Thumbs Up: Part muscle car, part grand touring car
Thumbs Down: Interior badly in need of upgrading
Buy This Car If: You want a muscle car that won’t beat you up on cross-country trips
I’ll admit to being biased: the relaunched Dodge Challenger, in my opinion, is the best looking of all the modern muscle cars. It doesn’t have the show-car appeal of the new Camaro, and it won’t keep up with the new Ford Mustang when the road gets twisty, but when it comes to good looks, neither car can hold a candle to the Challenger. Chrysler did a spectacular job of updating the original while staying true to the car’s styling and intended mission. Like the original Challenger, this version is as much about comfort and capability as it is about raw power. If you want to lap a race track in the fastest time possible, or set the night’s low E.T. at your local dragstrip, the Challenger probably isn’t the best choice. On the other hand, if you want a car you can drive from New York to California, then spend a few days lapping Laguna Seca before driving home again, the Challenger will gladly accommodate you.
For 2011, Dodge sank serious money into upgrading the Challenger’s suspension, brakes and steering, creating a car described by Ralph Gilles as “driving a thousand pounds lighter.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the money spent on the car for 2011 does make it more entertaining to drive, and I’d put it almost on par with the Chevy Camaro SS for handling. No matter how you slice it, the Challenger is a big car, and even a 6.4 liter Hemi V-8 can’t rewrite the laws of physics. It will certainly go around a racetrack quickly, as the engineers from Dodge’s SRT group demonstrated by placing 14th overall (and 3rd in class) at this year’s One Lap of America, but the driver will be working hard to do so.
One thing Dodge (thankfully) left alone for 2011 was the exterior sheetmetal. The Challenger doesn’t need refreshed styling, and I’d be happy to see the car unchanged on the outside for its entire production run. I hate to keep cross-referencing muscle cars, but Ford nailed the new Mustang’s styling in 2005, and every successive change has made the car less attractive. Yes, that’s just an opinion, but my point is this: change for change’s sake is never a good thing.
For 2011, the Challenger SRT8 is available in a 392 Inaugural Edition shown here. The package, which commemorates the legendary 392 Hemi V-8, includes Deep Water Blue Pearl paint with white stripes, 20-inch wheels, unique interior trim and white with blue seats stitched with the “392” logo. I’m not a fan of the flashy seats, but the 392 package is the only way to get the Deep Water Blue finish for 2011, which looks perfect on the car. Other exterior features on SRT8 models include a front air dam, xenon headlights, a functional hood scoop and a rear spoiler.
Inside, Chrysler deserves praise for the comfort of the Challenger’s sport seats. They may not have the same adjustability you’d find in a luxury coupe or sedan, but that doesn’t matter: the sport seats supplied in SRT8 models are superb, and they’ll yield all-day-long comfort for a surprising array of body shapes and sizes. They’re well bolstered, too, which is a good thing given the Challenger’s capability when the road gets twisty. Front seats in SRT8 models are heated, although I’m not sure I’d consider the Challenger to be my vehicle of choice for winter driving.
Like the other pony cars, the Challenger’s back seat isn’t really for adults on long trips. There’s more room in the back of the Challenger than there is in the back of the Mustang or the Camaro, but getting into or out of the rear seat requires some dexterity. There’s enough head room for six-footer, but leg room is the real issue. The back seat is definitely functional for short trips, but if you routinely haul four people around I’d steer you toward the Dodge Charger.
The one area where the Challenger gets points off is the dash. I’ll praise Dodge for spending money on the suspension over the Challenger’s interior, but the inside really is overdue for a complete makeover. There’s too much black, hard plastic inside, and the material used (paper?) for the instrument faces looks cheap when backlit. The steering wheel is fine for a family sedan, but it has no place in a car with sporting intentions. The spokes are too big, and there are neither grips nor thumb cut outs at the 9:00 and 3:00 position. Finally, the “media center” used by Chrysler throughout its product range is cumbersome and less than intuitive to operate. It shouldn’t take ten minutes of trial and error to program a radio station, and switching between screens needs to be more user friendly. Please, Dodge, update the Challenger’s interior (except the seats) for the 2012 model year.
