical upgrades to accompany the added power include bigger brakes, firmer suspension, quicker steering, and a hill-holder clutch when equipped with the manual transmission. Options include the Super Track Pack ($495) with P245/45ZR20 Goodyear performance tires, heavy duty brakes, sports suspension, and performance steering with variable displacement; and the R/T Classic Package ($3,300) with 276-watt amplifier, 3.92 rear axle ratio, Boston Acoustics speakers, heated front seats, leather upholstery, P245/45R20 tires, functional hood scoop, R/T side stripes, bi-xenon headlights and the Electronics Convenience Group.
Challenger SRT8 392 ($42,555) has a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 and a choice of 6-speed manual transmission or 5-speed automatic ($995). Other mechanical upgrades include Brembo brakes, a performance suspension, a limited-slip differential, and P245/45R20 front and P255/45R20 rear tires on polished aluminum wheels. Standard are leather upholstery, heated front seats, bi-xenon headlamps, trip/data computer with performance pages, and keyless access and starting. The SRT8 rear spoiler is flat black, the front spoiler deeper and ducted for brake cooling, hood scoops are functional, and the fuel filler is polished aluminum. The SRT8 392 also adds a gas-guzzler tax that runs $1030 with the manual transmission and $1339 with the automatic. Options include the 522-watt 13-speaker Kicker audio system ($695), high-performance staggered-size tires ($100), and Green with Envy paint with wheels with black-painted pockets ($1,495).
The first 1492 of the 2011 SRT8 392 models off the line get the Inaugural Edition Package ($1,995), which includes a body-color front grille surround; quad chrome exhaust tips; special embroidery on the front seatbacks; exclusive Bright White Clear Coat or Deep Water Blue Pearl Coat white or blue paint with full body stripes; unique wheels with black-painted pockets; accents on the door panels, steering wheel, seats, center console and center stack; and a serialized plaque. (All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices and do not include destination charge.)
Safety features on all Challengers include dual frontal airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, tire-pressure monitor, active front head restraints, stability control and traction control.
Quite faithful to the 1970-vintage Challenger that powered its creation, the current Challenger features a cool design that should stand the test of time. It is 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. Many of the Challenger's parts, systems and structures are shared with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans. It's a big car, just two inches shorter than the Charger but wider and lower. The Challenger is also about nine inches longer than the Ford Mustang, and seven inches longer than the Chevrolet Camaro.
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 taillamps 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 this one has fog lamps, and careful sculpting has maintained the classic look without destroying aerodynamic efficiency.
From the side, the SRT8 392's 20-inch wheels frame bright red brake calipers and slotted discs, filling 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 the 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 392 models finishes off the driver's side. The door handles look retro and stylish, but we found them hard to grab.
Out back, there is a full-width panel of red lights with a pair of backup lights wedged in the middle, along with chrome DODGE lettering in a font right out of the 1970s. While only the outer pairs of bulbs light for brake and turn functions, the entire width is used for taillights. On the SRT8 392 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. These are also available on the SE model with the Rallye package.
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.
The interior harkens back to the muscle car era in that many muscle cars were born of generic sedans and had similar interiors. The Challenger also mimics Dodge and Chrysler sedans of a few years ago, though with some nicer materials. The cabin appears functional and well put together, but it 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. In the SRT8 392 we tested the monotony was broken with chrome highlights on the door handles, control knobs and gauge bezels, light-faced instruments, semi-glossy carbon-fiber-look center panel trim, and a big chrome band around the shifter that bounced sun glare all over. 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 392, 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, though 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.
The rear seat is quite comfortable and roomier than most would expect. The back seat can accommodate two plus someone little in the middle. Back-seat riders get only moderate legroom, however, caused by the very thick front-seat backrests. The rear bench seat has three shoulder belts, baby seat anchors, a fold-down armrest with cupholders, coat hooks, two central vents, and two integral headrests. The seat folds down to expand the trunk, but the front seat must not be set back too far to be able to flip the seatback down. On the minus side, the only lighting in the back seat area are in the front seat backrests. The side panels are mostly plastic, the windows are fixed, and getting in is a nuisance; the passenger seat has a lift lever that tilts the backrest and slides the seat forward but it doesn't automatically return to its previous position. It may be large, but it is a two-door coupe.
A manual tilt/telescope steering column allows plenty of adjustment and a view of the instruments. For 2011, Dodge has introduced a new, smaller steering wheel that is more appropriate for a car with the Challenger's sporting intentions. It's smaller, sportier and feels better than the last one. The fingertip button arrangement is easy to use.
Lights and the trunk release are to the left on the dash, and the multi-function stalk on the left shows evidence of Dodge's old relationship with Mercedes. It has auto-blink signals (one touch gives 3 blinks, a feature that requires some getting used to), flash-to-pass high beams, and washer/wiper 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 392 respectively) and numbered coolant temperature. All of the gauges are light-faced with dark numbers and at night they have blue-green illumination that matches the various digital displays.
A message center in the tachometer on SRT8 392 models displays 128 functions, ranging from radio station to performance data. You can do your own 0-60 mph, eighth-mile, quarter-mile, braking distance and lateral acceleration tests. It does fuel economy, too, but we found ourselves happier by not looking at that.
Keyless Go on some models is 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, reducing the convenience aspect. Once inside the car, it's easy to misplace the key because there's no slot for it.
