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.