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.