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2010 Dodge Challenger R/T (stick-shift) test drive

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The Dodge Challenger grabbed attention wherever we went. People stopped and stared, or asked about it, even though the Challenger has been out for two years, and we saw several others in our travels. (Not counting the CEMA show, where three other brand new ones - two orange, one other B5 Blue - parked next to ours.)

Our test model had the optional, extra-cost six-speed manual transmission. The gearshift requires more effort than lighter-duty transmissions, and the clutch is heavy, but you can shift smoothly and lightly with some practice. We don't know if it's practice or a design change, but it seemed easier to get into the various gears, including fifth, than we remembered.

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Manual transmissions usually increase gas mileage, but not in this case. Any savings from having a mechanical interface instead of a fluid interface (with accompanying power losses) are lost by not having cylinder deactivation. On the other hand, having a manual means you can choose between treating the Challenger R/T like a regular car, optimizing gas mileage, or treating it like a real performance car, optimizing speed. You also get a wider spread between the lowest and highest gears, so you can launch better while still running fewer revs at highway speed. Indeed, at 70 mph, the engine is just loafing along at low speed, unlike the automatic version.

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A welcome feature, especially given the foot-operated emergency brake, is Hill Start Assist. When the driver has to stop on a hill, for a traffic light, stop sign, deer, etc., the system keeps the brake on until it senses the clutch taking hold, and then releases the brake automatically; an expert driver could do it more smoothly, but most people find the automated system to be more consistent, and much less stressful, especially in these times when people seem to stop an inch from your rear bumper. (Hill Start goes away after a few seconds, so it's no replacement for an emergency brake or a competent driver.)

The gears are nicely spread; you can hang around in sixth gear from 50 mph, barely off idle, collecting high gas mileage, and dropping down to third or fourth for quick acceleration (or just being patient.) The SRT8 engine has a lot more brute force at low rpm, but the Hemi's steady power buildup makes it docile on the road; you can drive your grandparents around without any trouble, and driving in city traffic is easy. Some cars have a steep tip-in that makes it hard to shift gently; the Dodge Challenger R/T does not, giving you power when you ask for it but not when you don't. Even first is easy. Instant thrust comes in at over 2,500 rpm, but you can also cruise along at just over a thousand, maintaining your speed and increasing gas mileage. If you want to jerk your head back every time you hit the gas, even at highway speeds, keep the engine at 4,000 rpm, but don't look at the gas mileage when you do it.

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The engine is far thriftier than its big-block predecessors (as you'd expect), but it also gets better mileage than its small-block ancestors. We were able to maintain 19 mpg around the Detroit suburbs without trying; EPA ratings are more realistic, with the manual transmission R/T rated at 15 city, 24 highway (by comparison, the R/T automatic is 16/23 and the SE automatic is 18/25).

The engine is loud and growly, so that even if you're just cruising at 1,500 rpm, it sounds like you need to upshift. 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, but it doesn't last very long because the acceleration is so quick. You can drive gently and smoothly if needed, but you can't drive quietly - not that the exhaust is intrusive on the highway.

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The 2010 Challenger SRT8 stick-shift can do 0-60 in under five seconds; the R/T does 0-60 in under six seconds. The engine sound is music to the enthusiasts' ears, loud but not insanely so, with a good quality roar when under load. The Challenger comes to a stop very quickly and without swerving or fuss.

Critics have complained that the Challenger is not as quick as a similar model Camaro or Mustang, but many customers would prefer its huge trunk, real back seats, ease of entry and exit over imperceptible acceleration differences. The Challenger looks better, too, from the outside.

The Dodge 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; it's a full sized muscle car that goes where you point it, with electronic stability control kicking in when needed. The car is well balanced, with a carefully set up suspension, but the heavy feeling may not be welcome to drivers who have gotten used to sport compacts. Likewise, it feels like you should be able to whip around corners faster - even if you are whipping around them, accompanied by screaming tires. The pricier SRT8 model has more grip and a suspension that's more capable without being too firm.

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The suspension absorbs bumps and potholes better than many "regular" cars, with a suspension that is tight but not punishing, soaking up pavement problems and keeping a firm grip on the road but not jiggling passengers. Around Detroit, where so many streets are concrete (for durability in winter), the pavement blocks go by with a distant click-click sounds, not bumping the cockpit or bouncing around as our Subaru rental did. You can get cars with stiffer suspensions that can't handle turns as well. The rear suspension allows straight launches and full driver control, which is an accomplishment with a manual-transmission car, because you can't rely on the automatic to make sudden throttle changes less effective.

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Inside, the Challenger avoids feeling cheap, and the seats seem more comfortable than our most recent Chrysler drives. Thin chrome bands highlight the four big gauges (with temperature marked in actual degrees, and a 160 mph speedometer). At night, perfectly even backlighting keeps the gauges black-on-white, with controls marked in traditional green, and neon-style cupholder rings lit in green as well. The door handles have a light green area light, marking them out.

The doors have cutouts for arms and control panels, with the door handles mounted fairly far forward and in their own little cavity, easier to find and use than, say, those of the Camaro. The surfaces are 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, with switches for the optional two-level seat warmers.

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The trip computer, part of an option package, 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 system also shows the exact oil and antifreeze temperature, what radio or satellite station you're on, whether you have a door or trunk open, and, when following the nav system's guidance, what the next turn is (when it's coming up). We also thought we saw an upshift indicator there, but when accelerating, we didn't have the inclination to look down.

