How's this? A large 2+2 coupe with charismatic looks, a charismatic Hemi V8 that pumps out 470hp and 470lb-ft of torque, enough people/luggage space to carry 2 adults and 2 kids and their ephemera, a solidly built and comfortable interior, and handling that is predictable and fun – and all for under $40k.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, no, actually. That is the idea of the Dodge Challenger SRT8 Core edition. It takes the SRT8 and deletes such luxuries as leather upholstery, adaptive suspension, front fog lamps, while also swapping forged wheels for uniquely-designed cast ones and replacing HID headlamps for halogen. Expert car-spotters will also notice the grille surround and the trunklid spoiler have turned to black and the “392 Hemi” badge on the fenders has been replaced by a simple “392” decal.
There are also Core models of the Dodge Charger SRT8 (the Super Bee), and the Chrysler 300 SRT8, and the principle is the same – strip 'em of some of their toys and give them unique appearance tweaks. The Super Bee will be featured here on a RACER.com video very soon with a special guest driver, while the “regular” SRT8 models of the Charger and 300 models have been tested here before
So has the Challenger SRT8 392 (in the pages of the Nov. 2011 edition of RACER magazine, with Alex Tagliani at the wheel), but to be honest, we're RACER and so need precious little excuse to check out Hemi-powered cars. There's a new version with some bits missing? Oh hell yeah, bring it on!
If you've ever tried the original Challenger SRT8 that emerged five years ago with a 6.1-liter engine and 425hp, but haven't had a chance to drive a current model, you're missing out on a lot more than just 45 horses. The car's behavior was transformed when it gained the 392 cu.in engine in 2011, with greatly improved body control.
Compare the '08 model to the current machine and you'll immediately notice less dive under braking and a sharper turn-in, while the reduced squat under acceleration means you can get back to the gas sooner without the weight transferring too rearward and causing the nose to push out. Basically, since 2011, the Challenger has been a treat to drive from corner entry to apex to exit.
Road car magazines on web and in print often like to group test the Dodge Challenger with the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. In one way, that's understandable as they're all trying to appeal to objective potential purchasers with an eye for retro design. But don't be misled into thinking the Challenger is a direct rival to the FoMoCo and Chevy products. It's a bigger car altogether, with far more head, shoulder and hip room, and more trunk space. As a result, it sort of sits in a class of its own.
The worry when I read the spec sheet of the Core edition was the deletion of the adaptive dampers. Switching to single mode setup could have resulted in too much shake or too much wallow, but in fact the Bilsteins are set in a way to reflect a car that can be used on long trips and abused on track days. In 1,000 miles of driving, there were just a couple of occasions when I hit a surface and wondered if the regular SRT8 would have taken things in its stride just slightly better. To pass more definitive judgment, though, you'd have to try them back to back. What I can say is that the Core product (get it?!) behaves in as benign a fashion as you'd expect from a seriously quick sporting coupe.
I may be imagining it, but I'd say the steering feel has been altered slightly in the Core model, and for the better. It's not that the rack has been speeded up, but there's a very impressive amount of feedback transmitted from front wheels to steering wheel, so that it's easy to set the car up for a long corner without making any corrections. Turn off the traction control (as I'd recommend you do in any car, if possible) and the Challenger communicates faithfully to the driver, allows the throttle pedal to decide trajectory. It's not a situation you'll regularly encounter because the 255/45ZR20 Goodyears offer great grip in the dry (no wet weather during our week with the car) but given enough space and pace, you can play.
Placing a car accurately while hurrying through switchbacks isn't just about its agility but also about the driver maximizing the tools he has at his disposal…which include the car's ergonomics. The Challenger has both great headroom and good all-around visibility, so it's smart to use those qualities. Slouch too low and too far back, NASCAR-driver style, and the hood of this car looks roughly the length and width of Connecticut, but sit a little straighter and you can slot into tight gaps without qualm. And by the way, replacing leather with cloth on the bucket seats is fine: the occupants are well held in place under hard cornering, and the seats are comfortable and supportive, and those are the only attributes to seek in car seats (aren't they?).
Elsewhere, the experience is familiar SRT8 territory. The 6.4-liter Hemi is eager enough to send the Challenger to 60mph from rest in 4.5 seconds, but the gear ratios are such that it's barely pulling 2000rpm at 80mph and, predictably, it's aurally rewarding at either end of the rev range. The transmission on “our” car was the 6-speed manual which was a pleasure to use, with biting point about halfway up the clutch pedal's travel, a notable improvement on our previous Challenger. Also improved was the gearbox itself. Yes, the shifter still shakes enough that, when holding it, you appear to be doing something to the car that may be illegal in certain states, but it's more precise than in our 2011 car, and you'd have to be clumsy to grab the wrong ratio. Which I was. Three times. And each time I was saved from the embarrassment of stalling by the wonderful flexibility of the Hemi.
I suppose we have to talk aesthetics, even though this is purely subjective. The Challenger, has always been massively appealing because it pulls off the retro homage so very well. Viewed head-on, there is no better (nor more intimidating) car on sale today, and its tail end is as 1970-era ancestor as its front. Overall, it's very distinctive yet without being ostentatious and without compromising the comfort and convenience of its drivers and passengers. On the negative side, I've always thought its ground clearance looked excessive, and while I love how well screwed-together and solid the interiors feel in Chrysler Group products these days, a few more areas of light-colored materials wouldn't go amiss.
As for the Core model's titivations, the front fog lights aren't missed but the HID headlamps are (half of my miles in the car were done at night, so I'm biased on that one). The standardized black rear spoiler is cool, whereas the wheel design is not, in my opinion, as nice as the standard five-spokers on the regular SRT8.
However, the simple fact is that the Core edition of the SRT Challenger offers you the same basic product but with a $6k price cut, which can only widen its already huge appeal.
• SRT is an entire brand fueled by passion for street and racing technology. Five hallmarks set SRT apart: awe-inspiring powertrain; outstanding ride, handling and capability; benchmark braking; aggressive and functional exteriors; and race-inspired and high-performance interiors.
For the inside line on everything SRT, there's only one place to go: driveSRT.com. It serves up fresh factory insider stories, gets the facts and figures on every SRT product, and goes inside the race team car haulers and talks directly to the drivers. Then it delivers it all to you fast and first.