Most show cars are prima donnas: dressed to kill, yet structurally, mechanically, and electronically frail to the bone. They spew water and oil when facing the mildest incline, they threaten to break apart at the mere sight of a pothole, and they love to die an electronic death at the earliest inconvenience. Not so this Dodge Challenger. It, too, is a one-off, handmade by Metalcrafters, a Southern California specialist in concept cars. But unlike most of its show-circuit counterparts that have spun themselves dizzy on floodlit turntables, the orange-red Dodge is not limited to 2000 rpm, 20 mph, or 2000 yards. Quite the contrary. We threw it into San Francisco traffic, threaded it onto various freeways, and even did a couple of burn-outs for the photographer. The car obliged without vomiting parts.
What does this attitude tell us? That Metalcrafters did a sterling job, and that there is a real car beneath this retro-look piece of radiant sheetmetal. The Challenger sits on Chrysler's LX platform, best known as the basis of the 300C, and it is fitted with a 6.1-liter Hemi engine, which delivers 425 hp at 6200 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. The Hemi badge is worth its weight in gold. It evokes fond memories and produces goose bumps even before you turn the key, thereby giving the Dodge brand a real advantage over its competition. Okay, Ford is entitled to use the legendary Shelby moniker, but we'll have to wait at least two more years before Ford's new aluminum-block Hurricane V-8 is ready for production. General Motors installs an excellent engine in the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, but they have nothing as exciting for the reborn Camaro.
If things go according to plan, the Challenger will become the fourth LX derivative and the third Dodge version, following the Magnum and the Charger. So why has Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda not yet pushed the button and announced the perfectly feasible 2009 intro date? Because marketing is still fine-tuning the numbers and the production guys need to find capacity in a plant that is already running flat-out in three shifts. If worse comes to worst, DaimlerChrysler may have to add a second facility for its rear-wheel-drive models, which may also include a version of the grotesque yet strangely compelling Imperial luxury liner. If the reception of the Challenger concept during our drive is anything to go by, Chrysler managers needn't worry. Although it bears an almost too-close resemblance to the 1970 original, our time-warp coupe hit the Dodge crowd right in the heart, which is about where the checkbook sits. Even those aficionados who normally would side with Ford or GM were overwhelmed by the sex appeal of the newcomer from Auburn Hills.
Of the three new-generation pony cars promoted by Detroit--the Ford Mustang and the Camaro are the others--the Challenger follows the tire marks of its predecessor with particular discipline and accuracy. Quips design chief Trevor Creed: "A Challenger must look like one! We're proud to draw from our rich design heritage. And this car is spot on--its silhouette does make a statement, its cabin is big enough to seat four, and its engine bay packs all the horsepower one could ask for. To me, this is a very saleable item." Adds DaimlerChrysler head honcho Dieter Zetsche: "The Challenger would help to consolidate our strong presence in the rear-wheel-drive segment, a mission we are also going to pursue with the next-generation LX cars." So this shape isn't too retro, too predictable, too short-lived? "We don't think so," replies Michael Castiglione, who was in charge of the exterior. "Our proposal incorporates the essence of the 1970 model, but at the same time we carefully modernized the proportions by extending the wheelbase, widening the track, and mounting very contemporary twenty- and twenty-one-inch wheels and tires."
At 78.6 inches, the show car is certainly wide enough to fill the mirror of the car in front of it. At 197.8 inches, the Challenger is ten inches longer than the Mustang, and it has a 57.0-inch roof that is tall enough to accommodate towering period hairdos. All the design must-haves are there in force: sweet Coke-bottle hips, a meaty rear, a wasp tail, a cool flank-defining crease, and such signature details as a no-glare hood, frameless windows, and full-width taillights. Present-day details incorporated into the overall look include modern headlamps, fat five-spoke wheels, and a twenty-first-century interpretation of the Dodge grille. The Challenger concept is an eye-catching machine, no doubt, and in the wake of a production version, it should be easy to keep the fire burning with a convertible and even-higher-performance variants.
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The cabin of the Challenger is, quite frankly, a bit of an anticlimax. The pistol-grip shifter makes for a nice dj vu experience, and so does the center console, which welcomes the driver at a historically correct angle. But the pitch-black seats, the ho-hum surfaces, the nondescript metal-spoke steering wheel, and the instrument panel fail to impress. The fascia is tall and edgy, the tiny gauges are almost illegible, and the air-conditioning and radio controls would feel equally at home in a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Most materials are as low-rent to the touch as they are to the eye. Dodge says the team from the West Coast Pacifica Studio wanted to create an "in-your-face cabin that looks tough," but unless you eat, breathe, and drink muscle cars, the inspiration and the execution leave something to be desired. This does not, however, apply to space utilization: the Challenger is a genuine four-seater that throws in a sizable trunk for good measure.
If this were an audiobook, you would get the creeps simply by listening to the engine trying to even out its idle speed. Blip the throttle, and brace yourself for barking dogs, crying babies, and angry neighbors. Next, push in the clutch, shift into first, call up 4000 rpm--and smile. Because this is what muscle cars are all about: lots of beautiful noise, a whiff of melting rubber, and a streak of color tearing away from a stoplight. The clutch is a bit heavy and the transmission is a bit stiff, but the weight distribution hasn't changed much in the last thirty-six years, and there's no traction control to shut down the party. Third gear crunches in at about 70 mph (the instruments are not functional), and the forward thrust continues until the passenger says something like, "I don't want to lose my job because of a stupid European journalist." But we're already in seventh heaven, reeling in Highway One heading for Big Sur. In a minute, we'll take it easy again, we promise. Chrysler claims a 4.5-second 0-to-60-mph run, a 174-mph top speed, and a quarter-mile time in the thirteens.
The Challenger drives much better than a concept car should, although the rear suspension does occasionally bottom out over impromptu transverse ridges. The chrome-plated brake calipers must have spent most of their life in the dressing room, but they decelerate with so much bite it's as if the pads were studded with bloodhound teeth. The steering, which felt like a circular divining rod back in the '70s, is suddenly prompt and precise. Thanks to the ground-hugging stance, the extrawide footwear, and the spot-on independent suspension, this Dodge has learned to combine the fine arts of gliding, skating, and carving. We noticed some cowl shake over the rough bits, and there is enough attention-grabbing acceleration squat, but brake dive and body roll are never an issue.
It's no prima donna then, this Challenger concept. Which is just as well, because we don't want this crowd stopper to be a flash in the pan. Instead, we want a 2009 Challenger in plum-crazy purple, with a blueprinted 500-hp Hemi, some Mopar bits, and perhaps a small rear wing. That beast will teach the guys from the other side of town a trick or two, guaranteed.