Road Test: 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2013.
By Matt DeLorenzo of Road & Track
Sweet. This adjective used by those two lovable lunks in the "that thang got a Hemi?" ad campaign pretty much sums up the Dodge Challenger SRT8. This latest addition to the Dodge stable not only recalls the styling of the original 1970 Challenger but also provides the same kind of tire-smoking straight-line fun with the added bonus of being able to handle a curve or two. Sweet.
There was no doubt when the concept was unveiled a little more than two years ago that Dodge was going to build it. And it has done yeoman's work in keeping the shape of the street version true to the retro-inspired show car, although the proportions are slightly different to accommodate production needs. There are a few cues from the show car that are missing and a few new touches added. On balance, the production car is largely better for it.
Built on a shortened version of the LX platform that underpins the Dodge Charger, the Challenger has a 116.0-in. wheelbase and measures 197.7 in. overall. At 75.7 in. wide, it is some 4 in. narrower than the concept. And it's a tall car, standing 57.0 in. high — we noticed in a parking lot that the roof of the Corvette parked alongside just barely cleared the top of the Challenger's outside rearview mirrors.
Unlike the original Challenger, which had a shapely "fuselage" body that wrapped under at the rocker panels, the new car is slightly more slab-sided. But that's a good thing because it makes this muscular car, with its 20-in. wheels and tires, look as if it is firmly planted to the tarmac.
The Challenger has a classic long-hood, short-rear-deck profile that remains compelling to this day. The grille opening is faithful to the original Challenger's and provides welcome respite from the tyranny of the Dodge family's cross-hair grille design inspired by the Ram truck. Anyone with just a passing familiarity with the division's history will immediately recognize it as a Dodge. The only caveat is if someone catches a fleeting glimpse of the car's C-pillar treatment. Although it clearly has lineage to the original, it also is remarkably similar to Chevy's reincarnated pony car, so much so that a UPS driver, when he first spotted the car, stopped, jumped out of his truck at a stoplight and asked if I were driving the new Camaro.
Still, exterior designer Jeff Gale (son of former Chrysler design vice president Tom Gale) must be complimented on keeping exterior filigree to an absolute minimum. There is one Challenger badge in the front grille, two discrete SRT plates, the Dodge Ram's head emblem on the top of the front fascia and Dodge lettering across the rear. That's it.
In wind-tunnel testing, Dodge discovered that the large horizontal grille is actually a pocket that causes lift at triple-digit speeds. Gale's solution was to look back at the Challenger Trans-Am car of the early 1970s and design jutting chin and rear decklid spoilers similar to those used on the racer. But other than these two devices, the car eschews clichéd wings, rocker extensions and other aerodynamic bits of flotsam and jetsam.
Other changes from the concept include making the hood scoops functional (they primarily vent the engine compartment rather than provide any ram air for the engine) and adding a chrome filler door marked FUEL in the original typeface from the 1970 model.
While the concept was a B-pillarless hardtop with retractable rear windows, in production, the Challenger needs that extra roof support. The pillar is hidden behind fixed rear quarter glass so that in profile, the car retains the hardtop look of the show car.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the interior. It is handsome and functional, but far too understated to match the Challenger's personality. The comfortable and supportive leather bucket seats with contrasting stitching are similar to those used on the Charger SRT8. There's a red stripe midway up the seatback, but that's the only contrasting color in the cockpit. The rest is done up in charcoal gray and black with Alcantara door inserts and several aluminum/satin accents on the steering wheel, console and instrument bezels. The shifter and door pulls are covered with leather sporting a carbon-fiber weave pattern. The 4-spoke steering wheel, white-faced gauges, climate controls and audio system are straightforward in execution and come from the same SRT parts bin as the Charger.
The rear seat has positions for three people, but in practice, offers only a modicum of comfort for two with adequate leg and head room. There's a nice fold-down center console, and the view forward is good thanks to the theater-style seating, but the large C-pillar makes riding in the back a cavelike experience.
The Challenger's interior could be livelier like the concept's, which had a 3-spoke steering wheel and an accordion-shaped cover over the steering column like the original car. On the 6400 2008 model Challengers, you can only get the 5-speed automatic with its conventional shift lever, while '09 models will have an optional 6-speed manual with a retro pistol-grip shifter. So, it's a choice of exclusivity of the first models versus a more expressive interior with the manual. I'd choose the latter for reasons I'll get to later.
As a result of the limited half-year production run, Dodge rightly chose to launch with its flagship first and fill out the rest of the line (including a 3.5-liter V-6 SE and 5.7-liter V-8 R/T) in the fall. So, all 2008 Challengers are powered by the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8, which produces 425 bhp at 6200 rpm and 420 lb.-ft. of torque at 4800 rpm. The Challenger has a great sound to it — a low rumble when cruising with a light foot that builds exponentially with engine rpm. Mash the throttle or kick down the transmission, and the Challenger emits a full-throated V-8 sound that some have likened to a P-51 doing a flyby.
Out on the open road, the Challenger is competent and comfortable. With its shortened wheelbase, freeway hop is always a concern, so the SRT engineers opted for a setup softer than the Charger's. There will be those who want far more edge from a car like this, but for hard-core types, there's always the Mopar catalog if they want more bar or stiffer springs. The car feels a bit lazy on turn-in with the suspension setup biased for a mild push; still, it's a good compromise for a car that is suited to be a stylish daily driver. The Challenger can be pushed fairly hard on your favorite twisty bits without punishing you on rough roads. And while it just holds its own at the track or on mountain roads, the real virtue of this car remains the same as it was 38 years ago — and that is having the ability to do long, languid burnouts or getting you to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds while romping through the quarter mile in 13 flat. There's plenty to be said for straight-line thrills.
A solid day of driving through the San Gabriel Mountains and at Willow Springs raceway, while revealing a few shortcomings, left me favorably impressed with the overall abilities of the Challenger. First off, it's an easy car to drive. The seating position, outward views and controls are excellent for a car of this size and heft. Even though it tips the scales at 4145 lb., it never felt heavy, thanks to the abundance of power and ease of the steering action. The stability-control system is not intrusive and when traction control is deactivated, there is sufficient slip to get a bit of wheelspin and drift when pushing the car hard.
Braking is exceptional. The 4-piston fixed-caliper Brembos at all four corners hauled the car down from 60 mph in 121 ft. and from 80 mph in just 212 ft.
The downside is the 5-speed automatic. Although smooth in operation, the spacing between the gears, especially 2nd and 3rd, is problematical. Keeping the car in 2nd on fast sweepers runs the engine up close to the redline; pop it into 3rd and the bottom seems to fall out. Even if you keep it in gear, at redline the transmission automatically upshifts rather than holding the gear and bouncing off the rev limiter. This was particularly annoying to one of our drift-king staffers. Still, my fast way around Willow was to keep tapping the car down into 2nd and letting the rev limiter do the upshifting for me. The solution to this gap is to go with the 6-speed manual, which promises closer spacing plus the aforementioned pistol-grip shifter. An added bonus for waiting for the '09 model will be a standard limited-slip differential not offered on the first models.
Still, if you can get one of the original 6400 cars (which come in a choice of orange, silver or black with the carbon-fiber-pattern, matte-finish striping), you'll find yourself behind the wheel of a fully equipped model for just over $40,000. Although Dodge touts a sticker of $37,320, the $2100 gas-guzzler tax helps push the car above $40,000. There are only three options: a $950 sunroof, an upgraded sound system with navigation for $890 and Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar performance tires (only $50) instead of all-season rubber. For all this, you get an American icon that is sure to turn heads. Sweet.