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.