Our Challenger came with keyless ignition; a radio checks for the key, which can be 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. 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.

The system will not work if you drop your keys outside the car - but it will continue to work if you start it up and then give the keys to someone who walks away with them. There is also a lockout prevention "feature" where it will ring an alarm chime and unlock the doors if you shut the locked doors with the keys still inside.

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While the front seats are comfortable, 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. The optional seat heaters have two settings, and manual lumbar control is standard on the R/T for both front seats. Chrysler's traditional sunglass holder in the overhead console worked well and added some convenience.

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 somewhat (not nearly as much as the rear-side view) 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, optional, 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.

There are dual lights in front of the Challenger, but the high beams are not separate; the lights that look like high beams are amber parking lights/turn signals, and they look quite good when they're lit. The old-fashioned side lights are a pleasant sight in this penny-pinching day and age, and are one of those details that would have been cut during the dark times. The fully lit rear light bar stretches from side to side, another of the many touches that makes the Challenger such a sweet ride.

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There are hood scoops, too, which are functional in that they send cooling outside air to the top of the shock tower caps; whether they actually do anything useful is unknown. Our test car had a prop rod, but an identical-looking 2010 Challenger R/T two cars away at the CEMA show had gas-charged struts to hold up the hood, and the owner claimed they were original. There seemed to be provision under the hood for both systems in both cars, in terms of mounting holes.

Rear seating is not generous, but you can fit adults back there; it helps that the front seats are, by design, 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.

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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; underneath, all fluids are easy to find and fill, though the brake fluid is hiding underneath a pop-out panel by the cowl.

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 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 and 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 unbalancing the vehicle by putting it all the way in front. The battery was vented to the outside, good for safety but requiring a replacement battery with a vent hole; the main fuse lock was under the trunk too.

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When it comes to creature comforts, the new Challengers have trumped the old ones pretty well. Even base models have a stereo; with the navigation system, there are somewhat distracting soft-touch (on-screen) controls, which provide control over bass, treble, and midrange. The navigation system can be distracting, particularly with the built in satellite traffic indicators (which, regardless of brand, are 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 (optional) audio controls on the steering wheel. 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.

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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 and acceleration with the SE is a reasonable 8 seconds or so, roughly matching the first-generation Neon five-speed - and beating the old 318 V8. (In case you wondered, the R/T model we drove pushes out 376 horsepower - which is more than the automatic R/T does - and 410 lb-ft of torque.)

The base Challenger R/T is a very reasonable $31,245 including destination, with a five year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, 3-year, 36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty, and 24 hour towing included. For that price, you get the side curtain airbags (front and rear), stability control, four-wheel antilock disk brakes, remote keyless entry, cruise, power locks, air conditioning, solar-control glass, interior light package, dual exhaust, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt/telescope steering column, race-style gas door, power driver's seat (with manual lumbar support), illuminated cup-holders, rear defroster, dual horn, power trunk release, power windows, automatic headlights, and integrated antenna.

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Our car had numerous options which drove the price up to SRT territory. The most expensive was the 27M package, at $3,330. This included a year of satellite radio, 20-inch aluminum wheels, a Boston Acoustics stereo package, body-color mirrors, R/T stripes, retro Challenger badge, functional hood scoop, heated leather front seats, and heated folding mirrors.

The second most expensive feature was the $1,435 hard-drive stereo with navigation built in, including a year of satellite traffic service. That was followed by the electronics group, at $1,165, which included the special instrument cluster display, keyless start, auto-dimming mirror (which is an option we'd pay to avoid since it's not as effective as manual day/night mirrors), alarm, audio controls on the wheel, temperature and compass, tire pressure monitor display (for each tire), phone and iPod control, universal garage door opener, and full vehicle information center.

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High intensity discharge headlamps added $695, the sunroof added $950, the Mopar interior appearance group (chrome sill guards, premium floor mats, car cover) added $780, a bigger amp and subwoofer added $185 ... it all added up. The attractive B5 Blue paint, which was admired by many, added just $225, and the engine block heater was a steal at $40. Finally, the six-speed manual transmission, designed for performance rather than economy (it lowers the rated gas mileage), including heavier duty brakes, bigger wheels, anti-spin differential, Hill Start Assistance, performance steering, and the Track Pack, with chrome accelerator, clutch, and brake pedals (studded with rubber to avoid slippage), added $995 - and changed the character of the car, emphasizing its muscle.

Those who want performance above all can forsake all the add-ons and go with the SRT8; that adds both unique features (e.g. the performance metrics), more power, and even better braking and cornering, for just under $40,000. That's more than the similar-performance Camaro or Mustang models, but then, you get to sit up when you drive, you get a real rear seat, and the trunk is huge.

70% of the Challenger came from the United States and Canada, with final assembly in Ontario; the engine and transmission were both made in Mexico (automatics are made in the United States). The Challenger is rated with five stars for every government crash test except rollover, where four stars were awarded. Gas mileage is rated at 15/24, on regular gas.

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.

We didn't have many other annoyances, other than the size of the back seat, the dim lighting at night, and not having some controls (e.g. sunroof) backlit. Dodge clearly tried to make 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). Controls generally have a quality feel and do what you'd expect them too, without surprises or awkward moments.

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.

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2010 Dodge Challenger details and specifications

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