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2009 Dodge Challenger SE car review / test drive

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While the manual-transmission Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a bear of a car - big, strong, fast, and sometimes hard to handle - the V6-powered Challenger SE is more of a faithful terrier. It tries hard to please you, keeps up with you as you trot or run, and grabs onto the road tightly.

The SRT8 (see our car review / test drive) has strong thrust and excellent cornering; the base Challenger has satisfying acceleration and more light-hearted handling, still surprisingly good around sharp turns, but requiring far less attention. While the SRT8 is a brute that always seems to want to race, the Challenger SE will match your mood; if you want to amble along on a relaxed Sunday drive, it will be perfectly happy doing it. If you want to suddenly double your speed and whip around the turns on your Sunday drive, the Challenger SE will be equally happy. You're the boss.

Our dark titanium (brownish gray) Challenger was not loud like the red-and-black SRT8 we tested first, but it was still an attention-grabber on the street. Other drivers slowed down to look, and teenagers altered their path to touch the trunk or hood. Whether a base model or the top of the line, the Dodge Challenger is as crowd-pleasing and as much an aesthetic triumph as any rolling sculpture has been.

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Our test car had the standard four-speed automatic transmission, the only shifter available with the V6. It's been refined over the years and now has variable line pressure, which boost pressure when needed and drops it when not needed, making shifts smoother and faster, while transmitting more power to the wheels - and increasing durability. We found this transmission to have an excellent feel; it was generally in the right gear, had a well-sorted-out feel (as it should, given how long it's been matched to the 3.5 liter V6), did not do anything weird (delayed shifts, failure to kick down, premature shifts, etc.), and kicked down instantly when needed. It felt far, far better than the four and five speed automatics we just tested on the Toyota Corolla.

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Despite having "just" four speeds, the automatic Challenger delivered 18 miles per gallon city, 25 highway (EPA figures); we were easily able to get 16 mpg city, 25 highway with a manual transmission SRT8, but the EPA rates those at 14/22. Do with that what you will; many drivers could probably use the Challenger R/T's Hemi with a manual transmission to beat the mileage of the Challenger SE with an automatic and V6. That's not to disparage the four-speed's gearing, which seemed conducive to decent highway mileage; or the car's ability to coast without much resistance, also improving real world mileage.

0-60 times were measured at around 8 seconds, but the Challenger was always good for a burst of power. The powertrain was responsive at all speeds, and started moving before kickdown. The "instant on" power, while nowhere near as torquey or as impressive as the Hemi V8's thrust, was gratifying and better than in many cars with more modern, revvy engines; and the engine noise of the V6 was deep and subdued except on full throttle, when it produced an almost V8-like sound, not like the same engine's sound when used in past vehicles.

The engine is fairly quiet, without the growly noises of the Hemi; when it does make itself heard, it's the gruff sound familiar to 300M and Intrepid owners, by no means an unpleasant sound. The induction system looks very different from past applications of the 3.5 V6 engines.

The Challenger is, like the SRT8, tightly made, with no sense of body flex, coupled with very tight steering and strong grip. It feels lighter than the SRT version, yet whips around turns like a smaller or more expensive car. Unlike the Challenger SRT8 or the Dodge Charger, it feels relatively light for its size. It still willingly goes where you point it, and does not give up traction without a fight. Chances are you won't need the stability control on dry roads; the car is naturally well balanced and has been well tuned. The lighter feel may be one reason why several people have already made it known that their favorite Challenger is the base SE model.

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The Challenger SE is not especially stiff, despite its cornering ability; it absorbs bumps and potholes far better than many "regular" cars, including our own PT Cruiser GT and 300M, and, we believe, even better than the new "luxury" Corolla. The suspension is moderately tight but it soaks up pavement problems and keeps a firm grip on the road without jiggling passengers. If anything, the ride was on the smooth side when it came to little things - concrete, ridges, etc. On the other hand, the ride was on the stiff side when it came to ruts, larger bumps, and the like; it was, in short, good at cushioning and filtering, but still very firm. (The standard SE without our bigger wheels and tires would be better cushioned be someone less capable in corners). We were surprised at how stable the car was, around turns or at high speed, and how the rear never seemed to want to swing out. Rarely did the stability control activate (it's optional on the SE, standard on the others.)

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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. While the 250 hp V6 won't stress a chassis designed for a Hemi, it is still impressive.

Inside, the styling is a mix of old and new, 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." Thin chrome bands highlight the four big gauges. Even the passenger side looks good.

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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 controls are 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 on cars that have them (ours did not).

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We did not get the trip computer, which meant we had no gas mileage reading, compass heading, or easy access to setting the various car preferences; doing this meant resorting to the owner's manual and pressing improbable button combinations a set number of times (still better than competitors' methods of going to the dealer.) We did have a trip odometer and the outside temperature, available by pressing the trip odometer button one more time. And, unlike the SRT, we had the new style ignition switch on the dashboard, into which we put our stubby plastic key, instead of the cute pushbutton on the SRT8.

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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.

The fabric-covered front seats were comfortable and supportive; the passenger seat clearly had low priority, with no power controls, while the driver's seat came with eight-way power controls. Both had adjustable lumbar supports. Rear seats were less pleasant than front seats, not surprisingly; knee room was fairly short but there was a lot of room for feet underneath the front seats.

