Wrapped in unabashedly retro styling that accurately channels the classic muscle car from the early 1970’s, the Dodge Challenger coupe was unveiled as a concept model to overwhelmingly positive reaction at the 2006 North America International Auto Show in Detroit. It was subsequently rushed into production and released at mid-year 2008 as a 2009 model; it receives new powertrains and minor other updates for 2011. While it continues to be the spitting image of the original iteration it is, under the skin, essentially a shorter two-door version of the Dodge Charger sedan that carries specific styling.
Like the retro-flavored Ford Mustang before it and the more-recently reincarnated Chevrolet Camaro, the car appeals especially to aging Baby Boomers who can afford to buy a thoroughly modern version of a car they lusted after – and may well have driven – back in the day.
The Challenger comes in three distinct flavors, with either a standard V6 engine or a choice of two V8s. The value-oriented SE version comes with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that ‘s available in most Dodge models. It’s rated at 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque, which keeps the Challenger competitive with the Camaro and Mustang’s base V6-powered versions. Unlike those cars, however, which allow V6 buyers to obtain a manual transmission, the Challenger’s base engine can only be mated to a six-speed automatic; while it offers a manual gear-select mode, it’s no substitute for a bona fide stick shift.
Enthusiast buyers who care not for such practicalities as fuel economy will be more attracted to the R/T version and its considerably stronger HEMI V8 (named for its hemispherical-shaped combustion chambers) with 376 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque. This version can make a 0-60 mph run in under six seconds, yet the engine is able to seamlessly deactivate half its cylinders when not necessary to help boost fuel economy by as much as 20 percent without sacrificing performance. The V8 comes mated to either an enlivening six-speed manual trans-mission or a more-passive five-speed automatic. The manual includes a Hill Start Assist function that makes launching the vehicle on an incline less of a bother. It shifts with relative smoothness and performs admirably, though the automatic will prove far more convenient for casual buyers.
In the meantime, the top Challenger SRT8 follows the traditional muscle car formula, which is to pack the largest and most powerful engine possible – in this case a new-for-2011 6.4-liter V8 – with just enough performance tweaks elsewhere to make the best use of its bountiful 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Remaining easily in check around town, it’s quick to deliver an amazing amount of thrust when required. Like the R/T, the SRT8 offers buyers the choice of either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Provided one doesn’t smoke the tires too much, the SRT8 is able to reach 60 mph from a standing start in around five seconds. Unfortunately, it’s costly, carrying over an $18,000 premium over the base car, and is a certified gas-guzzler to boot.
While the original rendition was essentially engineered to go fast in a straight line, today’s Dodge Challenger rides on modern underpinnings that help keep the rear-drive coupe’s tires planted firmly to the pavement through the curves as well. To this end, a full assortment of standard chassis control systems, including stability and traction control, are included. Unlike the Dodge Charger, however, the Challenger does not offer all-wheel-drive for added grip on wet roads. An optional Super Sport options group ratchets up the handling prowess of the base version, while a Super Track Pak does the same for the R/T. The SRT8 features a truly corner-hugging (albeit stiff-riding) suspension, and oversized brakes with red-painted Brembo calipers.
Going a step further, the 2011 Dodge Challenger offers a unique Drag Pack configuration that’s created specifically for sanctioned NHRA Stock and Super Stock drag-race classes. Only 70 models will be built and they’ll come powered by the 2010 Dodge Viper’s 8.4-liter V-10 engine and a two-speed automatic drag-race-oriented transmission. It features competition wheels and tires, a Mopar solid rear axle with performance gear ratio, and a fuel cell-based fuel system. It also loses myriad items like the back seat, windshield wipers, heater/air conditioning, and power steering. An optional Competition Package includes an eight-point roll cage, six-point safety harness and a mesh window net. Clearly this version is not built for commuting.
The Dodge Challenger’s interior treatment is subdued, yet gathers inspiration from the 1970 original; a new steering wheel with integrated controls and upgraded gauges tries unsuccessfully to detract attention inside from what remains an underwhelming abundance of cheap-feeling plastic. The back seat is sufficiently roomy, yet entry and exit is obviously hampered by the absence of rear doors. The SRT8 features bolstered leather sport seats and a reconfigurable display affords instant feedback on 0–to-60 mph acceleration, 60–to-0 mph braking, cornering g-forces and quarter-mile times.
It’s outward appearance may be backward looking, but the Dodge Challenger offers a complete assortment of the latest features, including side-curtain airbags that cover both rows of seats. Available tech-based features include keyless entry/ starting, the UConnect hands-free Bluetooth cell-phone interface and an available navigation system with a 30-gigabyte hard-drive for digital media storage.
With Chrysler’s future seeming reasonably secure under the helm of Italy’s Fiat Group, the Challenger is a welcome remainder of the Golden Age of the U.S. automobile industry in general and the Dodge brand in particular.
Dodge Challenger Quick Facts
Engine: 3.6 Liter V6, 5.7-Liter V8, 6.4 Liter V8
Horsepower: 305 @ 6,350, 376 @ 5,150, 470 @ 6,000
Torque: 268 @ 4,800, 410 @ 4.300, 470 @ 4,200
City/Highway: MPG 14/23-18/27
Transmission: 5-Spd Automatic, 6-Spd Manual
Wheelbase: 116.0 in
Overall Length: 197.7 in
Width: 75.7 in
Height: 57.3 in
Curb Weight: 3,834 lbs
Did You Know?
The original Challenger enjoyed a short production run from 1970 through 1974 and was based on the Plymouth Barracuda, though it came with added interior room by virtue of a longer wheelbase. It initially offered an array of available engines, from a 145-horsepower six-cylinder to a 425-horsepower HEMI V8, though power plant offerings would narrow in subsequent years to include a choice of two moderately powered V8s. Like most other muscle cars of the era it would eventually fall victim to high insurance rates and an oil-embargo-induced market switch to smaller and more fuel-efficient models. About 188,600 Challengers were sold during its five-year run. Between 1978 and 1984 the Challenger name would later be applied to an angularly styled four-cylinder coupe sourced from Mitsubishi; it was also sold through Plymouth dealers as the Sapporo.