When the new Challenger launched earlier this year, it screeched out of the gate exclusively in top-spec, SRT8 form. Now, the Challenger lineup is filling out with the somewhat less powerful, and considerably less expensive, R/T and SE models. The V-8-powered R/T is expected to be the best-selling Challenger, while the six-cylinder SE will be the most affordable version, starting at just under $22,000.
The Challenger SRT8 uses Chrysler's big, 6.1-liter, 425-hp Hemi, while the R/T's V-8 is the standard 5.7-liter Hemi. For the first time, either Hemi can be combined with a manual transmission.
Unless you're in a contest to lay the longest patch of rubber leaving the Dairy Queen or to burn the most gasoline possible, the 5.7-liter is plenty of engine for this car. For 2009, it gets variable cam timing, a higher compression ratio, and two spark plugs per cylinder, boosting output to 372/376 hp and 401/410 lb-ft of torque (with the automatic/manual transmission). Chrysler estimates the 0-to-60-mph time of the R/T at less than six seconds, roughly a second behind the SRT8. Like its bigger brother, the 5.7-liter is the strong, mostly silent type, with an exhaust that gives only a slight rumble and is never boomy on the highway. Those who want more sound can get a low-restriction, cat-back exhaust from Mopar.
The standard, Mercedes-sourced five-speed automatic is polished and responsive; pushing the gearshift left-to-right activates the manumatic function (there are no shift paddles). Drivers who really want to shift themselves will opt for the six-speed manual transmission, which is stirred by a pistol-grip shifter. The stick shift is part of the Track Pak, which also includes a limited-slip differential and a lower final-drive ratio (3.73 or 3.91:1, depending on wheel size, versus 3.06:1). The Tremec gearbox is a variant of the one used in the Viper; happily, shift efforts here are lower, but the linkage is notchy, with a strong centering spring that wants to keep you in the 3-4 gate. There's also a Chevy Corvette-style first-to-fourth skip-shift function, but it comes into play only between 18 and 21 mph. The clutch is nicely weighted and easy to modulate, but it has a fairly long travel, and big shoes can get hung up moving between the clutch and the dead pedal. This six-speed may not be the world's silkiest gearbox, but it's still fun to finally drive the Hemi V-8 with a stick shift.
Unfortunately, the manual is not available on the Challenger SE, which is saddled with a four-speed automatic. The 3.5-liter V-6 deserves better: it actually sounds decent, and its output of 250 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque is enough to move the car well enough, but you have to be willing to boot it because of the wide gaps between the gears. An extra gear or two might also improve the SE's fuel economy; as it is, the V-6 is rated at 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, which isn't much of a gain over the R/T's 16/25 mpg.
As you'd expect, the lesser Challengers lose some of the SRT8's special chassis equipment. The R/T has four disc brakes, but they're not Brembos, and in Chrysler's tests it takes an additional fifteen feet to stop from 60 mph. The SE has four-wheel discs, but ABS is an option - a pretty shocking bit of cost-cutting in an otherwise well-equipped car. Springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars are all dialed back a bit compared with the SRT8. Still, on the short road course at the Englishtown, New Jersey, racetrack, the R/T wasn't much off the pace of the SRT8. It feels heavy but balanced, with torque aplenty to nudge the rear end around. Both the R/T and the SE are poised and comfortable over bad pavement, one benefit of their independent rear suspension. For a sporting machine, though, the steering feels light and slow, the latter exemplified by the large, four-spoke steering wheel. The Challenger deserves its own steering wheel rather than one borrowed from the Charger. How about something along the lines of the cool three-spoke unit in the 2006 concept car?
Apart from the steering wheel, the Challenger's major interior components are distinct from the Charger's, and that, combined with the unique view out over the long hood, really makes you feel like you're in a different car.
Despite the trapezoidal theme (an echo from the 1970 version), the cabin is nowhere near as stylized as the Ford Mustang's, and the overall look is very muted. At least even the base car has nicely padded armrests and decent-looking plastics, unlike so many Chryslers. Chrysler boasts of the Challenger's five-passenger capacity, but anyone beyond booster-seat age will be too big for the middle rear spot, and pushing the front seats too far back causes rear legroom to disappear in a hurry. The generous trunk space (16.2 cubic feet) and fold-down rear seatbacks, though, impart some genuine practicality into this sporty machine.
And the Challenger is one sporty machine. The R/T is no less a head-turner than the SRT8; the optional front fender stripes are a particularly cool touch and its performance is very close yet its base price is a whopping $10,000 less. Even the V-6 car has plenty of style, with its integrated (and functional) hood scoops and seventeen-inch wheels, but SE buyers must pay extra for fog lights and a rear spoiler.
The Mustang has proven that a retro-look pony car can sell not just to those nostalgic for muscle cars but to a new generation as well. Although, the Challenger had a much shorter heyday than the Mustang, the new one is every bit as well-executed as the new Mustang and is in some ways more livable.
For younger buyers on a budget, the news that you don't have to spend anywhere near the SRT8's $40,000 to get a cool-looking, fun-to-drive Challenger is good news indeed.