By Lary Coppola
As Chrysler’s biggest styling hit since the PT Cruiser, the Dodge Challenger looks very much like the 1970 version. It’s all about attitude — the in-your-face kind that’s been the hallmark of every high-performance Dodge as long as anyone can remember. After a hiatus of almost four decades, the rear wheel-drive Challenger has victoriously returned to the Dodge lineup, sharing its platform with the four-door Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.
Walkaround: Dodge stylists got this car right the first time, and thankfully, in spite of it having an entirely new, body, they didn’t mess with it like they did the Charger. It has a very commanding presence and just about everyone who saw it while I drove it remarked about it being as cool-looking, and faithful to the original as possible.
It’s a big car — bigger than the original — and just four inches shorter than the Charger. It’s also wider and lower. The long, flat hood is larger than most modern pickup trucks, while the four round headlamps and wide, horizontal grille of the original are still there. However, the inside lights are now turn signals and the outer pair the headlamps. Where signals originally were positioned below the bumper on the ’70, fog lamps now appear. Spoilers and tail lamps also accentuate its width, as do the haunches over the rear wheels where the roof flows into the trunk. Careful sculpting has retained the classic look without destroying aerodynamic efficiency — or its overall menacing appearance.
Model Lineup: The Challenger comes in three models — the SE, R/T, and the high-performance SRT8. This is a large, American-style muscle car, with a large, commanding presence, and large power. Its principal competitors are the two other 1970’s-style retro muscle cars from the old “Big 3” days — the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro.
I’ve had the opportunity to drive all three versions of this car, and each will appeal to a different buyer.
The SE comes standard with cloth upholstery, A/C, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt/telescoping wheel, cruise control, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 four-speaker stereo, 60/40 split-folding rear bench, and 17-inch aluminum wheels.
Options include leather upholstery, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, moonroof, 276-watt Boston Acoustics audio system, navigation with real-time traffic, 18-inch aluminum wheels, compact spare tire, ABS and electronic stability control and traction control.
SE buyers will be influenced by the look, content with a 250-hp 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic that’s EPA-rated 18/25.
R/T buyers may be older and wanting the Challenger they lusted after in their youth but perhaps couldn’t afford. With its 370-Horse 5.7-liter Hemi V8 delivering 398 pound-feet of torque with the standard five-speed automatic, it may become their adult hot rod. Power jumps to 375 horses and 404 pound-feet of torque on premium fuel with the optional Track Pak group, which includes a six-speed manual gearbox with twin-disc clutch and pistol-grip shifter, limited-slip differential, load-leveling shocks, performance steering, hill-start assist, bright pedal covers and different mufflers.
The Hemi also uses a multiple displacement feature that shuts down cylinders to save fuel, and boasts EPA ratings of 16/23 with the automatic and 15/23 with the six-speed manual. Mechanical upgrades to accommodate the added power include 18-inch aluminum wheels and wider tires, stability control, bigger antilock brakes, and firmer suspension.
The R/T adds a leather-wrapped wheel and shifter, illuminated visor mirrors, heated outside mirrors, body-colored mirrors and rear spoiler, metal fuel filler door, dual chrome rectangular exhaust pipes, and fog lamps.
Other options include leather upholstery, navigation system, 368-watt Boston Acoustics audio system, bi-xenon headlamps, keyless go, remote start, HomeLink, a trip computer with 128 total functions, steering-wheel audio/data controls, 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, hood-into-fender stripes and functional hood scoops.
The R/T could double as a daily driver, and strongly competes with the Mustang GT.
SRT8 buyers demand ultimate performance. The SRT8 is Dodge’s fastest car save the twice-the-price Viper. It features a 6.1-liter, 425 horse Hemi that’s EPA rated at 13/19, as well as the same transmission options as the R/T, plus the firmest suspension, limited-slip rear differential and big Brembo brakes.
Many items optional on the R/T are standard on the SRT8, including premium audio, bi-xenon headlamps, trip/data computer, leather, keyless go, and Sirius/XM satellite radio.
The SRT8 rear spoiler is flat black, the front spoiler deeper and ducted for brake cooling, hood scoops are functional, the fuel filler is polished aluminum, and 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and heated sport seats are standard. Options are the Track Pak, 522-watt 13-speaker Kicker audio system, navigation, hood stripes, remote start, and high-performance staggered-size tires.
Safety features on all Challengers include dual frontal airbags and side curtain airbags front and rear. Antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control and traction control are available on the SE and standard on R/T and SRT8.
Interior: The interior is reminiscent of the muscle car era in that most were spawned from generic sedans and had similar interiors. In this respect, the Challenger mimics recent Dodge and Chrysler sedans.
The front seats are very comfortable and deeply bolstered. Front legroom is ample, while the rear seat is seemingly more for show that utilization. But it was marginal back in 1970 as well, so no harm, no foul.
Although the pillars are on the wide side, you sit far enough away from the windshield to avoid forward blind spots. Rear visibility is fairly good too, because the side glass goes well back and the rear window is as big as the mirror view.
Instrumentation is light-faced with dark numbers and blue-green illumination matching the various digital displays.
Under The Hood: It’s what’s under the hood that defines the Challenger’s personality. Of all three powertrains, the 376 horse 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with the automatic is perhaps the best all-around choice, although it can also be had with the 6-speed manual. However, the Challenger SRT8 with the 425 horsepower V-8 and optional 6-speed manual transmission is definitely an E-Ticket ride.
The V-6 Challenger SE has the same cool appearance, but it’s all show and not enough go — at least for me. Both the V6 Mustang and Camaro have more going for them.
Behind The Wheel: The Challenger is a big, heavy, rear-wheel-drive car and handles like it. You won’t mistake it for driving a sports sedan like an Infiniti G37X, Acura TSX, or Audi A5, but you aren’t supposed to either.
The Challenger is smooth and surprisingly quiet enough over long distances, and deals well with marginal roads. Body roll is considerable, but the car is surprisingly well balanced in turns. The brakes are strong, but the Challenger’s mass becomes apparent under heavy braking on rippled roads. However, many lesser-tuned lighter cars have the same issue.
There’s massive authority in the V8’s exhaust note — especially as the pedal gets closer to the floor.
Whines: The trunk is relatively large, but the lift over is quite high. The wide rear pillars block your view when backing out of parking spots.
Bottom Line: The reborn Dodge Challenger delivers style at a
very reasonable cost. It’s an attention getter that isn’t about being conservative — but all about fun, power and attitude.