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Visibility was badly restricted in the rear/side view, which was a nuisance in numerous situations; despite the rather small amount of glass, front and side views are both fine. Rear visibility was hampered by the high trunk and small rear glass. At night, well focused headlights cleared the way; put on the high beams, and the low beams remain on as well for the ultimate in illumination. Fog lights were mounted low, in the right place to cut through the mists.

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The headlights are flanked by amber parking lights, which look classy when they're lit. The old-fashioned side lights are a surprising touch in this penny-pinching day and age, as are the functional (engine-cooling) hood scoops.

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Another expensive and pleasing touch is the fully lit rear light bar, one of the many additions that makes the Challenger such a sweet ride, ready to surprise and delight owners and observers alike.

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The brake lights easily stand out from the tail-lights, and the reverse light is behind the white center lens, for a snazzy effect that may well surprise other drivers into slowing down for a reversing Dodge. Drawing attention to your brake lights is handy, since the Challenger SE can stop quickly.

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Rear seating is not 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 electric 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 unless you unhook it from the retainer loop. 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 a spare tire. 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. Our test Challenger SE was supposed to have a real donut spare, but we found a tire seal/pump device in the trunk instead; presumably that came with the upgraded wheels and tires option.

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When it comes to creature comforts, the new Challengers have trumped the old ones pretty well. Even base models get a stereo with a CD player - a pretty good one, at that. Most users are enthusiastic about the satellite radio system, and the base Challengers come with a nice interface to that and to regular radio (or CDs, for that matter). We found satellite radio reception to be excellent, and had almost no dropouts; the sound was superb; but then, we had a thousand-dollar stereo upgrade, so our experience might not be completely typical. We have found Chrysler's base stereos to be quite good in the past.

The almost complete lack of wind and road noise in the Challenger was surprising, to say the least, given the retro grille; those who have driven 1970s cars recently will understand what we mean. At highway speeds, there was barely any wind noise at all; road noise was minimal even on concrete. The sounds of other traffic barely made it past the thick window glass.

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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 higher end models. The above photo is from an SRT8. Our SE had the more effective manual style day/night mirror, and no universal garage door opener.

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. The V6 heats up fairly quickly and then the heater is strong; the heater/air conditioner controls have a very pleasant feel and are easy to figure out and use.

The only real shortcoming is the lack of power memory; take out the key and everything is off. We were also a little surprised that the dome light didn't come on when we took the key out; but we were pleased with the rear lighting, which was built into the back of the rear seats. That was a clever touch.

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 more powerful than the base V8 of the "real" E-body Dodge Challengers. Those 318s, old-timers may recall, were capable of just 150 net horsepower with the two-barrel carb used in most years. The V6 pushes out around 250 hp, though instead of a tight TorqueFlite it goes through a four-speed variable-pressure automatic that feels nice and firm, yet shifts smoothly and without fuss. Acceleration with the SE is a reasonable 8 seconds or so, roughly matching the first-generation Neon five-speed and most of the Challengers that were actually made in 1970-72.

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On the whole, the Challenger had few drawbacks that were not obvious and inevitable. The irresistible 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.

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We didn't have many other annoyances other than the size of the back seat and the huge blind spot. There was clear attention paid to making this car as good as it could get, even in SE trim. 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). The fools who cut costs in obvious ways seem to have been excluded. 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.

The Challenger SE starts at a reasonable $21,975, including destination charge. With that, you get a good number of features, including side curtain airbags front and rear, four wheel disk brakes, rear stabilizer bar, cruise, day/night mirror, power trunk release, locks, and windows, intermittent wipers, rear defroster, air, tachometer, power driver's seat, four-speaker CD player, tilt/telescope steering column, 17-inch aluminum wheels, folding power mirrors, and, yes, floor mats.

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Our test car was somewhat pricier, reaching almost to Hemi territory, at $26,735. The main option was package 26G, at $2,800, including a year of Sirius satellite radio, wider 18" wheels, more aggressive tires, traction control, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, fog lamps, leather on the steering wheel and shifter, "luxury" floor mats, alarm, and sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors. Pay another $1,000, and you can get a 276-watt amplifier, six Boston Acoustics speakers, and a six-disc in-dash CD changer with DVD capability. Finally, another $950 for a power sunroof, and you have our car. Frankly, the base model is so well equipped that we hate to recommend the pricey 26G package, but we really feel the stability and traction control, coupled with ABS, is almost obligatory for most drivers. Yes, we know a lot of people feel they can do better and want to shut off the "electronic nannies," but when you're piloting nearly two tons of rear-wheel-drive steel on a rainy, snowy, or leaf-strewn day, think of all those other drivers and pedestrians who will be happy someone set their ego aside and opted for the lightning-reflex computers.

The R/T is the sweet spot of price and power, with around 380 hp, an automatic or manual transmission, cylinder shutoff system (automatic) or tall overdrive (manual) for gas mileage, and most of the options of the SRT8. For many, though, the SE will be the driving-experience sweet spot, with a nice, light feel, a smooth, comfortable ride, on-demand power (but not too much), and the ability to be treated like either an appliance or a sports car. Oh, and did we mention the extremely reasonable price, and the decent mileage?

If you can live with a two-door car, the Challenger is a strikingly good deal. To us, the big question is "V6 or Hemi?" Only you can answer that - but we think most people will be happy with the easy-to-live-with six.

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2009 Dodge Challenger details and specifications

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