2015 Dodge Challenger

PORTLAND, Ore. — Hybrid and electric cars might be all the rage in the eyes of many new car buyers; but there are still plenty of people who just lust after an exciting car with plenty of power. Fifty years ago, when Ford introduced the original Mustang it started a whole new genre — muscle cars, aka pony cars. For many years the cars in this purely American segment captured the imagination of anyone looking for a more practical alternative to a two-seat sports car.

Less than 10 years ago Ford, Chrysler, and GM, revived the segment with the introduction of modern derivations of the original cars. It’s paid off as sales of the three cars — Camaro, Challenger and Mustang — have increased at a greater rate than the overall market for new cars sales in the past couple of years.

When Dodge announced that the top-of-the-line 2015 Challenger SRT with a Hellcat engine would produce 707 horsepower it set the auto buff websites on fire. Initially Dodge did not announce the price, which left everyone guessing what it would be. Once it was revealed that you could buy this monster for a starting price of only $59,995 it left many pony car enthusiasts aghast. Here’s a car that pumps out as much or more power than a super car from Ferrari or Lamborghini, and can cost five times as much or more. Take that Europe!

Of course the supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 Hellcat is not for everyone. Although the top-of-the-range muscle cars have always garnered the headlines it’s the basic V-6 powered versions that have always been the main sellers. After all they look similar and cost far less.

I recently drove several of the lightly restyled new 2015 Challenger models. The entry-level SXT, which starts at a very affordable $27,990 (including $995 a destination charge) is no slouch as the 3.6-liter V-6 engine produces a respectable 305 hp and it comes standard with a brand new high-tech 8-speed automatic transmission. It also achieves a respectable estimated 30 mpg in highway driving.

Ironically this was the model I drove on a race track and it handled well and shifted without drama. Later I rode in a Hellcat driven by the car’s chief engineer and it was amazing to see how fast that car could be driven by an expert who had had plenty of time learning the car and track.

The model I spent most time in while test-driving along the winding roads in the Columbia Gorge was the $39,490 R/T Scat Pack with a 485 horsepower 6.4-liter V-8. It also had a stronger version of the all-new 8-speed automatic transmission, which is so smooth you are hardly aware when it changes gears. A manual transmission is offered as standard in V-8 powered models. Unbelievably the manual is not offered in the base V-6. Dodge says the R/T’s estimated highway mileage will be 25 mpg once EPA releases the official figures. We saw an average of 20 mpg during spirited driving on two-lane byways.

Considering the Challenger tips the scales at over two tons it did not feel too unwieldy. The electric steering provides good feedback and in some models the stiffness can be adjusted. The turning radius was surprisingly small making the car more maneuverable than expected.
Dodge has totally revamped the interior to give it both a classier touch and a look more reminiscent of the 1971 Challenger. It features a 7-inch multi-view cluster with two traditional round gauges and reconfigurable displays. Every model has a 5-inch or a larger 8.4-inch touch screen monitor with Uconnect available as an option.

This monitor provides a wealth of information depending on the model. The basics are there - tuning the radio, managing the phone, heating/ventilation etc. It’s possible to change many settings be it driving sedately on the street, sporty street driving or racing on a track. Different sets of auxiliary gauges can be summoned up and numerous settings can be changed. Some changes are not allowed while the car is in motion.

I had no complaints about the seating positions; even sitting in the back was acceptable as long as you don’t have really long legs. Rear seat headroom is surprisingly generous for a two-door coupe and unlike other competitors it is not claustrophobic as the windows are larger. Talking of larger, the trunk can hold 16.2 cu. ft. of stuff, which is quite a bit more than its competitors.

Safety features abound including all the electronic assistance one could ask for. Most, including traction control, stability control and brake assist are standard on all models. Other features such as Forward Collision Control and Blind-spot monitoring and Rear Cross Path detection are offered in optional packages.

It’s worth noting that the Hellcat comes with two different key fobs. The red one lets the engine produce the full 707 horsepower from its supercharged V-8. While the black one limits output to only 500 horsepower so it’s somewhat safer for a less experienced driver. There is also a valet mode, which limits power even further and even prevents the car from starting in first gear. No Hellcat owner will want a valet driver doing burnouts in the restaurant parking lot!

All of these electronic aids and features demonstrate how relatively easy it is to adjust many parameters of a car’s performance at the touch of a button. The Challenger is certainly one of the most customized “computer-controlled” cars I’ve driven that costs under $70,000.

Is the Challenger for you? If you hanker after a traditional American muscle car, that’s perfectly drivable around town but can also be turned into a beast, the Challenger is a good bet. It’s got more interior space — it’s the only one that can seat five passengers - than its competitors and yet its size is not too intimidating. If you want an affordable weekend racer the Hellcat is one hell of a bargain. If you want a car that looks like it, but you would never even dream of breaking the speed limit, the basic SXT with the V-6 for under $28,000 is also a bargain.

— John Rettie