First Drive: Mopar 2017 Dodge Challenger
Addressing the question: Is there life beyond 80?
The Mopar 2017 Dodge Challenger was dropped off at noon, and it sparkled in my driveway as if the ripe blue beneath the character line was flecked with asteroid dust. But the glaring rays robbed the black roof and hood of their sheen. It would have been better to greet this 80th-anniversary car when sunset seems to liquefy the lacquers, revealing their true names: Contusion Blue and Pitch Black.
This is the seventh Mopar special since 2010. It rolled off the assembly line in Brampton, Ontario, as an all-blue Challenger R/T Scat Pack and then went to the Mopar Custom Shop in Windsor, across the river from Detroit. There, the trim came off, lots of sanding and hand-masking took place, the black was applied, and the "392" emblem was painted by hand. (The numeral "3" is the Mopar "M" turned sideways.) Other special pieces such as the Shaker hood, shock-tower braces, and Hellcat exhaust tips were installed. The car departed with an owner's kit: a leather case containing a "birth certificate" engraved on a metal plate, a signed artist's rendering, a brochure filled with breathless congratulations, a handsome acrylic display piece, and jewelry including a key chain, anniversary badge, and valve-stem caps. The Mopar '17 Challenger is also offered in Billet Silver and Pitch Black—just 80 examples of each paint scheme. No matter what color, the buyer gets a big brawler with a face that says, "Outta the way!" Goodyear Eagle F1 tires on 20-inch wheels bulge like massive biceps. Indeed, the car has a few poses that make it one of the nicest-looking retro statements on the street.
No matter the color choice, the Mopar 2017 Challenger buyer gets a big brawler with a face that says, "Outta the way!"
I opened its huge door and sat on a lovely, suede-trimmed bucket seat with the Mopar logo embossed on the headrest. The 6.4-liter (392-cubic-inch) V-8 came to life with classic Detroit verve. It was immediately clear how much the oversquare engine likes to rev. Even on local roads where prudence should be exercised, there was no resisting. I might as well have been walking across rangeland with a shotgun and bag of shells. Smacking the power peak of 485 horsepower at 6,100 rpm in second gear brings the voice of a Roman god and a marrow-sapping rush of speed. Third brings a belly laugh, but fourth brings the fear of being fitted for an orange jumpsuit. The 180-mph speedometer is there for a reason. (Fifth and sixth gears are overdrive ratios.) But for all the commotion, all the flapping of dewlaps, this is a refined car with exceptional chassis and suspension development and strategic updates in interior feature content.
"To the credit of Mopar, they continue to do tremendous things with that product," said Eric Noble, president of automotive consultancy firm The Car Lab, when I called him for some perspective. Noble pointed out that the LX platform, which serves as the Challenger's basis, is more than 10 years old. "That's an example of the power of the Mopar brand and also the clever continual evolution of it by passionate people inside. Mopar's basically the fountain of youth for every model it touches."
The Mopar 2017 Challenger is tagged at $57,885. "I bet every unit goes out the door at that plus dealer markup," Noble said. "It's a way for [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] to continue to reap profit out of a very old platform. The vehicle-line executive on the main model line is happy, the dealers are happy, and Mopar continues to maintain or build brand equity. It's hard to say a bad thing about Mopar. They're just damn good at what they do."
In fact, Noble suggests Mopar is FCA's third-most valuable division after Jeep and Ram. This value is the result of gradual development of today's portfolio of limited-edition vehicles, 500,000 products, 1,750 Mopar Express Lane oil-change centers around the world, mechanic training programs at community colleges, 50 parts warehouses, 11 Mopar Custom Shops in various countries, and 1,500 employees at home base in Detroit's suburb of Center Line.
It all started rather humbly in the same year the American auto industry gave us the Blue Flame inline-six and the sit-down strike. It was initiated August 1, 1937, after Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation had already been operating for eight years, when Mopar offered "Chrysler Engineered" antifreeze (part number 1316 209) as its first product for the corporation's Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial brands. Matter of fact all the way, Mopar said what it did: motor parts.
If the name was prosaic, the earliest marketing idea—put together for a Shriners' parade in Detroit—was kooky. The effort entailed creation of a parade float bearing a 10-foot-tall camel made of auto parts. Wearing Mr. Mopar labels, this creation was led on the float by a small mechanical man, a real nut job named Accy—for "accessories." In the annals of pitchmen, Mr. Mopar and Accy fall somewhere between Mr. Clean, whose sudden appearance in a commercial was unnerving but effective, and that inefficacious prevaricator, Joe Isuzu.
MoPar, as it was then written, with horizontal rules above the "o" and "ar," offered radios in 1941, just in time to hear FDR proclaim December 7 as a date which will live in infamy. The sets were "custom built to specifications developed by Chrysler Corporation Engineers." There was the Universal, the Model 600, and the mighty Model 800, an eight-tube wonder with great reception and a color-changing display that matched the broadcast.
