2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 test drive
The manual-transmission Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a bear of a car. It’s big, strong, surprisingly fast, and not something to be trifled with. It takes attention to drive, so keep that cellphone off and don’t play with the 3D graphics on the navigation system.
Like the original, the 2009 Challenger SRT8 has a big, torquey engine under the hood which loves to be revved and ignores hills and air conditioning (as long as you're in the power band), a decent size trunk, and not much of a back seat. Unlike the original, it’s pretty tightly made, with no sense of body flex at all; swung around turns, it feels more like a go-kart than an old E-body. Steering is nice and tight, adding to the feel of control.
The Challenger grabs the attention of everyone outside, first getting a glance from its impossibly loud, big-block-style exhaust, then keeping that attention. People stop and stare, not just because our particular car was painted in a bright red with a huge gray-black stripe on the hood, and not just because it sounds like what it is, a real muscle car. At the time of our test drive, the public still hadn’t discovered the Challenger, despite all the magazine covers, newspaper photos, and excitement.
Young and old men and women, import and domestic drivers, all hit their brakes on the road or stop and stare from the sidewalk. Drivers change lanes and slow down to get a better look, or hang out in the blind spots to keep staring. Thumbs-ups were common in our test drive; people kept stopping to ask about the Challenger. Some people refused to believe it was a new model. Michael Castiglione must be bursting with pride — there were no disparaging remarks about the styling or body. In person, the Dodge Challenger is an amazing sight, about as pleasing a rolling sculpture as ever left the factory.
Numerous people have reported on driving automatic-transmission Challengers, but not many have been behind the wheel of a stick-shift version to date. Our test model had the optional, extra-cost six-speed manual transmission, controlled from a stick styled to look somewhat like the old Pistol Grip shifters. The gearshift moves smoothly and without problem, but takes some getting used to, with three positions on each side; the clutch is heavy but not unreasonable, just a bit heavier than those used with the 2.4 liter turbo cars.
One welcome feature is the new Hill Start Assist, not an original idea (anti-slip devices go back to the days of Studebaker) but one which is welcome in a car with a small active clutch-pedal zone. This system works invisibly on hills the car deems to be steep enough; in essence, it holds the brake for you until it senses the clutch taking hold, and then it releases the brake and you go forward. An expert driver devoting attention to his or her work could probably do it more smoothly than the automated system, but there’s something to be said for having the car do it for you, too. This is, of course, only available with manual transmissions — there's no need for it with an automatic. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve experienced it, you may never want to do without it again.
The first gear is fairly low, and the sixth speed is very high, so there’s a good spread, though first, second, and third shoot by quickly and under moderate acceleration to highway speeds, first-to-third shifts are more reasonable than going through each gear. The close ratios of first through third seem designed to eke out every last horse from the engine, keeping it close to redline. Fifth is the key highway gear for legal speeds, providing a balance of gas mileage and acceleration (especially on hills), while sixth is either for loafing around (around 1,500 rpm at 75 mph), or achieving that 26 mpg nobody thought you could get. Yes, even with the insane torque of the 6.1 liter V8, you still need to downshift to shoot by someone clogging the fast lane at 60 mph. (Fourth is there, too, if you really want to get by quickly.)
Acceleration from anything near the right gear is fast and brutal. Keep the engine over 3,000 rpm, and you get instant thrust. If they had to use the authentic 1970 tires, they'd get broken loose easily even on a perfect road in a straight line.
The big engine comes with a big appetite for fuel, though it is far thriftier than its big-block predecessors. We were able to maintain 16 mpg in the suburbs, 25 on the highway, without half trying; EPA ratings are lower, at 14 city, 22 highway (we understand the lower city rating but not the highway rating, were they in fifth gear?). With the SE, you can get reasonable gas mileage of 18 city, 25 highway; but with the SRT8 automatic, the EPA claims just 13 mpg city, 19 highway, and we suspect that the automatic robs the driver of some gas-saving opportunities.
The 2009 Challenger SRT8, with its 425 horsepower V8 and the Tremec stick-shift option, can do 0-60 in under five seconds. The power keeps on coming long past that; quarter-mile times are going to be impressive. Even with the automatic, Dodge claims zero to 100 mph and back in under 17 seconds; it takes just 110 feet to stop from 60 mph. As for cornering, our test car’s peak g-force, as per the built in indicator, was recorded as 0.99 g. Dodge only claims 0.9 g.
