I remember being horrified as a teenager in the early 1990s at the sight of some model wearing bell-bottom jeans in a fashion ad. My mother was amused at my naiveté and explained to me that everything in fashion happens in cycles, and it was about time for the flared jeans to come back into vogue. I laughed at her. But she laughed last - which is always the best laughter - when I bought a pair of flared jeans a few years later.
Humans seem to be stuck in the same old patterns, and in the automotive world, it's looking a whole lot like the 1970s. Just like then, we're seeing huge-horsepower muscle cars (451 horsepower in a C-class, anyone?). And just like then, we're seeing the looming emissions and fuel economy regulations that may put and end to it.
We're also seeing a dead ringer for the 1970 Challenger. Let's hope it lasts longer than the original.
First, it's important that we put Dodge's new coupe in perspective. Luckily, that's very easy: just look at it. The Challenger is jaw-droppingly stunning. And if you don't like its lines, think it's too retro, too boring, or whatever? Just reserve your final judgment until you see it on the street, next to Camrys and Versas and Rolls Royces. There is no other car in this price range that makes as much of a statement. For $37,995, you, too, can be a celebrity. Make sure your hair is done - and go get some cool bell-bottoms while you're at it.
As for the way the Challenger SRT8 drives? That, too, is simple to explain: drive a Chrysler 300C SRT8, and you'll know what the Challenger feels like. Underneath its skin, the two-door Challenger is a 300C (or Dodge Charger) with four inches chopped out of the rear footwell. Its suspension is seven percent stiffer than a 300C's, which, combined with the shorter wheelbase, makes its ride fractionally stiffer. It doesn't ride as firmly as the Charger, though, whose suspension is about twenty-five percent harder than the 300C's.
Like its siblings, the Challenger's steering is accurate, but unfortunately also completely devoid of feedback. The municipal bus-sized wheel and ultraslow steering ratio don't help. Then again, all of those qualities are classic muscle car features. So, too, is the pushrod 6.1-liter V-8. It produces 425 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque, pushing the Charger SRT8 to 60 mph in just over five seconds, according to Chrysler. But unlike many of the original muscle cars, the Challenger has real brakes - four-piston Brembo fixed calipers with aluminum housings.
On the road, the Challenger is a comfortable, quiet, and smooth cruiser. A fairly long final drive ratio (3.06:1) gives the five-speed automatic long first and second gear ratios, making no-wheelspin full-throttle launches possible. We'd prefer shorter ratios, just because the Challenger looks like it should be able to roast its rear tires off the line at one-quarter throttle. Wheelspin is, however, readily available with a little brake-torque.
At highway speeds, the big V-8 turns over faster than we expected, a result of having only five forward gears. EPA fuel economy suffers a little (EPA estimates are 18 highway, 13 city), but on the plus side, downshifts out of fifth aren't often needed. Despite the relatively high revs, the engine's roar is kept to a minimum, so long trips aren't tiring. In fact, we longed for a lot more noise inside the car - even at full bore, the Challenger is quiet inside. We think the passengers should be enjoying just as much big-bore music as passers by. Luckily, the powerful audio system was able to bolster the lack of acoustic drama - just set the iPod to Classic Rock and cruise along.
Cruising along was fun, but we spent more time in the SRT8 at Willow Springs race track, where the Challenger really got to flex its muscles. If the boys (and girls) at Chrysler's SRT do one thing really well, it's making street cars go around race tracks very quickly. The Challenger did an enormous job here. Willow Springs is a very, very fast track, and the big Brembos did an almost unbelievable job at slowing the heavy Challenger corner after corner. No matter how hard you push, brake fade is not an issue. Cornering grip is very impressive, and the Challenger's natural tendency toward mild understeer can be easily rectified with the throttle pedal. Thanks to its long wheelbase and well-damped body motions, the Challenger's tail steps out slowly and controllably, despite its lack of a limited-slip differential.
The Challenger's weak point on the track is the automatic transmission (a manual will be available for 2009). It's certainly up to the thermal and physical forces of a whole day of hot lapping, but it's sometimes slow to obey downshift requests from the driver. On occasion, the downshift would happen after we had already turned into the corner, and since the transmission doesn't blip the throttle to rev-match, the sudden increase in drag on the rear tires would kick the Challenger sideways. That behavior might frighten some drivers (for whom it would be advisable to leave the stability control on), but we used it as an excuse to power-slide the Challenger through the rest of the corner.
Speaking of stability control, the Challenger's standard ESP has a sport mode which allows greater yaw angles before intervening and, more importantly, disables the traction control portion of the system. This means that power doesn't get cut mid-corner. One of SRT's drivers said he was faster around Willow Springs with the ESP in sport mode than he was with it fully off, and we don't doubt it. Sport mode allows clean, slide-free driving even at ten-tenths without any intervention - but is on-call as a safety net if you get sideways. It's great.
In fact, the whole SRT8 Challenger is great. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sports car. It's a big, comfortable cruiser that's very capable on the back roads and even on the track. Sure, we can complain about the slow and numb steering, but none of that matters. Look at it. It's stunning. And while it may only last a few years before the CAFE standards and CO2 anxiety relegate muscle cars back to the history books, we're thrilled to be able to enjoy them for the time being. And it's even better to know that my mom was right: even if the muscle cars go away, they'll be back soon enough.
Click here to see video of the SRT8 doing some smokey burnouts and donuts, and use the links below to see our previous coverage and photos of the Challenger.