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Chicago Auto Show, with the Dodge Challenger unveiling, 2008 (Day Two)

dodge challengers at the chicago auto show

2008 Dodge Challenge SRT8 photos and more | Other auto shows

Second day, early morning. Added: Dodge Ram, Dodge Journey, and more

Dodge Challenger launch

Reporters gathered around a square red curtained-off area; suddenly the curtain went up, and a video started, showing clips of future owners, stylists, and engineers talking about why the Challenger is special and the links to the original, along with the new features (such as capable cornering and a huge stereo). Jeff Gale, who has a 1970 Challenger, was one of the speakers. Interspersed with the talking heads were shots of two Challengers, red and black, zipping down highways and country roads, wheels spinning, doing donuts, and just gliding down the highway.

jim press and someone's head

Then the covers came off the orange Challenger SRT8, and vice-Chair/President Jim Press came out to walk us through it. The official numbers are 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 13.3 seconds. “I told them all you had to do is stop here and look," said Press, moving on to say that one of the things he had to give up to move to Chrysler was swap his Prius for one of these Challengers. Press had a teleprompter, but spoke naturally, and sometimes deviated from the script. He pointed to the 170 mph top speed, faster than the Shelby GT500 or BW M5; and the .9 g skidpad tests which also beat those supercars. Frank Klegon noted that the current Challenger is faster 0-60 and in the quarter-mile than the original, with a substantially higher top speed.


Then there was some talk about fathers wanting what they had and then some for their sons, and Paul Teutul of Orange County Choppers came out with his son for a scripted little skit.

frank klegon

When the go-ahead was given for photographers to come up, there was practically a stampede; there’s no question but that the Challenger is gathering a lot of interest. Even after 20 minutes, there was still a large crowd, ignoring the Volkswagen introduction that had just started down the hall.

chicago auto show

The Challenger has undeniable presence, whether up on a rotisserie, in photos, in video, or in person, where each color - but especially the orange - looks phenomenal, low, wide, and lean. The large running lights were an excellent idea, providing a neat touch of color with the lights on and a unique look; and they come at a time when kids are switching from noxious blue headlights to yellow-orange headlights. The grille comes off very well, and the tail is simply excellent, with full-length, even lighting around a single backup-lamp bar. (Only the end parts light up for brakes.)

6.1 Hemis

Inside, the front seat of the Challenger is comfortable; the thin chrome rings around the gauges do a lot to help the car look better than the Charger inside, as does the contrasting stitching on each color Challenger and the orange bar across the front seats. The gauges are clear and easy to read, and right at hand, with a better effect than conveyed by the photographs.

The doors are solid but not too heavy; moving the seat for rear-seat access is easy, though the rear seats themselves are a bit tight. The gas cap feels a bit light, and underneath the fancy chrome gas cap is a standard plastic twist-off (locking on the car.)

performance pagesChrysler employees seemed much more enthusiastic than in the past; I was approached by two people, one of whom turned out to be Frank Klegon. I asked the inevitable question, namely, whether the Challenger R/T, when it comes, will have the new 5.7 Hemi (rated at 380 hp in truck use) or the existing 340-horsepower version. While not directly answering, he said that “We’re looking forward, not backward,” implying that we will indeed see a Challenger R/T with substantially more power - and a bit more gas mileage - than the Charger R/T. The tail-lights were much harder than they might look; not only did the light have to be uniformly distributed across a wide area, while meeting Federal standards, but there were cost issues involved. Mr. Klegon also said that the Challenger could be built interchangeably with the other LX cars, with no switchover time - so they could produce one of each in the time normally taken for 3 of a kind.

Mr. Klegon also verified what a press release had implied: that the Journey and PT Cruiser are indeed built on the same line, and they too, incredibly, can be switched interchangeably though they share almost no parts. The swap from Journey to PT and back takes no time, so making one of each takes the same time as making two the same. (Among other things, that means that if the Journey fails, they can keep making PTs and keep the factory running; while runaway success for the Journey probably means the end of the PT.)

Christopher Nowak, senior manager of the RWD product team and lead engineer on the Challenger “base car,” was likewise enthusiastic. He described Bob Nardelli as a very good listener and very helpful, willing to do what it takes to make things work; and he felt that Chrysler had returned to the glory days, in terms of rapid decision making and being able to do things the right way, quickly. Chrysler people seemed genuinely proud not just of the Challenger, but of the speed with which it came to market.

Nowak was also enthusiastic about what he described as the superior combination of ride and handling; the SRT8 Challenger should be considerably better as a daily driver than current SRT8s, due to new tuning of the suspension. It's a car that you can live with every day, he said - and that we should look forward to seeing the others, which, well, he couldn't say more.

Dodge Journey

On the way to the Dodge display, we passed by the new Chevrolet crossover, which was mainly brand-engineered from its successful GM brethren, and which looked pretty good on the inside, though the new Chevrolet trademark grille doesn't really work on a vehicle of these dimensions. We also passed by the new Toyota crossover, which was quite clearly a Camry wagon with some Outback treatment — or, in other words, a Camry wagon on stilts. The Toyota Verso doesn't look bad, but it doesn't look like anything special, either; then again, Toyota is a "default brand" and only needs to be "good enough" to rack up impressive sales.

dodge journey

The Journey was impressive in some ways, less so in others. Gas mileage is decent enough when compared with the field, though the four-cylinder, unless it's been changed, has great "paper power" and mediocre acceleration, and the V6 can't compete with Toyota's high-output Camry motor. The front seat was comfortable, the middle seat firm, the rear seats for occasional use only. When the rear seats are used, the middle seats have very little room; otherwise they're a little tight but not too bad. The Journey has theater seating, so the middle row is raised up for a good view through the windshield, and an even better view of the overhead vent around five inches in front of the passenger and not far above eye level; the climate control vents are close at hand and not quite as intrusive. The roof gets lower in front of the middle row, which accentuates the effect of having the vent so close by, and makes it seem as though, when one is in the middle row, the roof is right there; we had two or three inches above us but still felt uncomfortably high. Kids might appreciate the height without being annoyed by the roof - until they grow taller.

