If I’d run naked down the middle of Pacific Coast Highway, I don’t think I could have drawn more attention than when I was in the comfortable bucket seats of a bright red Dodge Challenger SRT8 cruising between PCH’s stoplight-strewn stretch south of LA in a weekday rush-hour. Obviously, for the sake of my pride and the public’s stomachs, this theory will not be put to the test, but take it from me: there can be no recreating Vanishing Point
in the new Challenger. From a police chopper or a Crown Vic, it’s too damn obvious.
Sorry to start on such a seemingly superficial note, but like it or not, the Challenger’s striking looks do become part of the driving experience, and bring a new set of pressures on the driver – mainly along the lines of “don’t screw up.” For one thing, its rev-happy 383cu.in/6.1-liter Hemi sounds like a bruiser in any part of the rev range. In this 6-speed manual model, first and second gear ratios are very close, the revs barely drop during a change, so it sounds like you’re racing everyone around you as you depart from a set of stop lights.
Secondly, you have to be quite brutal in that change, pulling the lever towards you as well as back, otherwise it will slip all too easily from first into fourth. Given the 420 lb.ft of torque available, the car soaks up such miscues with ease – but those around you know that you’ve gaffed. Starting in second is one obvious option.
Thirdly, there’s the fact that even, with traction control on, this car will spin its wheels. Our car had the three-season Goodyear Performance Tires wrapped around its 20-in. wheels, but mate 425 horsepower to a 3.92 rear axle and you can easily get wheelspin off the line, traction control or not. (What t.c. will
do, however, is prevent wheel slippage thereafter: with it turned off, this car will easily spin its wheels going from first to second, and chirp them from second to third.)
The advantage of this power-to-grip ratio, of course, is being able to steer the car on the throttle through corners – even to the extent of over-compensating for its natural understeer – without disabling your ultimate rescue package. But take care, for this requires a lot of space: for one thing, its lateral grip is high, but then when it does break away… The Challenger is a heavy car – 600lbs heavier than a Mustang GT – and you can feel that difference most markedly in its turn-in. It’s not helped by the fact that it feels very wide, but this is largely down to the driver’s positioning: from your eyes to the right-front corner of the car seems a huge distance.
But a long-term owner of a Challenger is going to get used to the dimensions of the vehicle. What might always put him off taking it to the limit is the car’s steering: There is no feel to it, there’s too much play in the straight-ahead position, and it is too light at speed. Given that a Challenger can hit 170mph in the right circumstances, none of these are good things. An enthusiastic driver demands messages from his car, and not getting those messages through the steering brings its own demand, and yet leaves the driver uninvolved.
This is such a pity because if you lay your instincts to one side and exploit the Challenger SRT8’s braking power and grip, it is quite maneuverable. But it feels like an unwilling ally; that surliness is intimidating and ultimately I gave up trying to have fun on any turn tighter than 90 degrees. Maybe Dodge had the right idea in initially releasing the SRT8 as an auto only. Maybe it’s a car designed only to be used to 90 percent of its potential on a twisting course.
In a straight line, though, the SRT8 is a thrilling machine, launching you to 60 from standstill in just 4.8sec, and 100mph less than seven seconds later, while the flexibility of the Hemi is awesome, just as its sound is addictive. Pull the lever back into 6th at 50mph, and you’ll be turning an indicated 1100rpm. And then floor it. The deep-throated rumbles from both the engine and the exhaust sounds like Leonard Cohen singing along to a Barry White record. And yes, the car will still accelerate enthusiastically.
And yet this car is refined enough that such atypical demands are a pleasure, for there are no unpleasant resonances. In fact, the Challenger’s got a lot of plus points in the interior: the leather and suede seats are both comfortable and supportive (and look great), there is a decent amount of legroom on the back seat, there is ample shoulder and arm room for front-seat occupants, and the (sadly unsporty-looking) steering wheel has tilt and telescopic adjustment, and the dials and controls are big, simple to understand and easy to use. Sadly the look and feel of the dashboard materials is grim. Yes, this is a retro car, but did we want to be reminded of an early-’90s Neon? For a $40k car, it isn’t right.
And yet… Despite the interior, despite the confidence-sapping steering, I can’t help but love this car. Part of it, of course, is having a Hemi that punches like Sonny Liston. The other part is the car’s styling. Though marginally preferring the Plymouth Barracuda over the Dodge Challenger (as hardtop models, at least) in their 1970 forms, they were both handsome cars, and both are successfully echoed in the current incarnation of the Challenger. I’d argue that the front of the 2009 Challenger SRT8 is the most striking – and intimidating – of any car on sale today.
It’s a pity that the hood appliqué is carbon fiber-look rather than matte black, and that the badge reads “6.1” instead of 383. But the waistline is perfect. Personally, I think the wheels are outsized, much like on its cousin, the Chrysler 300 (the current Dodge Charger, also on this LX chassis, doesn’t have this problem), and that the taller-profile tires on the SE V6 models are more representative of the 1970 car.
But make no mistake, this car is extremely desirable, and it’s a real pity that Dodge has apparently dismissed the idea of producing a convertible version. A soft-top, auto ’box option, would have opened a whole new segment of the market for the Challenger.
Before I drove the Challenger, I’d assumed that, being another retro icon, it could be put in the same class as the Ford Mustang (and forthcoming Chevrolet Camaro). But I was wrong. Given the Challenger’s size, weight and demeanor, Ford would have to produce a new Torino to have a true rival to this car. In the SRT8, Dodge has given us a drag-strip hero, more akin to its illustrious predecessor than I’d have thought possible, and has thus put it into a subtly different market than the Mustang, which in basic V8 GT form, is $12k cheaper. But the SRT8 is a rarer car – hence all the attention it gets – with genuine 2+2 seating, a bigger trunk and, of course, an extra 110hp. Deciding which piece of retro-cool is for you can only be decided by test drives, but be sure to expect very
different experiences.Words: David Malsher
Photos: Lesley Ann Miller/LAT