It was a minor player in the dawn of the pony car era, but as Dodge rolls into its second century, the 2015 Challenger looms as a powerful presence, upstaging Ford’s Mustang and the Chevy Camaro with a potent array of engines, including one that packs the biggest kick of all.
The power lineup starts with 305 horsepower, the output of the 3.6-liter V6 that propels the basic Challenger SXT, and now includes the new Hellcat V8, a supercharged 6.2-liter variant of Chrysler’s naturally aspirated 6.4-liter V8. It’s rated for a prodigious 707 horsepower, the most powerful passenger car engine ever offered by Chrysler and also the most powerful in the contemporary pony car corral.
Engine options for the rest of the 2015 Dodge Challenger pale a bit in comparison to the Hellcat, but are heavy hitters in their own right: a 5.7-liter Hemi (372 hp) and the 6.4-liter Hemi, aka the 390 (485 hp). Chrysler’s 8-speed automatic transmission is available across the board, and new to the Challenger inventory for 2015. It’s the only transmission offered with the basic SXT model, while a 6-speed manual is available with most of the V8s.
The sheetmetal surrounding all this power is new, but that’s not readily apparent. Dodge has been faithful to the original Challenger styling, and that continues to be true of the redesign, with one proviso: the current Challenger was faithful to the 1970 original. The 2015 version is faithful to 1971. That model year, its second on the market, marked the zenith of Challenger performance, the final year with the option of 426 Hemi V8 muscle.
The design distinctions between 1970 and ’71 were subtle, and that’s true of the 2015 update. The front and rear fascias have been restyled, a thinner split grille slot (this varies according to trim levels), deeper airdam, an LED halo surrounding the quad headlights, a bigger power bulge in the new hood, a new Shaker hood option, and LED taillights.
But like the transition from 1970 to ’71, the Challenger’s 2015 profile is essentially the same as 2014. That’s also true of the structure, although the rear axle housing is cast aluminum, rather than iron. And the retro theme is amplified visually by color choices drawn from the glory years, high-impact heritage hues, according to Dodge: B5 Blue, Tor Red, and Sublime. The last one is an electric green that’s probably visible even in dense fog. There are also seven heritage-inspired stripe options.
While the exterior maintains close ties to the early ’70s, the all-new interior is a blend of retro design and contemporary technology. There are 14 different interior package choices. Highlights under this heading include a new 7-inch TFT cluster nestled between the tachometer and speedometer with programmable information via Dodge’s Performance Pages feature; a new 8.4-inch touchscreen option with Chrysler’s U-Connect telematics; driver selectable operating modes; a variety of performance tracking features; and a new rearview camera. An S3 card slot, auxiliary audio input and USB outlet are integrated into a new media hub housed in the center armrest.
The front seats have been redesigned, with upholstery choices ranging from cloth to Nappa leather, and the option of heating and cooling for those clad with hides. There’s also a performance seat option with heftier thigh and torso bolstering for the front buckets. Dodge claims more rear-seat legroom for the Challenger versus Mustang and Camaro, but this distinction seems academic.
Essentially a two-door version of the Charger sedan, the Challenger is a big car by pony standards, and it’s heavy, most models weighing more than two tons. The SRT and Dodge chassis engineers have done a commendable job of tuning the suspension to manage the mass, and the brake packages seem equal to arresting it from high speeds with minimal drama and zero fade. And of course 707 hp can do wonders when it comes to minimizing mass, an original pony car theory that still applies.
We still revere the pony cars of yesteryear. Cars like Hemi Barracudas regularly command auction prices running north of the $1 million frontier. While the original muscle era produced some memorable power-to-weight ratios, the latest Challenger lineup, particularly the Hellcat version, puts them on the trailer. And in addition, the contemporary Challengers add a couple of capabilities that were all but absent in the originals: they’ll stop and turn.
While the 2015 Challenger doesn't look vastly different from its immediate predecessor (2008-2014), it preserves a design distinction that contrasts attractively with crosstown competition: the sleek contours are devoid of wide wheel arches and other visual braggadocio, yet there's no mistaking its muscularity, especially when someone lights up one of the big Hemi engines.
The LED headlight halos surround new projector beam lamps, augmented by low-mounted projector fog lamps. The split LED taillamps are also new, and there are nine wheel options, including 20 x 9-inch forged alloys, and, top of the line, 20 x 9.5-inch forged alloys from SRT in three different finishes.
An interesting Hellcat light variation substitutes air intakes for the inboard headlamps on each side. And the hood bulge is functional, with a pair of vents to exhaust hot air from the engine bay. All the Challengers have hood bulges of some kind, including the historic shaker hood, which, like the Hellcat's bulge, is functional.
As noted, the redesigned sheetmetal echoes styling details drawn from 1971, rather than 1970, augmented by wind tunnel development, an element that really was essentially absent in Seventies design.
