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 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.