Dodge Challenger R/T – muscle begets nostalgia

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

“This car is just stupid cool!”

That was the assessment of one of our occasional riders as he was climbing out of our Dodge Challenger R/T test car.

Those spontaneous seconds of admiration came from a life-long Chevrolet devotee who then added that the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro would have to be something beyond special to convince him to buy it over the new, hot Dodge.

And hot it is, at least in the minds of the car-loving public.

We rather like being stealth when driving new sheetmetal. We don’t mind being quizzed from time to time about the latest Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota that catches someone’s fancy. It gives us a chance to get input from the people who buy new cars and trucks.

But the Challenger was way over the top in attracting attention, much like the reaction we get when testing exotics and premium luxury brands. Only a couple other times in our long road testing careers can we remember somewhat benign cars that started as many conversations at stop lights; attracted thumbs up on streets and interstates; and hard looks in parking lots.

Before the Challenger, the kings of attention-grabbers were the Volkswagen New Beetle after it was introduced a decade ago and the PT Cruiser. And frankly, we don’t remember them getting as much notice as the orange Challengers we tested in both North Carolina and California.

We allowed our occasional rider a stint behind the wheel for a short around-the-block drive and he was amazed at how everything suited him, how the steering wheel and shifter were in the proper location for his driving comfort and its big-car feel with the hood stretched out in front. “This is definitely all-American with an all-American feel and I love it,” he continued to gush.

While we are not quite as loquacious about Challenger we appreciate the attention to detail and understand how the car bubbles with nostalgia for a select group of pre-boomers. For those younger muscle car lovers the Challenger gives them another choice for a modern version of a classic. By the time the new Camaro hits the streets truly the ‘pony car’ war will be in full swing, bringing joy to that select group who line up for a chance to relive the past. Mustang, Camaro and Challenger also offer a taste to youngsters of what so stirred their parents, without the stigma of “It’s not your fathers’ Oldsmobile.”

If all Chrysler products engendered this much attention and admiration, the privately held U.S. firm would be a world leader not a struggling shell of its former self.
Well, for now, Chrysler has the Challenger, a car that went from concept a few short years ago to reality nearly intact. And a car that so mimics the original Challenger muscle car built from 1970 to 1974 that it’s astounding.

What will make the Challenger endure perhaps longer than many such retro efforts is that it delivers more than just style, it delivers a pleasing behind-the-wheel experience. That being said, not all is perfect. But we’ll get to that later.

The Challenger, which was introduced last year in the high-performance guise of the SRT8, is a big car stretching out nearly 200 inches and weighing in at over two tons. The big feel is not off-putting and it yields benefits such as a very usable 16-cubic-foot trunk and leg and head room for two back seat passengers.

Road carving is delightful in SRT8 and R/T trim levels and smoking-tire starts are a given with either edition of the Hemi V-8 under the hood. When someone asks, “…that got a Hemi,” chances are you can sum it up with “darn right!”

There are three models available, two with Hemi engines. The aforementioned SRT8 that comes with a 6.1-liter 425-horsepower V-8, and the R/T with a 5.7-liter V-8 making 376 horsepower and the SE trim with a more subdued and slightly more fuel efficient 3.5-liter 250-horsepower V-6.

The SRT8 was introduced as an automatic-transmission-only model in 2008. The R/T and the SE have been added to fill out the 2009 lineup. Both V-8 editions can be purchased with shift-for-yourself transmissions in 2009. And down the road, if there is a down the road for Dodge, is the Challenger Classic, even more of the mold of the original including those bold racing stripes, a hood scoop that actually operates as an air intake and the Challenger script on the fenders instead of the block letters on the front grille. We hope it gets here!

As for now the best overall choice in our book for performance, the great Challenger styling, fuel efficiency and affordability is the R/T.  We drove the R/T with a six-speed manual transmission and the optional gorgeous aluminum chrome-clad 20-inch wheels. My-oh-my, what fun!

The R/T goes out the door for $29,995 including destination charge. Although the R/T comes well equipped, we highly recommend at least one option, that being the 20-inch wheels for $1,350. It is a styling investment you will want to make.

Our test cars also came with a rather inexpensive navigation system and an upgraded audio system for $1,700 and a power sunroof bringing the bottom line to $35,586 each, including destination charges.
The SRT8 is indeed alluring with its giant engine and numerous go-fast goodies including special chassis equipment and huge Brembo brakes. But it starts at a whopping $10,000 more than the R/T at $39,995.

If you outfit your R/T correctly, you can’t tell the difference between the two cars except for the badges. And the slightly smaller 5.7-liter engine is not that far off performance times of the big guy. Zero-to-60 in the 6.1-liter engine has been measured around 5 seconds. The 5.7, Dodge says, can perform the same task in 5.5 seconds.

And fuel efficiency, something that may become more important as the new wears off and gas prices begin climbing again, is much better with the R/T measured at 15 mpg city and 23 highway. The big Hemi is rated at 13/18 on premium gas.

Both V-8 engines can be mated to a Mercedes-developed five-speed automatic transmission as well as the six-speed manual.

Then there is the V-6. We feel Dodge should have spent more time and money developing this version which could have wide appeal considering its starting price. The V-6, but is fairly spunky but it comes with a healthy appetite, too, getting only 17 mpg city and 25 out on the highway. Worse yet, it must make due with an out-dated four-speed automatic. Even worse, such things as ABS are optional equipment.

But if you want the Challenger never the less, but money is an issue, you will look at a starting price of $21,995 for the V-6 SE. To get some satisfaction, you will have to check off several things on the options list, but that means more money.

Inside Challenger the dashboard layout is straight forward, but neatly designed. Dodge got it about right. And the big seats are comfortable and will accommodate big bodies. We know.

We wouldn’t call gaining access to the back seat a chore, but like most coupes, it is best handled by the young and agile among us. Once ensconced, there is adequate room for two adults.

We think Dodge got this one right, especially with the two V-8 options. But what may make this wonderfully designed hunk of sheetmetal a sales disappointment over the next year is the unprecedented downturn in the automobile market. Out of economic necessity people are going to buy what they need, not what they really want. And if fuel efficiency grows again to be a consideration (and it will), the big Dodge V-8 engines may start gathering dust after the first blush of enthusiasts.

The great fear for Dodge, as we see it, is that the Challenger may be something to admire – but from afar.


Base price: $29,995; as driven, $35,565
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8 HEMI
Horsepower: 376 @ 5,150 rpm
Torque: 410 pound-feet @ 4,300 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Length: 197.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,041 pounds
Turning circle: 38.9 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 23 mpg highway, 15 city
0-60: 5.5 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Ford Mustang GT, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Honda Accord V-6 coupe

The Good
• Head-turning styling
• Tire-smoking performance with Hemi engines!
• Great cargo capacity for a coupe

The Bad
• High price of entry and anemic fuel economy

The Ugly
• Dodge did not pay enough attention to base SE model