Although the general shapes of the Challenger's redesigned dashboard pay tribute to the original, forget the hard edges and plastics of yesteryear. The new dash and instrument panel are upholstered in far more civilized material, with lots of soft touch surfaces and very little reflectivity. More important, the instrument binnacle and dashboard are equipped with 21st century electronics, telematics, and infotainment, as distinct from the mechanical instruments of yesteryear and infotainment that could be summed up under one heading: AM radio.
The new speedo and tach are analog-style electronic, there's a 7-inch thin film transistor (TFT) digital info display between the major gauges, and a new 8.4-inch touch-screen display option that's home for navigation and other systems. This includes the Performance Pages data that goes with the Fast Track Pack option, allowing the driver to track acceleration, braking, grip, and a vast variety of other performance metrics. The center stack display in the base Challenger SXT is a 5-inch screen.
The seats are new for 2015, offered in several styles and upholstery materials, ranging from mildly sporty to raceworthy. SRT Challenger models are tricked out with a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel and aluminum shift paddles when equipped with the 8-speed automatic transmission. A robust Tremec 6-speed manual is available with all the V8 engines, but the automatic's response times in track mode are race-quick, far faster than the stick shift.
A bewildering variety of features and options are available for the Challenger buyer, covering infotainment, connectivity, furnishings, and style, not only from the Dodge inventory of standard and optional features, but also from the vast array of goodies available through Mopar, Chrysler's in-house aftermarket supermarket. Opportunities for personalization are rich.
The Hellcat comes with two keyfobs, one red, one black. The red one unlocks the full potential of the supercharged engine. The black one is the fob you hand to valets and/or your kids. It removes some of the temptation for excess by limiting engine output to a mere 500 horsepower. That's an element of retro that doesn't translate: 500 horsepower would have made the Challenger king of Woodward Avenue in 1971.
The Dodge Challenger press preview was held in Portland, Oregon, and included a half-day of driving on scenic but busy public roads along the Columbia River (summer tourist season was in full swing), plus some lapping at Portland International Raceway followed by drag racing exercises on the track's long front straight.
We managed to log most of our limited seat time in one of the few Hellcat-propelled Challengers on hand for the public road portion of the program, and emerged with a surprising impression. The power is certainly there, in massive, guttural depth, summoned with very little pressure on the throttle. But for all that, once the driver has learned to suppress the urge to tap the seductive power so readily available, the Hellcat can be a docile everyday ride.
We should add, however, that resisting the Hellcat's massive thrust requires serious discipline. We found the Hellcat makes extraordinarily short work of two-lane passing opportunities, but we waited for the track to open the throttle all the way.
Portland is a flat circuit with some very fast stretches. Indy cars race there, and even with a chicane two-thirds of the way down the front straight the Hellcat builds speed at a heady rate.
The suspension engineers have done a good job here; the hottest of all Challengers corners well, and if the electric power steering could be a little more tactile on center, it's quick, accurate, and nicely weighted as speed builds.
Braking with this package is powerful and fade free, via a set of massive Brembos, but the most impressive element, after the engine of course, is the 8-speed manumatic. In track mode it hammers home shifts in milliseconds, far faster than would be possible to duplicate with the 6-speed manual.
While the Hellcat Challenger handles well enough, far better than its 1970s ancestors, it does share one key trait with the originals: it shows to best advantage at the drag strip. Engage launch control, tramp on the throttle, and the Hellcat is capable of getting through the quarter-mile lights in less than 11 seconds, squashing the driver into the seat bolsters and stretching facial muscles into a big grin. This is serious hustle for a production car. And like its forebear, it's capable of shredding its rear tires in short order.
The Hellcat Challenger is capable of almost 200 mph (199), according to Dodge. Our limited seat time didn't give us an opportunity to verify this claim. But we believe it.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger offers a choice of engines: The 3.6-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 produces 305 horsepower at 6350 rpm and 268 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm and is EPA-rated at 19/30 mpg City/Highway, or 23 mpg Combined. The 5.7-liter 16-valve pushrod Hemi V8 is rated at 372 hp at 5200 rpm, 400 lb-ft at 4400 rpm and gets an EPA-rated 16/25/19 mpg City/Highway/Combined with the automatic transmission. The 6.4-liter 16-valve pushrod Hemi V8 is rated 485 hp at 6000 rpm, 475 lb-ft of torque 4200 rpm and gets an EPA-rated 15/25/18 mpg. The 6.2-liter supercharged and intercooled 16-valve pushrod V8 is rated at 707 hp at 6600 rpm and 650 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
The addition of the supercharged Hellcat V8 raises the redesigned Challenger lineup from formidable to extraordinary. In the surprisingly persistent realm of muscle cars, the Hellcat raises the ante, delivering competent dynamics and immense power for a relative bargain price. It's docile enough for everyday driving, provided the driver can resist the omnipresent temptation of the throttle. But its true reason for being is the race track, in particular the drag racing track. The 2015 Dodge Challenger offers a broad array of power choices, handsome interior options, and sophisticated electronics, wrapped in slick sheetmetal that's faithful to the Challenger's glory years. Then again, with this lineup, the case can be made that the Challenger's glory years are now.
Tony Swan filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the 2015 Challenger models near Portland, Oregon.