A postwar ad presented car care products such as MoPar Automobile Polish. "Excellent for furniture, too!" claimed the copy in what was perhaps an industry first: allowing people to shine up their Plymouths and parquetry from the same can. The full-color cover of a Replacement Parts and Service Guide from the 1950s showed mufflers, brake hoses and fluid, fan belts, and spark plugs. It was still pretty ho-hum.
By now, MoPar had lost the horizontal rules, and if the early attempt at a mascot was corny, the graphic design was equally misbegotten. "Mopar's branding since 1937 looks like design ideas run through a blender at max speed," said my friend, Angela Riechers, who teaches typography at New York's School of Visual Arts and writes a weekly column on typefaces for Eye on Design, the American Institute of Graphic Artists' blog. I'd asked Riechers to look over the images Mopar released for its anniversary. She found "a mishmash of colors, typefaces, attempts at logotypes, and varying notions about how much info to include. They never really found a groove or an engaging logo."
Considering the bulging "Omega M" created by marketing manager George Robinson in the mid-1960s, she said: "It looks logo-ish, to be sure, but it's visually divorced from its automotive context. A first read evokes the image of bunny ears—or Neptune's trident."
Besides the introduction of the enduring logo, the 1960s were big for the brand. "Mopar's gone independent!" announced a 1963 ad for the new wire and cable line. But the parts we remain excited about to this day are the intake manifolds, valvetrain pieces, and headers that made Dodges and Plymouths so predatory on street and strip, establishing Mopar as synonymous with Chrysler performance. These were lightweight cars with outrageous V-8s. In 1962, an unhandsome little Dart stopped gagging on its 413-cubic-inch Ram Charger motor long enough to record a 167.3-mph flying mile at Bonneville.
"They had it going all the way," said Bob Beck, a Southern California racetrack announcer for decades who has always enjoyed telling audiences Mopar stands for "Move Over, Plymouths Are Racing." Besides the huge engines, Beck attributes much Mopar success to Plymouth's and Dodge's early adoption of unibody construction. "You wanted to win on the dragstrip," he said, "you came along a Hemi or Max Wedge, and you knew that was going to be tough business."
Those who didn't buy their own factory dragster with an aluminum front end could go to the dealership for some Mopar magic. "They even had kits where you could build yourself a race car," Beck said. The phenomenon was known as package cars. "It was a part number. You could get everything you needed right from the dealership." The performance-parts trade led to creation of the Direct Connection, which grew into today's Mopar Performance Parts.
It's hard to imagine the NHRA without Mopar, which sponsors the newest star, Leah Pritchett, for whom 2017 has been a breakout year.
From dominating the Stock and Super Stock categories at local strips, Mopar grew with the National Hot Rod Association, which left behind its original competition sites on World War II airfields and moved to purpose-built stadiums and today's 24-date national tour. The front-engine rail and slingshot dragsters grew into rear-engine Top Fuel cars with enclosed driver compartments. And the Funny Cars deriving from Jack Chrisman's Mercury Comet had flip-up fiberglass bodies of ever more radical design and supercharged, nitro-fueled engines. The second-generation Hemi V-8 introduced in 1964 was the foundation for Mopar teams. "The engine was so strong and very amenable to the use of nitromethane and blowers," Beck said. Don Garlits (see page 117) relied on Mopar power while becoming the sport's foremost legend. It's hard to imagine the NHRA today without Mopar, which sponsors the newest star, Leah Pritchett, for whom 2017 has been a breakout year.
The Challenger, introduced in 1970, almost missed the fun, coming to market much later than its ponycar precursors and just in time for the federalization era. I was 15 years old in 1970 and had a better-late-than-never attitude about the Challenger. Its simple lines, shapely waist, and overall stance drew me. (By then, the Mustang and Camaro were getting a little busy.) The 1971 car-chase movie, "Vanishing Point," enhanced the appeal. I happened to work at a drive-in theater that summer and saw it a dozen times. Even the teenaged me recognized the story as a total crock, but I was paid $1.35 per hour to watch Kowalski, the Challenger R/T's amphetamine-popping driver, outrun motorcycle cops, force a Jaguar E-type into a river, and meet a naked hippie girl who rode a Honda Scrambler without burning her leg on the side pipes. Jennifer Lawrence might have an Oscar, but could she ever do that?
"Vanishing Point" stayed in my mind while I sampled the Mopar '17 Challenger. Granted, there are even more potent Challenger derivatives—the Demon and Hellcat—but the Mopar Challenger is still a beast. With the ferocious V-8 and taut driveline, smooth shifting requires a real knack. Rather than fully automated, multimode supercars, this is a simple recipe for deliciousness. Mopar's head of design, Joe Dehner, had spoken about the reaction of enthusiasts in a preview showing. "I think these people eat spark plugs for breakfast," he said.
If he's right, green smoothies might be overrated in making it to 80.
Mopar 2017 Dodge Challenger Specifications
|PRICE||$57,885/$57,885 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||6.4L OHV 16-valve V-8/485 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 475 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||14/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||75.7 x 55.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||179 mph|