First Drive Review: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE & R/T
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2013.
By Shaun Bailey of Road & Track
Englishtown, New Jersey — It's taken far too long. The retro Mustang's been at dealers since 2005, but now it's got competition. The Dodge Challenger SE's base price is $21,320, and for the extra $1500 cost over a V-6 Mustang, there is a benefit: independent rear suspension, 250 bhp from its 3.5-liter sohc V-6 and that one extra seating position.
It's physically a bigger car than the Mustang and it shows, with enough rear leg room for my 6-ft., 190-lb. frame; just don't ask me to sit there for long. On a side note, don't try getting into the rear from the driver's side, as that seat doesn't aid rear access like the passenger side does.
Climbing behind the wheel is a step back in time. The retro theme starts with the deep inset gauges and continues to the long dash and broad-shouldered hood. There's a bare-bones muscle-car aesthetic at work here, but it doesn't look terribly lively. Although the V-6 with its 4-speed automatic is reasonable, it's not the powertrain of choice — that would be the V-8 R/T at $29,995. It comes standard with a 5-speed automatic and a 5.7-liter V-8 that features cylinder deactivation and turns out 372 bhp with 401 lb.-ft. of torque. Think of the Challenger as a 2-door Charger, and you'd get most of the details right.
What's not available in the Charger is the $995 Track Pak that includes the Tremec TR-6060 6-speed manual transmission from the Dodge Viper and a limited-slip differential from the SRT8 model. Final drives are different, of course, but the 376 bhp and 410 lb.-ft. of torque of the manually equipped 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 R/T aren't that far removed from the heavy-hitting 6.1-liter V-8 of the SRT8 that churns out 425 bhp and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. The manual-equipped R/T doesn't get the cylinder deactivation feature; instead it gets a healthier exhaust note and a bit more power. It's the obvious pick for motor heads, while the SRT8 is reserved for the ultra power hungry.
One major drawback of the R/T we drove is that the ESP yaw control can't be fully disabled. Only the SRT8 model has that option, a mistake on Dodge's part. Afterward, Larry Lyon, vice president of cars and minivans at Chrysler, called to say after the fuss journalists made (me included) they've decided to give the manual-Track Pak-equipped R/T a full-off mode. Who would want a muscle car that was restricted from doing doughnuts? The R/T really likes burnouts, chirping tires and doing all the things muscle cars are famous for. It does them easily, too, with no wheel hop or great drama. Just burp the throttle, drop the clutch and smile.
The pistol-grip shift lever — another retro touch — is at first a bit odd, but it works really well. The throws aren't especially short, but they're easy to get right every time. The three pedals are thankfully in just the right place for heel-toe work, and the steering is quick enough to allow for relaxed steering inputs. On the street the Challenger feels a bit cumbersome in traffic, but that suits the car's character. Around the track the R/T isn't as planted as the SRT8, but it holds its own.
Although the R/T we drove didn't have a full ESP-off mode, it sure acted like it wanted to be a power-slide machine. With ESP in its partial-off state, the car didn't resist being tossed into corners or finessed deep into braking zones. It's clearly set up to be driven on back roads and not just a drag strip. But let's be honest, I expect a lot of Challengers to be staged for quarter-mile runs.
The SRT8 now receives the same 6-speed manual option. It was much needed as the old automatic doesn't rev-match on downshifts, and upshifts too easily. Whipping the SRT8 around the small track in Englishtown, New Jersey, I found myself smiling as I could just about power-slide the car everywhere. I'm sure the R/T could as well; it just needed an "ESP off" button. Thanks to Dodge for listening, and for infusing more SRT spirit into the R/T. Now the Mustang GT can truly be challenged.