On The Road Review: Dodge Challenger SRT8

Muscle cars are generating a lot of halo-style excitement for Detroit’s automakers as a restyled Ford Mustang is being joined by an all-new Chevy Camaro and the very potent Dodge Challenger. These cars are all serious head-turning lookers with on the road performance that puts their vaunted brethren from the pony-car wars of the late 1960s-early 1970s smack onto the trailer.

Muscle cars are generating a lot of halo-style excitement for Detroit’s automakers as a restyled Ford Mustang is being joined by an all-new Chevy Camaro and the very potent Dodge Challenger. These cars are all serious head-turning lookers with on the road performance that puts their vaunted brethren from the pony-car wars of the late 1960s-early 1970s smack onto the trailer.

This was never more apparent after spending over a 1,000 miles with a bright Torch Red Challenger SRT8. Standing out from the crowd everywhere we traveled — we didn’t see one other Challenger all week — the SRT8 is the big-boy Dodge that screams testosterone with a throbbing 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 engine that paints long black stripes with little provocation. Hide the children; you don’t want them to see you do this with a car, Mom and Dad.

Incredibly, the same day that a beaming Edie delivered the hot Challenger with its manly six-speed Tremec gearbox, Chrysler was pushed into bankruptcy and the whole future of Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler became tenuous as all automotive production shut down the very next day because of the well-founded financial fears of numerous parts makers.

Chrysler and Dodge currently markets eight different car labels. The Challenger — based on the same chassis that underpins the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300-sedan — is the third best-selling car in Chrysler’s portfolio. All three of these automobiles are big cars, and their sales totals are not nearly as healthy as a year ago. Plus, small and midsize cars made by Chrysler are not selling very well these days either. Added to numerous other factors and the fall into bankruptcy was a virtual certainty.

The Challenger’s styling is clearly a knock-off of the pony car that Dodge sold from 1970-1974. The wide face, the long hood, and the raised rear deck all defined the first Challenger coupes and that theme continues today. While longer than the first Challengers, this model is actually an inch narrower and about 4 inches taller.

Visually, the Challenger looks very large and the wide-track chassis borrowed from the Charger helps to give it the solid handling and composed ride that the long-ago Challengers never offered. This car never beats you up despite firmer spring rates to handle 425 hp. Sure, there is some head-shake over undulating pavement, but the ride is all-day comfortable.

Body lean is more evident in fast turns than several serious sports cars produce — an obvious trade-off compromise for the car’s overall handling. Sitting behind a huge thick-rim steering wheel, you don’t object to this performance because when you note these lean angles, you discover that you are running 20 mph over the limit. Steering feel — never a strong suit in the first Challengers — is nicely weighted, yet still lighter than some drivers may prefer.

Yes, this car rolls — and rolls far too easily. The Hemi V-8 just never feels strained. Stroke the gas pedal and the Challenger SRT runs right up to the engineered fuel cut-off of 6,250 rpms — all the while sounding like it has another 2,000 to 3,000 rpms left in it. Engine note is smooth as the revs build — the thunder exiting the big dual exhausts is another whole matter that becomes way too intoxicating.

At an indicated 75 mph, the Challenger’s engine is turning at less than 1,800 rpms in sixth gear. Loafing along at this pace, the big coupe returns an EPA-projected 22 mpg on premium-grade fuel. Snick the transmission back to fourth gear and the SRT comes alive in a fashion that will surely make older gearheads mortgage their future for a chance to revisit their past.

When the Challenger debuted last fall, the Hemi-powered SRT and R/T only came with a five-speed automatic transmission. This spring, Dodge ramped up the new six-speed manual for these applications and all is good again. Serious muscle car drivers crave the interaction of the third pedal, throttle and a stout gearbox and this Challenger meets those needs with a combination that should please everyone. The clutch offers smooth take-up action and a clever hill-holding feature for climbing grades from a stop, while the pistol-grip shifter slides through the double-H pattern with appropriate spring assist.

While taller than the original Challenger, this Dodge offers nice interior accommodations. The cabin is spacious for all up front, and only a wee bit less friendly in the rear with primary access coming only on the passenger side of the car. Adults do fit in the rear, but like most coupes, access is a seat belt-battling challenge.

The SRT offers heated leather and cloth sport seats that do a nice job of holding you in place during spirited driving, plus providing solid all-day support. A tilt and telescoping steering column is most welcome here and helps each driver find his or her sweet spot behind the wheel.

Cabin noise is surprisingly sedated considering the constant thrum of the exhaust note. Highway motoring conversation is uninterrupted by the engine/exhaust note while a killer 500-watt stereo system supplies ample tunes to accompany you.

The Challenger also packs a potent set of HID-headlamps that make nocturnal motoring much less stressful. One late-night run home from Portland, all alone on the big super-slab, went by uneventfully as the Dodge gave us plenty of illumination for nature’s surprises.

When reviewing my choices for top 10 favorite cars for 2008, the Dodge Challenger R/T almost made the cut. The car was seriously likeable, but the absence of a driver-engaging manual gearbox robbed the Challenger of some of the necessary personality to make a larger impression.

So equipped, the SRT8 makes a very dramatic impression. This car is a blast to drive. It garners way more attention than anyone really needs (or in many cases, wants) plus it delivers a sporting ride that you can live with day-in and day-out in a body free from the quivers and shakes that earlier muscle cars produced.

Chrysler has one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, yet the company has several bright spots that could be viable going forward. Dodge’s minivans remain reasonably popular, the latest Dodge Ram is an impressive pickup in any contest, and the platform that renders this Challenger has been a success from the get-go.

Let’s hope that there is enough of Dodge and Chrysler that survives bankruptcy, or the second pony car war will be very short-lived and buyers in the future will surely lament the passing of one of Detroit’s great offerings.

Just the Facts: Dodge Challenger SRT8

Dodge offers three Challenger models, starting with the 250-hp V-6 powered SE at $21,820. The R/T comes with a 372-hp Hemi V-8 with an automatic transmission for $29,820, while the loaded SRT8 features a 425-hp 6.1-liter Hemi for $39,820. Delivery fee is an additional $725.

The Hemi engine is built in Mexico for later assembly in Challengers in Brampton, Ontario. Using 0/40W-grade Mobil One oil, the 6.1-liter also makes 420-pound/feet of peak torque at 4,800 rpms. EPA mileage ratings for the big Hemi are 13/19-mpg with the five-speed automatic, 14/22-mpg with the six-speed manual. There is a $1,300 gas guzzler tax included in the SRT8’s list price. The V-6 Challenger — automatic transmission only — earns EPA estimates of 18/25-mpg.

Challenger measures 197.8 inches long on a 116.0-inch wheelbase using a fully independent suspension. Height is 57.0 inches and track width is 63.1 inches. Weight is 4,190 pounds, while the trunk holds 16 cubic feet of cargo.

SRT8 standard features include: electronic stability control, all-speed traction control, limited-slip differential, 3.06-rear axle ratio, remote entry, cruise, tilt/telescoping wheel, heated leather power front seats, Boston Acoustic stereo with MP3 and steering wheel controls, vehicle info center with outside temp, 20-inch chromed alloy wheels with 245/45ZR20 Goodyear radials, carbon-fiber hood stripe, fog lamps, HID headlamps and functional hood scoop. Options on tested SRT8 included Track-Pak six-speed manual transmission with hill-holder feature and 3.92 rear axle ratio, 3-season Goodyear performance tires, Kicker SRT stereo with subwoofer and amplifier, and Sirius navigation and stereo upgrade. Total price, $44,575.

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