Under the hood lies a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8. If you want to be anal-retentive about it, the engine actually displaces 390 cubic inches, but I’d call that close enough to 392 for government work. It cranks out 470 horsepower and 470 foot-pounds of torque, which is enough to get the 4,170 pound car from zero to sixty in around 4.5 seconds. If you opt for the five speed automatic, SRT8 models feature cylinder deactivation for 2011, which will boost fuel economy by turning the 6.4 liter engine into a 3.2 liter engine under low-demand driving conditions. My six-speed manual tester came slapped with a gas guzzler tax, thanks to its EPA rating of 14 city and 23 highway. Your actual fuel economy depends entirely on how “enthusiastically” you drive the Challenger; get it into sixth gear by short shifting as much as possible and I’ll be you can do better than 23 mpg. Wind it out in every gear, and you’ll be hard pressed to get 14 mpg. I saw an actual 15.6 mpg in mostly-city driving, which isn’t bad considering my admiration for the car’s acceleration.
Start the engine, and the Challenger rewards you with a satisfying growl. The 6.4 liter V-8 sounds throatier than the Camaro’s 6.2 liter V-8, but it’s never intrusive. You won’t be sneaking into the driveway at 2:00 in the morning, but you won’t be setting off car alarms as you drive by, either. Behind the wheel, you’re reminded that the Challenger is a big car with a long hood and its low driving position only enhances this effect. Slip the clutch and the Challenger builds speed effortlessly, depending upon how enthusiastic you are with your right foot. The gear pattern takes some getting used to, since what you think is first is really third. Even in first, you need to give the car gas to smoothly transition from standing still to moving forward; peak torque doesn’t happen until 4,200 RPM, and two tons of metal is a lot of mass to get moving.
On the highway, the Challenger likes a minimum of 80 miles per hour in sixth gear. Your best shot at avoiding a ticket is to use the car’s cruise control, or opt for fifth gear at speeds south of 80. There isn’t much grunt available at 80 mph in sixth gear (since the engine is only turning 1,100 RPM or so), requiring a downshift to fifth for passing. Opt for the correct gear, and there’s plenty of thrust from the 6.4-liter Hemi to get you out of trouble.
The Challenger SRT8 corners remarkably flat given its mass and suspension compliance. The tires give a surprising amount of grip in corners, but I found myself reluctant to push the Challenger to its limits on public roads. Make a mistake, and two tons of out-of-control automobile will do some damage, especially at the speeds the Challenger is capable of. Despite the car’s size, I’d welcome the opportunity to wring one out on a racetrack. It may not be as nimble as the Mustang, but I suspect it’s equally fun.
My 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT9 392 Inaugural Edition tester had a base sticker price of $45,475, including a destination charge of $825 and a gass-guzzler tax of $1,000. Options on my tester included the $695 SRT Option Group II (13 speaker audio system, subwoofer, amplifier), the $395 Media Center 430N (navigation, 30 GB hard drive) and the $100 three season performance tires for a total sticker price of $47,565. For comparison, a similarly equipped Chevy Camaro 2SS would sticker for $40,160 (but doesn’t come with a navigation system) and a comparable Ford Mustang GT Premium would list at $44,825.
So is the Dodge Challenger worth more than it’s pony car competitors? The answer depends entirely on your expectations. The Challenger isn’t as competitive on a track as the other two, and it (surprisingly) doesn’t draw as much attention as the Camaro. Of the three, the Challenger represents the pony car that’s easiest to live with on a daily basis, and it’s the only one I’d want to take on a cross-country trip. The 2011 Challenger isn’t perfect, but it is the most refined of the bunch.