The engine is surprisingly loud and growly, so that even as you’re loafing around in sixth gear, it sounds like you may need to upshift; though there's no place to upshift and you'd stall the engine if you did. To get into first smoothly requires a decent push on the gas pedal which vrooms the engine. This is not a subtle exhaust tuning. It’s sweet music when you can let it all out, which isn’t often and doesn’t last very long, with 425 horses hooked up directly to the rear wheels. You can drive gently and smoothly if needed, but you can't drive quietly.
The Challenger has the heavy feel common to the various LX cars, giving you an impression of every pound in its two tons of mass. This is not one of those little tossable sports cars, nor even a second-generation Neon; it's every ounce a full sized muscle car, albeit one with excellent cornering ability. It goes where you point it, with the electronic stability control (dubbed ESP) kicking in if needed. Chances are you won't need the ESP on dry roads; the car is naturally well balanced with well tuned shocks and a carefully set up suspension. Still, that heavy feeling may not be welcome to drivers who have gotten used to sport compacts and even the LH cars.
Unlike the past SRT8 models, the Challenger is not all that stiffly sprung; it absorbs bumps and potholes better than many “regular” cars, including our own PT Cruiser GT. The suspension is tight but not punishing, soaking up pavement problems and keeping a firm grip on the road but not jiggling passengers. The people at SRT and Dodge struck an excellent balance, and, if the project engineer is to be believed, this was done without sacrificing cornering.
As former 426 Hemi owners no doubt recall, suspensions aren't just there for going around corners; they also have a strong influence on launches and sudden acceleration. Many are the tales of people who floored their Hemi cars on the highway and ended up in another lane. The Challenger’s rear suspension design, derived from Mercedes practice but engineered and tuned by Chrysler engineers, makes for perfectly straight launches and no noticeable loss of control on sudden applications of power. That's more of an accomplishment with a manual-transmission car, without the slight power reduction and time delay of an automatic’s fluid interface.
Inside, the styling is a mix of old and new, remarkable for keeping everything in roughly the same place as the Dodge Charger while adding a unique personality and looking more upscale. The edges and textures of the dashboard all avoid a feeling of cheapness or “plasticky;” it even manages to carry off faux carbon fiber, partly by using a finer pattern, and partly by avoiding large swaths of the stuff. Thin chrome bands highlight the four big gauges (with temperature marked in actual degrees, and a silly 180 mph speedometer). Even the passenger side looks good.
The doors have cutouts for arms and control panels, with the door handles mounted fairly far forward and in their own little cavity; the result is a smoother, classier, more tasteful result than the blocky effects we've seen on some recent Dodges. The surfaces are all soft-touch, including the textured interior door handles. Climate control sare the standard new Dodge style, with three large buttons circled by bright chrome rings; the left button is for air recirculation (while the knob controls the fan), the middle one is for air conditioning (the knob controls air temperature), and the right one is for the rear defroster (the knob controls the vent). The system is logical, looks good, and feels good. Underneath it is a button bank, and switches for the two-level seat warmers.
As an SRT8, our test car came with the “performance pages” feature which uses standard computer inputs to provide drivers with performance data, including zero to sixty times, quarter and eighth mile times, g-forces (both peak and instant), gas mileage, and braking distance; it’s a feature every car should have, because every car can easily provide these numbers (g-forces being calculated from the stability control, the rest from the speed sensor).
As with any modern Dodge, the trip computer also provided instant gas mileage, distance to empty, compass heading and outside temperature, and access to various preferences including locking, lighting, and accessory time delays. The latter is a surprisingly handy feature which is slowly spreading to other automakers. A newer feature is the exact oil and antifreeze temperature, in degrees, reading out on the trip computer — which also tells you what radio or satellite station you're on and whether you have a door or trunk open.
Our Challenger came with the keyless ignition, which uses a radio to validate the driver's keys, which are then kept in a pocket or dumped into the cupholder. This is a moderately silly option, especially since the doors don't unlock that way — you still need to take the keys out. (While we're griping, the door handles are a little too small for easy gripping by people with big hands; and it's too easy to have them slip right out of your fingers.) It is satisfying to press the starter button (which, if your foot isn't on the brake and clutch pedals, simply turns on the accessory power) and hear that huge motor rumble to a start, but a key in the dashboard would do the trick and be less complex.