The SXT on display had the integrated booster seats we first saw on Volvos, and were surprised by, because they aren't particularly effective as booster seats, and frankly booster seats are not a big deal for the relevant age group; the old-fashioned integrated child seat would have been far more useful, but those seem to have generally disappeared.

The Journey looks far bigger than the Verso, though it isn't; the exterior looks good and clean, and the interior is devoid of the chunky look of the Avenger. The dashboard is completely different, with unusually small gauges but a complete cluster on the SXT (including tachometer, gas, and temp). The door styling is a bit confused, but there are nice points, such as air vents that can be completely closed, controls that feel good and largely make sense, an effective-looking hood over the center information display (on the R/T, that's replaced by a storage bin, and a navigation system/stereo is placed lower down). There is good use of chrome or shiny plastic on the SXT, and the R/T has extra shiny stripes.

The upper glove compartment is a bit odd, opening with a pushbutton and then popping up just a couple of inches; it could be opened further, but not much, and was oddly shaped. The lower glove box was more conventional and easier to use. In front, headroom was good and the large windshield and low door glass provided an airy, light feel. Unfortunately there was virtually no visibility towards the rear side, as what little window space was available in front of the large rear pillar was blocked by a large headrest in the middle row of seats. Those who typically do not use the middle row would be well served by folding the seat down or taking out the headrest. Forward, front-side, and rear visibility were all good.

Rear storage was fairly minimal with the third row of seats up, but was augmented by the "shopping bag" area underneath a hatch. With the rear seats down, as they normally would be, the rear storage was far better but still fairly height-restricted, giving dimensions similar to an old-fashioned station wagon (perhaps a little taller.)

Dodge intends this car to be a real barnstormer, a big seller and their entry into the mainstream of European sales; we really would have to drive one to find out, but we can already tell prospects that if they have three kids, or want to carpool with more than two adults, it’s no replacement for the Voyager.

Dodge Ram

The 2009 Dodge Ram looks as good in person as it does in the photos: the front and rear both work well, and the bed sides look no wider than ordinary, storage-free bed sides. The interior was well done, front and back, with elegant door panels and comfortable-looking seats which we could not test out (maybe in New York).

2009 Ram

Dodge had a cutaway model, similar to the Toyota Tundra cutaway truck, to show the powertrain and the revolutionary new “this time it works” mutilink, coil-spring rear suspension. The display also opens and closes the top and bottom glove compartments, a neat trick. Storage lovers may appreciate that not only are there two glove compartments, underseat storage, and pickup-bed-side storage, but also two center consoles, one large and deep, and storage on either side of the console. This is a big truck that holds a lot of stuff, inside and out.

inside the cutaway

ram suspension

ram transfer case

2009 Ram doors

General notes (more to come)

dodge area

The Chrysler area is at the very end of the exhibit hall, beyond Toyota's mammoth displays (Toyota also nabbed key advertising spots), with Jeep being the first visible brand; once in the back, Dodge and Chrysler suddenly loom up, (unless you wandered in via an indirect route, in which case Dodge appears first, with a big Journey display). On either side of the hall are test tracks: the Jeep track, with steep hills, dirt, rocks, and mud, and the Dodge truck track, with a steep hill and steel supports that wiggle the Dodges side-to-side as you drive. The entire Jeep line, except for the Compass, appeared to be on the Jeep track, while the Dodge Rams, Durango, and Nitro were on the Dodge side.

jeep area

dodge nitro on test track

dodge ram

Getting to Jeep means going through the Ford, Honda, and Lincoln displays, too, and all we can say is that the theme for the year appears to be “hit me with your ugly stick.” Seriously. Even the CRZ looks like a caricature of the second generation (and final) CRX. As for Lincoln, well, the bill for chrome at Lincoln is reputed to exceed the national debt.

honda crz

There’s a big Dub display in the back with custom Chrysler and Dodge vehicles, shoved into the corner, with the lights out; it'll probably get lit up and jazzed up when the crowds are here. It seems like a big concession to a market Chrysler doesn't seem to be getting effectively, and which Toyota and Ford have been vigorously courting, trying to wrestle people loose from Volkswagen and Honda. And, of course, the somewhat more classy 300C Hollywood, which looks good for both driver and passengers.


300C Hollywood

jeep and dodge areas

GOING TO THE AUTO SHOW: Chicago’s auto show is rapidly gaining in popularity, and the Challenger unveiling is bound to give it a huge leg up. Chicago is a more pleasant city to visit, and the hotels have excellent pricing for the show. The McCormick Place show are is absolutely massive, modern, and accessible by rail - the latter is a trick that New York could really use. There are two huge halls, separated by a massive hallway, with better lighting than usual. The only real down-side are some of the rest-rooms, though others are clean and heated. McCormick makes Cobo Hall seem almost small, and both shame the hard-to-reach, outdated, and awkward Javits Center.

two mode hybrid transmission

For details and photos of the cars, see our minivans, Dodge Avenger, and Dodge Viper pages

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