Let's get one thing clear: This is not going to be your typical car review article. You're welcome. That's just the thing the automotive journalism world needs-one more self-important expert offering up an imperious assessment of a vehicle, all of which amounts to little more than opinions and emotional reactions. Don't know about you, but we're a little tired of reviewers skewering American cars for "cheap, hard, plasticky interiors." Not everyone cares if his dash is awash with soft-touch plastics or whether the gauges were lifted from the corporate parts bin.
Likewise, this is not your boilerplate old-model-versus-new-model puff piece. Everyone knows that in nearly all instances, a brand-new car will outperform its 40-year-old namesake. It's just inevitable: Metallurgy, machining, and manufacturing technology have advanced exponentially since the '60s. We are able to wring much more power and performance out of our engines, brakes, and tires than guys could even dream about when the first generation of these cars rolled off the assembly lines.
Instead, this is a review from a new-generation muscle car's toughest critic: the owner of the original model. We gathered a few owners of classic E-Bodies to kick tires, size up, and drive this new '09 Challenger SRT8 to see how it stacks up against their iconic muscle cars. We also tossed into the mix the perspective of non-Mopar muscle car owners, as well as input from a guy who sells these things for a living, all in an effort to get a complete look at whether Chrysler got it right with the new Challenger.
We had the car on loan from Chrysler for a week, and we spent as much time behind the wheel as possible. The car drew lots of looks and thumbs up everywhere we went. One of our first stops was Huntington Beach Dodge, where we talked with this guy, Dan Powers. He told us customer response to the new Challengers has been better than expected. "People gawk at the Challenger," he told us, adding that tourists will often stop to take pictures in front of Challengers on the lot. "We can't keep the SRT8s in stock. I recently sold one to a cop who came in to look at them after writing a bunch of tickets to Challenger owners. He bought an SRT8." Remember all that chatter in the news media about American car manufacturers not building cars that people want to buy? Maybe they should drive a Challenger.
The next day, we drove the car out to one of our favorite Sunday morning car shows at Village Coffee Roasters in Woodland Hills, California. We were immediately waved into an open parking spot by these two guys: Rick Bartholomew (left) and Bill Dale, owners of the two new Challengers in the background.
Rick is one of the founding members of Socalchallengers.com. He bought his Challenger on October 21, 2008. "It was a Christmas gift to myself from the year before. I waited for the six-speed to come out," he said of his Bright Silver Metallic SRT8. "I love it. It's a luxury muscle car. I got a ticket the first week I had it." Since taking delivery, he's added an after-cat exhaust and a Hurst shifter. At a recent dyno session, it made 393 hp and 389 lb-ft at the wheels.
Bill is a dealership technician at Reliable Dodge, and this '09 R/T is his wife's daily driver. They got tired of waiting for the Camaro to come out and bought the Challenger instead. "It's a great car, and I like the lifetime powertrain warranty. They got it right with the Challenger." He's done some stuff to their car, too, adding an Eibach lowering kit, a Mopar Performance intake, and a Flowmaster exhaust. Both guys agree that the Challenger appeals to younger and older buyers.
Next we drove the Challenger to Mike Campbell's house. He's the owner of this great-looking '70 'Cuda. He's had the car for nine years and drives it almost every day, so we were especially interested in his opinion of the new Challenger. Until now, all the feedback had been favorable, as well it should be. We expected a salesman and a couple of enthusiastic owners to really sing the car's praises. But what about a guy who lives with and loves an original E-Body? Would this new model have any of the mystique of the old car? Would he ever consider buying the new one?
We lined up our cars for comparison's sake and let Mike have a thorough walk-around. "It's big," he said of the new car. The contrast is striking when you see the two cars together. Compared with the '70 model, the '09 looks taller and bulkier. Still, the dimensions are all there and look right. Most people we've talked to say the Challenger is the best looking of all the retro-new cars (Mustang, Challenger, and Camaro). It's true to its heritage without trying too hard to look stylish. Mike especially liked the gas cap on the new car, which we were relieved to discover was actually made from aluminum and not cheap, chromed plastic.
The differences are much greater inside the car. "The seats are so different-very comfortable," Mike commented. Indeed, the SRT8's seats are a pleasant place to spend a lot of time. They are comfortable but still supportive enough to hold you in place during cornering. Not so much with the 'Cuda, however, "My sister calls the '70 the organ donor car," referring to the relatively flat, low-backed, vinyl-upholstered, and lightly padded buckets in his 'Cuda.
Time behind the wheel reveals even more differences. Mike was impressed with the car's controls: "The shifter has such short throws. In the '70, I feel like I'm rowing a boat. This had very smooth acceleration. The engine feels good. I don't think it's as fast as my car, but it doesn't feel as big and heavy as it looks. I could get used to this. Ten minutes into the thing, and I'm already enjoying it more than I thought I would." Pretty strong praise, we'd say. Still, would he buy one? He was not sure. He liked his '70 because it felt more raw-it was more of an experience to drive. "I want something with a little more personality," he said. "You feel everything with the 'Cuda. There's no question which gear you're in. It squeaks and rattles, you're turning 3,500 rpm at 65 mph, and there's no radio. Even if there was, I wouldn't be able to hear it."
Seeking yet another opinion, we met up with Scott Wagner, owner of a '71 383 Challenger and a '68 Barracuda with a 318. He's been a self-described Mopar-or-no-car guy since 1979, owning and racing several vintage cars in the last two decades. Though he's never bought a new car, he had some extra money saved up and was considering buying one of the new Challengers. Scott was impressed with the looks of the car but echoed Mike's comments on the size of the '09 versus his '71, saying the new car looks a little thick in the middle. After a few minutes behind the wheel, Scott said he thought it would be faster. "It doesn't feel like a 13-second car." We should say here that Scott also rides sport bikes and he admitted that most cars feel slow to him. He was impressed with the ride, however. "It's quiet, it rides great, and the handling is great," he remarked as we blasted down a curvy freeway offramp. "It doesn't drive big," he said, agreeing with Mike's assessment that though heavy at more than 4,100 pounds, the car doesn't feel like a barge lumbering down the road.
So would he buy one? He wasn't so sure, either, repeating several times that he had expected the car to feel faster. He felt that if he were to buy a new Challenger, he'd probably opt for the less expensive R/T and invest in a supercharger. Spoken like a true car crafter.
In the end, we do feel that Dodge did a very good job with the Challenger, and the fact that we're seeing more and more of them wherever we go also shows that many other people agree with us.
We suspect the Challenger SRT8 is a deceptive performer. Though it didn't feel fast to our two guys, it may be that its engine delivers power in a smooth and linear manner and that the sound deadening and comfy seats isolate drivers from the ethereal experience they've grown accustomed to in their classic Mopars. Maybe Chrysler engineers should give us a car with solid motor mounts, zero sound deadening, and minus the weight of all the airbags, traction control, and satellite radio stuff. We could take that car back to these guys and see if that changes things.
'09 Dodge Challenger SRT8 Specs
Base price: $41,695
Price as tested: $43,730
Engine: 6.1L Hemi
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Horsepower: 425 at 6,200 rpm
Torque: 420 at 4,800 rpm
Redline: 6,400 rpm
Transmission: Tremec T-6060 six-speed
Curb weight: 4,146 pounds
0 to 60 mph: 4.6 seconds
Quarter-mile: 13.1 seconds at 108.4 mph
Fuel economy: You're reading the wrong magazine
Performance specs from Motor Trend