We’ve seen it before. A carmaker takes an iconic model from its past, updates the design, and adds the newest technology and safety equipment: out pops a modern interpretation of the original. The Volkswagen New Beetle, the MINI Cooper, and the most recent Ford Thunderbird all fit this mold. Two years ago, General Motors and Chrysler both displayed new versions of their legendary smoky-burnout machines – the Chevrolet Camaro and the Dodge Challenger – at the Detroit show. While the Chevy was an evolutionary design in the way that a 2008 Porsche 911 is distantly related to a 1965 911, the Mopar machine could have passed for the original 1970 Challenger. In fact, you’d swear that some parts from the ’70 edition were used on the thirty-six-years-younger concept.
Two years later, GM is still hard at work readying its Camaro for the streets, but Chrysler used the 2008 Chicago auto show to unveil the road-ready, production-spec Dodge Challenger SRT8. With the prices of vintage American muscle cars still hovering in the clouds, Chrysler’s strategy of using a virtual mirror image of the original Challenger for today’s car might just be the ticket to help the struggling automaker suck in some cash.
When you walk up to the Challenger, the first thing you notice is its size. With a nine-inch-longer wheelbase, ten-plus inches of additional length, and nearly two inches in extra width, the Challenger dwarfs its main competitor, the Ford Mustang. Imagine Mr. T standing next to Richard Simmons. Pity the fool who was expecting the Challenger to come with tidy, new-age packaging; its hefty dimensions are a result of its donor car, the four-door Dodge Charger. Underneath its retro design, the Challenger is all Charger, bar a four-inch loss in wheelbase.
Hard-core Mopar nuts are probably thinking that this is pure déjà vu. Back in the late ’60s, Chrysler desperately needed a pony car to do battle both on the streets and in Trans-Am racing. Its late-to-the-party pony car also needed room in the engine bay for both small- and big-block powerplants. A solution was found in the Chrysler B-body chassis that underpinned the Charger. The company chopped seven inches off the wheelbase and about seventeen inches from the length to create the 1970 Dodge Challenger. The model weighed about 3500 pounds – a lightweight by modern standards, especially with a 425-gross-hp Hemi engine. The new Dodge, in contrast, weighs in at a porky 4140 pounds. While it has 425 real horses under the hood, that’s a lot of extra weight. And it’s nearly 700 pounds heavier than the Mustang GT. That’s not a good start.
The Challenger’s styling is more convincing. It’s easy to like a familiar design from the late ’60s, and the Dodge looks very cool. Nifty highlights include the black detailing on the front air splitter, the grille, the full-width rear taillights, and the rear spoiler; the massive, twenty-inch forged-aluminum Alcoa wheels; and the carbon-fiber-like decal and the functional air-intake nostrils on the hood. The dark detailing looks especially great laid over the Hemi orange paintwork. When the car appears in dealerships (at about the same time you’re reading this), buyers can choose this orange hue as well as silver or black. If you want to see retro brought up to an even higher level, pop the hood on this modern muscle car. Sure, the Challenger has Chrysler’s 6.1-liter V-8 that also can be found in other SRT8 products, but the details around this carryover engine are gorgeous. There is little if any plastic shrouding, and the suspension towers and the radiator support – specially sprayed orange – are reminiscent of the days of Led Zeppelin and leaded fuel. Well-done, Chrysler.
Unfortunately, the Challenger’s cabin is not as well conceived. The center console – canted toward the driver – and the basic dash design hark back to the original Challenger’s cockpit, but the rest of the interior could have been lifted from any current rear-wheel-drive Chrysler car. From the design of the Challenger’s gauges to its typically overbolstered SRT seats, it feels as if Chrysler ran out of money just as it got to the cabin. At least there’s impressive space inside – there are even seatbelts for five. You wouldn’t want to stuff three of your buddies in the back, but the rear seat is quite livable for short trips with two adults. Front and rear headroom were also very good inside our car, which lacked the optional sunroof. Spy photos of the forthcoming Camaro indicate that Chevy has been more creative with its interior, including a cool gauge cluster in front of the shift lever.
But is the new Challenger a styling exercise like the New Beetle and the Thunderbird, or is it a true performance car like the Mini Cooper? Dodge let us loose in a couple of lightly camouflaged, near-production-spec Challengers at MotorSport Ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, to answer that question. With temperatures just above freezing and constantly drizzling rain, conditions were not conducive to track driving, but we were able to get some good initial impressions. Turn the key, and you’re hit with the sound; the Challenger’s balance of exhaust rumble, intake noise, and actual engine music make for the perfect muscle car sound track.
Of the two available test cars, the first one we drove was closer to final production specification. It was equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission paired with an open differential that will be installed in every one of the 6400 Challenger SRT8s being sold in the 2008 model year in the United States. Wheel spin – a constant issue with the weather that mother nature sent our way in Texas – is effectively controlled via the Challenger’s three-position stability control system (ESP) and ABS, even when ESP is shut off. On the cold, wet track, the electronic systems worked overtime to keep the Challenger on the circuit; we wish that the ESP system would resume power delivery more rapidly after cutting wheel spin. The steering is very accurate but slightly too slow and lacking in feel. At least the four-pot Brembo brakes – borrowed from the Charger SRT8 – held up to our constant thrashing, and once we were able to get the back tires hooked up, the Challenger proved to be very quick. Our only real issue was with the car’s excess weight, which reared its ugly head a bit too much, especially through lower-speed corners.
The second Challenger we drove was almost identical to the first, except that it was equipped with a prototype Getrag torque-sensing limited-slip differential. Boy, what a difference this simple part makes on a damp racetrack. Stability control was less eager to step in, and the chassis hooked up in places where the other car struggled for traction – there’s something fundamentally wrong with a 425-hp, rear-wheel-drive car that relies on ESP and ABS to control wheel spin. The good news is that SRT tells us that this differential, conveniently, works with stock ESP programming. Look for it as an option, most likely paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, on 2009 Challengers. In addition, the 2009 lineup will grow to include a V-6-powered Challenger and a V-8 R/T model with about 350 hp.
Our brief track drive resulted in positive initial impressions but also confirmed that the Challenger would benefit from some Sweatin’ to the Oldies. The car looks great, but Chrysler may have gone too retro with the exterior design and failed to put enough work into the interior. It seems that GM is taking a more modern approach with the Camaro, which is set to debut later this year. But rest assured – the Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a true performance car, not some sissy, profiling retro-mobile. Chrysler certainly won’t have any trouble finding buyers for the first run of cars.
The Forgotten Challenger
By Rusty Blackwell
Just about everybody in this hemisphere knows of the original 1970-74 Dodge Challenger. But not many people remember the Challenger’s first reprise, a rebadged Mitsubishi Galant Lambda that was sold in the United States from 1978 to 1983.
The rear-wheel-drive, second-generation Challenger featured Mitsubishi’s balance-shaft-equipped four-cylinder engines – a 77-hp, 1.6-liter unit was standard from the outset, but the optional 105-hp, 2.6-liter four superseded the smaller powerplant by 1980. The car’s chassis favored ride over handling, but it was nonetheless a viable option for buyers considering sporty rear-wheel-drive contemporaries like the Ford Mustang (which it closely resembled), the Mazda 626 coupe, and the Toyota Celica.
When you include the nearly identical Plymouth Sapporo, Chrysler sold almost as many of these Mitsubishi-built coupes as it did early Challengers. Not surprisingly, the Japanese twins are much harder to find today. Still, less than $5000 can buy you a near-perfect example.