First Drive Review: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE / R/T / SRT8
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2013.
By Steve Siler of Car and Driver
Dodge took a curious approach to introducing — or perhaps we should say "reintroducing" — its reverently retrospective Challenger muscle car by starting with the top-dog, 425-hp SRT8 model and making it the only one offered for 2008. Can you say "collectible"? Alas, Dodge waited until the 2009 model year to follow up with volume versions that might — might — actually sell in numbers high enough to make the company some significant profits: the V-6-powered Challenger SE and the muscle-bound, Hemi-equipped Challenger R/T.
But along with the mass-market models, Chrysler will introduce manual-transmission versions of the Challenger R/T and SRT8, which together represent the first application of a manual transmission with the new-generation Hemi V-8s. Recently, we got a chance to drive them all, from the $21,995 base model to the $39,995 SRT8, and not to give away the ending, but there was one that we found "just right."
Telling Them Apart
The R/T adds fog lamps, 18-inch aluminum wheels with 235/55 tires, a body-color rear spoiler, and a polished fuel-filler cap beneath the driver's-side C-pillar. Optional are black-hash-mark-style fender stripes that Chrysler designers liken to war paint. Clunky five-spoke, chrome-clad wheels measuring 20 inches in diameter and wearing fatter 245/45 tires are optional, if not terribly tasteful.
The SRT8's 20s are way cooler, and its tires are yet another 10mm wider, completely flush with the wheel wells. The SRT8 also gets faux-carbon-fiber hood stripes, xenon lights (optional on the R/T), a matte black deck spoiler, and a deeper front air dam with functional brake ducts. Speaking of functional ducts, the hood scoops on all Challengers do indeed contribute to engine-bay ventilation.
Dark, Spooky Interior
The same can be said about the SRT8's interior, although we love the thick, high-backed Alcantara-and-leather performance seats that glue the driver in place regardless of lateral forces, as is the case with other Mopar products in which these seats are installed. Wider folks, however, might find their hug a touch too snug. Challenger R/T and SE models also feature comfortable and nicely bolstered buckets, which, frankly, we weren't expecting at the base level but were happy to encounter. Three-across seating is theoretically possible in back, provided occupants are short of limb and fond of dark spaces. Nocturnal little people? Your limo just arrived.
SE = Secretary Express
R/T: The Happy Medium
And after driving them back to back on road and track, we've decided the Challenger R/T is where it's at, offering as it does about 90 percent of the fun with a claimed 5.5-second 0-to-60 time, a 14.0-second quarter-mile, and a 138-mph top speed (versus 4.9 seconds to 60, 13.3 to the quarter-mile, and a 172-mph top end for the SRT8). The case for the R/T is made more solid when fuel economy is considered. The R/T delivers 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway with the automatic and 15/23 for the manual. The SRT8 languishes with 13/19 and 14/22 in automatic and manual forms, respectively.
Man, Oh, Manual!
Expect a far more subdued experience with automatic-equipped Hemi Challengers. Between the automatic's reluctance to shift quickly, even in manual mode, and its lack of steering-wheel controls, the Challenger's fun quotient falls way short of our expectations, considering how much power lives under the hood, especially if the car happens to find its way to a track.
At the R/T level, the differences go deeper still. The R/T automatic's fuel-saving multidisplacement system (MDS) prompted engineers to quiet the exhaust note to make the eight-cylinder to four-cylinder transition less noticeable. The manual's lack of MDS made it possible to further tweak the exhaust system to produce an even more delicious rumble. And the results are spectacular. Manual R/Ts are indeed significantly louder than the auto versions — frosting on an already sweet cake that includes an SRT8-derived steering gear, the aforementioned power bump, and of course, inherently more direct connection between driver and Hemi.
Power to the Pavement
The steering and stability controls are well calibrated for this task, although turning effort is a touch light. Even with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) on, a fair bit of rotation can be dialed in, and if you push it too far, the rotation is dialed out gradually, not suddenly. As we expected, the Challenger R/T is quite sticky with the optional 20-inch wheels but is all sorts of slip-sliding fun with the smaller 18s. The front axle of the SRT8 remains pretty much glued to the track with its three-season Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer tires, with the rear axle at your right foot's beck and call. A few months ago, we circled a slick skidpad in an SRT8 while pulling a respectable 0.86 g, and we're looking forward to attempting the same with all Challenger trims.
But even on a track as wide and fast as Willow Springs in California, where we first drove the 2008 Challenger SRT8, the Challenger feels positively huge. And it feels even huger on the tight, narrow Raceway Park course, which feels no wider than a driveway in certain spots. Furthermore, the track's bobbing undulations and half-blind, pan-flat corners magnify the Challenger's formidable weight and relative lack of outward sightlines.
Certainly, we're glad to have wrung out the Challenger in such a venue to discover how well Chrysler tuned the chassis, but we're not sure this is where the big car feels most at home. Then again, the Mustang would be a handful here, too.
Sniff-Sniff. Does Anyone Smell an Elephant in Here?
Of the three players, Dodge seems the least prepared to survive the storm, with no announced plans of a convertible version to battle the wildly popular Mustang convertible and the upcoming Camaro convertible, not to mention its relatively weak and heavy base V-6 model. And, of course, there's the question of the survival of Chrysler itself, but as they say in the talk show world, "That's a whole 'nother' show, Ricki."
While it's here, we'll enjoy the Challenger as a successful exercise in retro styling and Hemi muscle, something that should be particularly easy if we're "rowin' our own."