HONOLULU, Hawaii — It’s not often when you’re pumped to drive a V-6 Challenger, but when the other options sitting in the rental lot are “Nissan Altima or similar,” the big white Dodge was a welcome sight that turned out to be a fine ride of choice for my Hawaiian vacation.
That said this was a rental-spec Challenger SXT, so I wasn’t too excited. Frills? What frills? The number of option boxes checked was precisely zero. Pretend it’s 1997 and its 5.0-inch info screen looks like a double-DIN head unit out of a fourth-gen Camaro. Thankfully, it’s 2017. Even the base Challengers come with Bluetooth nowadays and almost all of us have a smartphone with which to stream music through, so you’re not limited to the AM/FM radio and that Limp Bizkit CD you swear was a gift from your aunt.
And unlike said Camaro (or similar-vintage Mustang), the base 2017 Challenger’s engine can’t be derisively described as a “boat anchor.” Instead, Chrysler’s trusty 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 effortlessly makes as much power as the V-8s of 20 years ago, sending 305 hp and 268 lb-ft of torque to the coupe’s rear wheels. More importantly, it’s not held back by its transmission. The eight-speed ZF automatic the V-6 is paired with is smooth and efficient — the opposite of the four-speeds of yore. Speaking of large white vehicles from Auburn Hills, I spent a lot of time with this engine and transmission combo a few years ago while chaperoning Big White, Motor Trend’s long-term 2013 Chrysler 300, so I knew exactly what to expect — and the Challenger didn’t disappoint.
One upside of the smaller engine and lack of content is a reduced curb weight. The Challenger SXT tips the scales at 3,894 lbs — the only variant to come in under the 4,000-lb mark. Hitting 60 mph takes 6.0 seconds, which is good enough to keep up with a V-6 Camry. Of course, straight line performance is almost irrelevant in Hawaii, where everything runs on Island Time and even the freeways have 45 mph speed limits.
In a way, the lack of excess power makes the Challenger a better around town cruiser. You don’t have to worry about doubling the speed limit simply by looking at the throttle wrong like you do in a Hellcat, while the lower levels of engine vibration and large-sidewall all-season tires make for a smoother and quieter ride. There’s also something to be said for the simplicity of cloth seats, which are better suited to Hawaii’s tropical, salt-water drenched environment than skin-scorching leather. And the V-6 is rated at 19/30 mpg city/highway, making it much easier on the wallet for us mainlanders at least, as it takes a minute to get through a tank of gas on an island half the size of Rhode Island.
In case you think I’m crazy or simply don’t have a good frame of reference, I’ve been behind the wheel of the better part of a dozen Challenger variants over the years, including three that I sampled shortly after I returned from my vacation — the all-wheel-drive GT, road-course-eating Hellcat Widebody, and drag-strip-conquering Demon. The GT comes standard with a performance steering setup and turning the wheel did feel a bit better than in the SXT, but the all-wheel drive system rarely let its presence be known (an unsurprising consequence of perfectly dry summer roads) and its on-road demeanor was not noticeably different. The two fire-breathers, in turn, obviously display far more impressive and aggressive performance characteristics, though they can be just as docile on slow country roads. And while they make much better noises, they also cost more than twice as much.
As tempting as the Challenger SXT’s base price of $28,090 may be, it’s not a bad idea to pony up the extra $3,000 needed to swing a $31,090 SXT Plus. Not only do you get the 8.4-inch Uconnect screen along with satellite radio by upgrading to the Plus, you also get rear park assist, heated and cooled front seats, power-adjustable heated steering wheel, 20-inch wheels with wider tires (245/45R20 Firestone Firehawk GTVs versus 235/55R18 Michelin Primacy MXM4s), and upgraded brakes (13.6-inch discs with two-pot calipers instead of 12.6-inchers with a single-piston clamp up front and vented 12.6-inch discs with a single piston at rear instead of solid ones at rear). There is a potential downside — the leather upholstery. You could also opt for the Challenger GT, which adds configurable drive modes, but it also replaces the 20s fitted to the SXT Plus with 19s and throws the Michelin Primacies back on. Unless you live in the Snow Belt it’s not really worth the additional $3,400.
While buying a base-model Challenger may not be the most prudent course of action, the same cannot be said for renting one — or a Charger or Chrysler 300, for that matter. Unless you’ve got kids or others to haul in back, there’s no reason not to go with the big Dodge coupe. None of the midsize sedans that will be your alternatives will have even half the character of the Challenger, nor will they necessarily be as quiet or comfortable.
2017 Dodge Challenger SXT Specifications
|ENGINE||3.6L DOHC 24-valve-valve V-6/305 hp @ 6,350 rpm, 268 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||19/30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||197.9 x 75.7 x 57.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec|