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A Muscular Return

By on November 1, 2008
RoadKing Mag

2009 Challenger

I hated to give it back.

I borrowed an orange 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 version from Dodge for a test drive. It’s a retro-look, thoroughly modern version of the two-door “Pony Car” sensation first introduced in 1970.

The car definitely has some faults . . . but who cares?

It’s low, and hard for an old-timer like me to get into . . . but who cares? The brakes coat the wheels with brake dust. The “C-pillar” (supporting the roof) is so wide it makes backing out of parking spaces difficult. The rear seat is cramped. I’m sure that if I had it a few more days, I’d find other problems . . . but who cares? On balance, this is one of the most enjoyable vehicles I’ve ever tested.

1970 Challenger

Remember when
The original Challenger was developed in the days when muscle cars (mid-size and compact cars with big-bore high-powered engines) had become the icons of the automotive scene and “big power” made its way down to smaller, lighter, more nimble cars. The Challenger was a response to Ford’s Mustang and GM’s Camaro and Firebird.

Engine options included the 383 cubic inch “wedge head” and Chrysler’s ultimate racing engine, the 426 Hemi. Major race sanctioning groups, NASCAR for stock cars and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) for road racing, established 7-liter (427 cu-in) limits for engines. Chrysler’s came in just under that. It produced far more than the advertised 425 horsepower and won many drag races, both sanctioned and on the street.

Just a few years after its introduction, the first oil crisis occurred when the OPEC nations cut deliveries to the West. That was after the Arab-Israeli War in 1973. With gasoline truly scarce, with alternate days for filling up, with fuel purchases often limited to five gallons, the general public turned away from high-powered, gas-guzzling cars and started downsizing. As a result, Detroit downplayed power and performance. The era of muscle cars had ended, not to return for a generation.

The Challenger never had time to establish its credentials, but buyers loved its looks, its styling details and its legendary Chrysler engineering. The first day the new Challenger went on sale, it seemed that plenty of motor heads were waiting for its return — 4,300 people bought it sight unseen.

Back to the present
When you sit in the 2009 Challenger and adjust the seat and wheel, you feel you’re fitting it like a suit. The controls all fall easily to hand, making the car feel like an extension of your body.

When I turned the engine on, I heard the old, familiar throaty rumble of a big, powerful muscle car V8 from four decades ago. It was like a symphony to this motor head’s ears.

The SRT8 package is built around a 6.1 liter Hemi (hemispherical combustion chambers) V8 engine that cranks out 425 horsepower. It’s mated to a 5-speed AutoStick transmission that can be shifted like a manual but has safety overrides so you won’t blow up your engine.

To put this power to the ground and provide instant response to turning and braking, the SRT8 carries extremely wide, low profile 245/45ZR20 tires on 5-spoke alloy wheels, classically styled and reminiscent of the ’60s and ’70s.

The brake dust mentioned earlier comes from massive 14.1-inch front and 13.8-in rear Brembo racing brakes. Most cars have 10- or 11-in brakes. Stopping is, if anything, more important than accelerating, and the Challenger brought me down from 60 and 70 mph smoothly and rapidly, time after time. (Yes, on village streets. “No, officer, I didn’t know how fast I was going.”)

Tying it all together, the suspension provided a comfortable but stable ride. Body lean was almost non-existent. As good as the brakes are, there was no noticeable nosedive. Full-throttle acceleration was smooth and steady, like a long burning rocket rather than a quick boot in the butt. On a twisty country road, the Challenger’s manners are superb. It corners, accelerates and slows like a high performance GT.

Not for the shy
One word of caution; if you don’t like public attention, don’t drive the new Dodge Challenger.  

My wife and I took a long weekend to visit outlet malls in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The trunk, by the way, is humongous, with room for two large suitcases, my CPAP machine, my computer bag and all her bargains from the mall.

Wherever we went, the car drew attention. People gave us the “thumbs-up” sign at traffic lights and on the road. Drivers maneuvered around us to get a better look. Wherever we parked, people gathered around the car. Some took pictures with it, while fellow motor heads wanted to see the Hemi under the hood.

You don’t need to get the 425 hp version with the bold, broad black anti-glare stripes on the hood. The “lesser” Challengers share the body shell and the same great look. Not everyone needs to do 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds or stop from 60 mph in only 115 feet. Dodge expects the bulk of Challenger sales to be in R/T trim, with a 5.7 liter, 375 hp engine. It’s just slightly slower than the SRT8, hitting 60 in just under six seconds and stopping from 126 feet. Those are still impressive numbers. There is also a 3.5-liter V6 producing a “mere” 250 hp, more than the old V8 gave during the original Challenger’s last years.

Prices start under $22,000 for the V6 with its 4-speed auto transmission. That runs up to about $40,000 for an SRT8, with so much standard equipment that its only options are a sun roof and a navigation system.

If you’re into cars, or just want a vehicle that transports you well and seems to anticipate whatever you want it to do, you’ll love the Challenger. If you’re concerned about the gas pump, the 250 hp V6 model gets 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway — competitive mileage for this type of car. If you’re going for the performance of the 425 hp engine, you’ll pay at the pump, but not as much as you’d think. EPA’s new, more realistic estimates for the Challenger are 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway.

But until the newness wears off, city mileage may be lower. Why? Because you’ll have to inch your way through the crowds of eager admirers.

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