While the front seats are fairly comfortable (unlike some SRT models, for larger people as well as smaller ones), the passenger seat clearly takes second priority with no power controls; the driver’s seat goes up and down, back and forth, and has a tilt seat cushion and electric recliner. Both have power heaters, at least on the SRT models, with two settings.
Visibility is badly restricted in the rear/side view; despite the rather small amount of glass, front and side views are both fine. Rear visibility is hampered in the SRT by the high trunk, small rear glass, and the mini-spoiler, which incidentally provides a way to close the trunk without getting fingerprints on it. At night, powerful high-intensity discharge headlights provide all the light a person could want; put on the high beams, and the low beams remain on as well for the ultimate in illumination. Fog lights are mounted low, in the right place to cut through the mists.
The center lights may look as though they’re high beams, but in reality they’re standard amber parking lights, and they look quite handsome when they’re lit, day or night (though of course they’re easier to see at night). The old-fashioned side lights are a wonderful touch in this penny-pinching day and age, and are one of those details that would have been cut by Daimler overseers during the dark times, along with the functional hood scoops.
Another nice lighting touch is the fully lit rear light bar, stretching from side to side in a wonderful display of “we can spend that extra 50¢ on lights.” It’s one of the many touches that makes the Challenger such a sweet ride, ready to surprise and delight owners and observers alike.
The brake lights stand out from the standard running lights; and the reverse light is behind the white center lens, creating a snazzy effect that may well stun other drivers into actually slowing down for a reversing Dodge. Anything that can draw attention to your brakes is handy, since the Challenger SRT can stop from 60 mph in a stunning 110 feet, far better than normal cars and many performance cars. You can credit the big and obvious Brembo brakes for that; the ordinary Challenger R/T Hemi also stops faster than usual, but not quite as fast as the SRT version.
Rear seating is not particularly generous, but you can fit two adults back there if you really need to (it helps that the front seats are high enough to let rear passengers put their feet underneath). Both rear passengers have to come in through the passenger door, unless you have the patience to position the driver's seat all the way forward and then slowly let it go back again. The passenger seat latch lets it the seat back come forward and the seat itself slide all the way forward, but like most of these devices the seat re-latches itself in a fairly random position. The front seat belt blocks the way into the back seats. If you want a family car, in other words, Dodge will happily sell you a Charger. Or rear passengers can console themselves with the center armrest, containing twin cupholders.
Front passengers also get two cupholders, which is handy since, as previously noted, you need a place to dump your keys. There's also an EZ-Pass slot, and a moderately sized center cubby, along with the usual map pockets and glove compartment.
The hood opens conveniently, with a latch kept far away from the emergency brake release, and gas-charged struts to hold the hood open; underneath, all fluids are easy to find and fill, though the brake fluid is hiding underneath a pop-out panel by the cowl. The air scoops, by the way, don’t feed into the air intake; they just go into the engine bay and help to cool things down.
There is also a capacious trunk, so this is not an impractical car for couples or people who carry a lot of cargo for whatever reason. The trunk opening is fairly convenient, with the lights moving up with the trunk lid for a moderately low threshold. Underneath the neat trunk surface, we found a liftable panel which concealed not a spare tire (which is reserved for the more plebian Challeys) but a pump with a can of tire sealant, usable only in emergences. We also found the battery, shifted to the rear in a time-honored trick — balancing out the weight of the engine by putting the heavy, lead-acid battery in the back, instead of further imbalancing the vehicle by putting it all the way in front.
When it comes to creature comforts, the new Challengers have trumped the old ones pretty well. Even base models get a stereo, and the SRT8 naturally comes with a top of the line music system complete with a subwoofer that you may wish you could shut off at times; with the navigation system, you get somewhat distracting soft-touch (on-screen) controls, which nonetheless provide control over bass, treble, and midrange. The satellite radio is something most users are enthusiastic about, and sound quality is excellent. That said, the navigation system can be very distracting, particularly with the built in satellite traffic indicators (which, regardless of brand, are fairly prone to foolish advice). The nav system is on par with most others — fairly complete, with all the usual features (such as being able to enter the type of place you want to go, a phone number, an address, etc.), with the usual usability pros and cons. We suggest sticking with the regular stereo, though it means giving up that excellent hard-drive music storage system.
