2012 Dodge Challenger

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First Drive Review: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE / R/T / SRT8

This 2009 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2014.
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 last thing anyone needs at this point is another styling analysis of the Challenger, especially since it's as simple and easy to digest as the equally retrospective Ford Mustang. Worth discussing, however, are the differences between the Challenger trims so that you can tell from 50 yards which is which, a talent no muscle-car guy can live without henceforth. And the differences are subtle. Base SE trims get standard 17-inch wheels mounted with relatively thin (in relation to the car, anyway), high-profile 215/65 tires. Eighteens are optional, as are fog lamps, but there is no available rear spoiler. Visually, the SE is closest to the 1970 model that was the clear inspiration for this new generation of Challengers.

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
As we've noted in previous Challenger reviews, the interior is quite comfortable, if dark. Outward sightlines are hampered by thick pillars, fixed rear headrests, a low roof, and a long hood. The $21,995 SE's mostly black interior treatment features some silver-painted plastic that does less to warm up the interior than to reflect its cheapness. The interior of the R/T doesn't have any silver stuff other than a chrome cuff or two and thus absolutely requires the huge optional sunroof to cheer things up.

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
Our preview drive along the byways and scenic back roads of southern New Jersey revealed the SE to be the "secretary special" we expected it to be. At a portly 3720 pounds and with only 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque to work with through a slushy four-speed automatic, the base Challenger doesn't emit the sort of sounds or deliver the sort of thrust one would expect by looking at its muscular exterior, especially if that onlooker remembers the 1970 model with any fondness. The considerable body roll, on the other hand, may be refreshingly nostalgic. Chrysler claims a 0-to-60-mph time of a relaxed 7.8 seconds, a quarter-mile time of 16.0 seconds at 90 mph, and an embarrassing top speed of 114 mph. On the plus side, the SE is quiet and calm — much like the base Charger, go figure — at speed.

R/T: The Happy Medium
The 4041-pound R/T features the first passenger-car installation of the enhanced 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Numerous improvements have brought power up to an impressive 372 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 401 pound-feet of torque at 4200 rpm for automatic-equipped Challengers, 376 horsepower and 410 pound-feet with the new manual. Those numbers are close enough to the 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque of the SRT8's 6.1-liter Hemi to prompt a buyer to question the need to upgrade to the heavier and $10,000-pricier SRT8.

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!
Truly, the Challenger is particularly likable with the so-called Track Pak, available for $995 on the R/T (adding a limited-slip diff) and $695 on the SRT8, which already has the LSD. The essence of the Track Pak is the new pistol-grip lever that controls the Tremec-sourced TR-6060 manual transmission. Rowing the gates is done with a crisp, satisfying quality, and triple-cone synchronizers make finding first and second a cinch. And although the clutch isn't exactly light, it's no beast, either. A 3.73:1 final-drive ratio applies to R/T models with 18-inch wheels; 3.91:1 is mated to Challengers with 20-inch wheels. In the interest of fuel economy, a relatively unobtrusive first-to-fourth default during low-rpm shifts is designed into the system, but during our entire day driving the Challengers, we only encountered the skip shift about three times.

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
And getting to know the Hemis is exactly what we did on our blasts around New Jersey's tricky Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Challenger R/Ts and SRT8s. Our track time highlighted the manual's optimal gear spread; the ratios themselves provide access to the meat of the power band at virtually any speed, so it is oh-so-easy to command the torque to break the rears loose and get the big car to scoot around corners at pretty much any angle you choose. Body roll happens — as evidenced by the shots we included from the track — but stiffening measures applied to both R/T and SRT8 models keep it from becoming problematic.

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?
So we had Hemi-hewn fun all day long in Jersey, and we can't wait to put the Challenger head-to-head with the refreshed 2009 Mustang and 2010 Chevrolet Camaro. But of course, the elephant, or maybe more appropriately, the dead dinosaur in the back of the room is the question of lasting relevance of the muscle-car genre itself. Unless some miracle of technology emerges to help reduce fuel consumption without reducing muscle (Hey, Chrysler: Direct injection and six-speed automatics might help), high fuel costs might render these cars a thing of the past — again.

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."

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BB04 - 8/30/2014 7:53:50 AM