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 2012, changes are primarily packaging.
The 2012 Challenger SXT name replaces SE as the entry-level Challenger. The Challenger SXT 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 produces 305 horsepower and 268 foot-pounds of torque. Added last year, the V6 engine's horsepower and smoothness were a major improvement, as was a 5-speed automatic transmission, but the Challenger is a big car so fuel economy is not its forte (EPA rated 18/27 mpg City/Highway). The base SXT comes reasonably well equipped and gives you the Challenger look and room for a modest price.
The 2012 Challenger R/T rumbles with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8. The V8 is rated at 372 hp and 400 pound-feet of torque with the 5-speed automatic, or 375 hp and 410 pound-feet of torque with the now-standard 6-speed manual. The Hemi uses a multiple displacement feature that switches off cylinders to save fuel, but EPA ratings are no better than 16/25 mpg. We think the Challenger R/T is a sweet spot in the lineup. It can be used as a daily driver with less intensity than the SRT8 (and considerable cost savings) yet it's sportier and more fun than the SXT. Challenger R/T is often compared with the Mustang GT and Camaro SS, although Challenger is a bigger car and a more comfortable cruiser.
The 2012 Challenger SRT8 392 is named after its Hemi V8's cubic-inch displacement (even though it's actually 391) and that of the legendary Hemi 392 engine of the late 1950s. The 2012 Challenger SRT8 392 comes with a 470-hp 6.4-liter Hemi V8 that includes cylinder deactivation technology. EPA ratings are 14/23 mpg. The 2012 Challenger SRT8 392 also gets a new steering wheel with heating, two-mode adaptive damping and a 900-watt Harman Kardon audio system. 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 enough that it you can drive it daily or just for 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. 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 (the Charger) and the interior borrows heavily from existing materials. A new steering wheel for 2012 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 chore but once in we found it's fine for children, teens and the occasional adults.
Dodge Challenger SXT ($24,995); R/T ($29,995); SRT8 392 ($43,995)
Faithful to the 1970-vintage Challenger that powered its creation, the 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 lamp units 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 refine 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, bright leather seats, a big chrome band around the shifter that bounced sun glare all over and the new SRT steering wheel with aluminum trim. Virtually everything else inside 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 and fat-rim, flat-bottom steering wheel. 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 is 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 2012, the SRT has a new, smaller heated steering wheel with leather wrapping and metal trim 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 or you can disable), 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 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 not looking at that.
Keyless Go on some models is a no-ignition-switch setup that uses a simple pushbutton to start the car. Once inside the car, it's easy to misplace or forget the key because there's no slot for it and the sport seats don't encourage keeping it in your pocket.
The new Garmin navigation system costs less, and the available integrated navigation system comes with real-time traffic. Both come with a 30-gigabyte hard drive to hold thousands of music files. Not only does the 900-watt, twin-subwoofer audio upgrade 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. 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 but the Camaro is worse than both.
Trunk space won't be an issue. At more than 16 cubic feet, it matches the Dodge Charger and Audi's 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 SXT and R/T), battery and a vinyl-album-sized bin sure to be filled with a nitrous bottle sooner or later. The 60/40 split rear seat folds wide side on the driver's side. The subwoofers are out of the way, a good thing because there are no tie-downs here so contents will shift. And like an old Challenger, you have to pick up the cargo nearly three feet off the ground, and then 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 SXT 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 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 doesn't keep up with a V6 Mustang; heck, a performance package V6 Mustang gives a Challenger R/T a fight.
The next step up is the Challenger R/T. The R/T features a Hemi V8 producing 375 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 less than six 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 pay attention and not be seduced by the Hemi's soundtrack. 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 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 got the big engine change for 2011, with 470 hp on tap, making the SRT8 392 a potent car. Zero to 60 mph is in the high four-second range, the car can cover the quarter-mile in the high 12s and the manual runs past 170 mph. The torque really makes the SRT8 392 leap forward when pushed, in a way that couldn't be felt in the first SRT8 Challengers.
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 and it works better the harder you push it. 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 sound like they 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 gets Bilstein adaptive damping for 2012, giving the driver a choice of shock settings for more comfortable commutes or fully buttoned down for flogging a winding road. It is impressively good given its size and weight. The Challenger is big and nose-heavy, and the SRT8 rolls into a cornering set with minimal body roll and mid-corner correction.
The grip from the optional revised 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 better with the new dampers. Some of the same hardware (lightweight forged aluminum wheels, aluminum-intensive independent suspension all around) 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 isn't as precise as the Mustang's steering. The steering is quick enough, with less than three turns lock-to-lock, but you feel it's dealing with more weight. 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 or listen to that exhaust note.
The 2012 Dodge Challenger boasts a distinctive look that attracts a lot of attention and positive comments. The V6-powered Challenger SXT 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.