The new Garmin navigation system costs less, but the available integrated navigation system comes with real-time traffic. Both come with a 30-gigabyte hard drive to hold thousands of music files. Although the 522-watt Kicker audio upgrade, with the trunk-mounted subwoofer fed by its exclusive 200-watt amp, clearly outdoes any 1970 quadraphonic 8-track, Led Zeppelin didn't sound this good live in 1970. Standard three-ring single-zone climate control is lower on the panel, with switches for stability control, hazard lights, seat heaters and such along the bottom. All of the controls except for the door lock and window switches are illuminated.
The center console has a mild lateral slope to the driver, with a small bin ahead of the shifter, two illuminated cupholders behind it, and space under the sliding-top center armrest. The glovebox is typical but the door pockets are split with a larger pocket at the front edge and a smaller pocket near the rear edge. The passenger door armrest has a small bin that might hold an MP3 player or pack of smokes, at least until a hard right turn.
Although the A-pillars are wide, the driver sits 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 allows a full view in the mirror view. However, the wide rear pillars block your view when backing out of parking spots; a rearview camera would be helpful and add a measure of safety. We'd prefer wider rearview mirrors to show more traffic behind and to the sides. Also don't pull too far forward at intersections with overhead traffic signals or the roofline may get in your way. When it comes to visibility, the Mustang has it over the Challenger and especially the Camaro.
Trunk space won't be an issue. At more than 16 cubic feet, it matches the Dodge Charger and Audi's big A5 coupe and clearly betters the Mustang and Camaro. Under the floor you'll find the standard tire-inflator kit (compact spare optional only on SE and R/T), battery and a vinyl-album-sized bin sure to be filled with a nitrous bottle sooner or later by someone. The 60/40 split rear seat folds wide side on the driver's side. The left-side-mounted subwoofer is out of the way and has a metal grille to protect it, a good thing because there are no tie-downs here so the contents will shift. And like an old Challenger, you have to pick up the cargo nearly three feet off the ground and over a foot of bodywork before dropping it into the trunk.
The Dodge 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 the lighter Mustang, or even the also-too-heavy Camaro. 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 392 as an animal: A well-behaved animal, but always ready to prowl for prey.
The Challenger SE drives a lot like the Charger because the Challenger is based on the Charger with four inches taken out between the front and rear wheels. The new 3.6-liter V6 is an improvement over the 3.5 in both power and fuel economy. It has enough oomph to keep up with brisk traffic, and pass without too much fuss. Given the Challenger's extra 400 pounds, it probably won't keep up with a V6 Mustang.
The 2011 Challenger SE comes with a 5-speed automatic instead of last year's 4-speed. That's one of the reasons the new engine gets two mpg better highway fuel economy. The 5-speed automatic transmission works well with the V6, providing decent passing punch quickly.
The next step up is the Challenger R/T. The R/T features a Hemi V8 producing 372 to 376 horsepower, along with a firmer suspension, bigger brakes and tires, and a choice of a hefty-shifting 6-speed manual or 5-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, with a 0 to 60 mph time under 6.0 seconds. That power comes on strong, but we found it runs out quickly, as the redline is only 5800 rpm. That means drivers choosing the manual will have to shift before the power runs out 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. The $13,000 saved versus an SRT8 392 would buy brake/suspension/tire upgrades to your preference and specification, or a serious engine upgrade.
The SRT8 392 gets the most changes for 2011, all for the better. Larger and torquier than the outgoing 6.1-liter V8, the 6.4 makes the SRT8 392 a straight-line burner. Zero to 60 mph is in the high four-second range and the car can cover the quarter-mile in the high 12s. The extra torque really makes the SRT8 392 leap forward when pushed, in a way that couldn't be felt last year.
It's easy to make an SRT8 392 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 transmission cars; there's a solid feel to quick upshifts. It does not make manual downshifts as fast. At the other end of the straightaway, the SRT8's big brakes do a commendable job of slowing the pace, 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, the 2011 suspension changes, especially to the SRT8, make it a better handler during performance maneuvers, though it was impressively good before given its size and weight. The Challenger is big and nose-heavy, and there is considerable body roll. That body roll is more controlled this year. Instead of flopping side to side then taking a nice set for a corner, the SRT8 now rolls into that set without the play that it had last year. The R/T still has some of that floppiness, but it too is more controlled and will take a predictable set for cornering.
The grip from the optional Goodyear F1 Supercar tires is substantial and the Challenger is surprisingly balanced in turns. In fact, it's quite easy to steer the SRT8 392 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 aren't 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 electronic stability control. And the stability control can be completely turned off on manual transmission cars if it becomes a nuisance on the race track.
Ride quality in the SRT8 392 is decent. Some of the same hardware (lightweight forged aluminum wheels, aluminum-intensive independent suspension all around, spring and shock calibrations) that improves its performance contributes to the decent ride. The SRT8 is smooth and quiet enough to cover long distances, and it 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 Challenger's independent rear suspension should cope better even though the car is heavier. The Challenger's mass becomes most apparent under heavy braking on a rippled road, where many lesser-tuned lighter cars have the same issue.
Even in the SRT8 392, the steering feel, while better for 2011, isn't as precise as the Mustang's steering. The steering is quick enough, with less than three turns lock-to-lock, but it feels more like the steering of a big sedan than a sporty coupe. Maneuverability at low speeds is par for a big car.
The SRT8 392'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.
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 2011 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 and an improved engine, while the V8-powered Challenger R/T is a good performance value. The Challenger SRT8 392 is the ultimate performance version. Regardless, the Challenger avoids the compromised rear seat and trunk of most coupes because of its size. It's too big and heavy to be a true sport coupe, but it carries that bulk fairly well when pushed. 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. Mitch McCullough contributed to this review.
Dodge Challenger SE ($24,670); R/T ($29,670); SRT8 392 ($42,555).
Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 ($42,555).
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