Either way, you get audio controls on the steering wheel, within reason. The volume control always works; the radio / CD up/down control only works when you're in compass/temperature mode, because the up/down button is shared with the trip computer.
Overhead, a bin holds sunglasses, and two dome/map lights are controlled by a simple push on the lens; the day/night mirror is automatic, a feature that's moderately convenient but doesn’t provide the dimming capability of a manually operated mirror. A universal garage door opener is also built in.
On a more everyday level, the air conditioner blows the kind of cold air you’d expect from a 1970 Dodge, and the controls are convenient and self-explanatory. Fan noise is dead silent at low settings and noisy at high settings; there’s a wide range between.
Most people we spoke to were rather shocked at the entry price of the Dodge Challenger SE — around $22,000 including a V6 that’s substantially more powerful than the base V8 of the “real” E-body Dodge Challengers (even the famous first generation, before the “formal look.”) Those 318s, old-timers may recall, were capable of just 150 net horsepower. The V6 pushes out around 250 hp, or so Dodge claims, though instead of a tight TorqueFlite it goes through a four-speed slushbox. Acceleration with the SE is a reasonable 8 seconds or so, roughly matching the first-generation Neon five-speed.
People were also surprised to find that the SRT8 was just under $40,000; the R/T is probably the sweet spot of price and power, with around 380 hp, a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission, multiple-displacement system for gas mileage (with the automatic only), and most of the options of the SRT8. What the SRT version provides above and beyond the Challenger R/T is a combination of unique features (e.g. the performance metrics), extra-strong braking, superlative cornering, a bit of exclusitivity, an extra-loud muffler, and special seats and trim. Whether you need all that is your choice; it doesn't come cheap.
The base price for the Challenger SRT8 is $39,995, including destination and three years of warranty coverage (but not including the gas guzzler tax). If you forgo all options, you get a very well outfitted vehicle: the 6.1 Hemi, a five-speed automatic, electronic stability control, side curtain airbags, traction control, ABS, remote start, cruise, alarm, power trunk release, autodimming mirror, air, power everything (except driver’s seat), satellite radio, Boston Acoustics speakers, cellphone system, wheel-mounted audio controls, trip computer, tilt/telescope steering wheel, universal garage door opener, and, yes, front and rear floor mats. Standard wheels are 20 x 9 aluminum-alloy with a unique SRT design; the carbon-fiber hood stripe, high intensity discharge headlights, and hood scoops are all standard.
Our test car had a few options which boosted the price to $44,680. The six-speed manual transmission cost $700, and eliminated remote start while dropping the gas guzzler tax to $1,700. Dodge opted for a power sunroof at $950 and the GPS at $1,240, as well as three-season tires (replacing the all-season tires, but in the same size) for an extra $100.
On the whole, the Challenger had few drawbacks that were not obvious and inevitable. The irresistable styling brings massive blind spots that can slow you down in traffic as you make sure you're not about to collide with anyone, and make backing up a time for extra caution. Obvious drawbacks include getting into that back seat, filling the tank, and the constant drone and vibration of the engine.
We didn't have many other annoyances other than the size of the back seat. The clutch is a little hard to operate, and it can take some practice to consistently get the gear you want; time and practice should take care of those gripes. There was clear attention paid to making this car as good as it could get, with numerous “surprise and delight” touches that most people will discover after they’ve had the car for a while. It’s everything from the little styling touches (the fully lit rear light bar, the separate side lights) to the maintenance features (clearly marked fuses, easy access to fluids).
Clearly, the “cost cutters” were either not allowed into the process — at least, not the fools who cut costs in obvious ways. There’s little question but that the Challenger engineers had cost reductions in mind from the start, but that they worked on it intelligently instead of with a “cut this, cut that” mentality. There was almost certainly engineering wizardry involved in getting this shorter-wheelbase two-door car into the LX assembly line, at a cost lower than that of its less attractive brethren.
Just be prepared to spend some extra time talking about the car, and be prepared for people to slow down and do a double-take on the highway. Until a lot of these Challengers are on the road, and maybe even afterwards, they will draw attention like a magnet.