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.