Speed Read: Challenger is Challenging

We didn't have a chance to shoot the TorRed Challenger SRT8 so we're using photos we took of a HEMI Orange one that we shot earlier in the year.  We aren't colorblind, I promise. -- Z
Carl Modesette: The thought hit me somewhere along the lazy, post-rush-hour, 12-mile drive home from picking up the 2009 Challenger SRT-8: "This may be the last fun car Dodge, as we know it, ever makes."  It's not exactly the kind of thought that cheers you up, but, as Barney Stinson so wisely admonishes on How I Met Your Mother: "When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead."  And how to be awesome instead in a 425 horsepower car?  Drop 3 gears and flatten the accelerator, of course. Given my druthers, I'd have chosen Brilliant Black Crystal Pearl over the TorRed of our tester, because as my wife says, it just looks mean. Nevertheless, I won't lie and tell you I didn't enjoy the temporary highway hero status conferred by our pun-colored sample; I just wouldn't pay the $225 premium for the arrest-me-now-please paint. I've always been a huge fan of the 6.1-liter Hemi SRT-8 powerplant, and I'm certainly no less a fan of its most current sheet-metal wrapper.  The 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque spinning through a Viper-sourced Tremec 6-speed provide hours of speed-shifting punches in the back, at least until the fuel (or points on your license) runs out.  Whether the Challenger SRT-8 is the fastest machine in a straight line or not, there's something about the glasspack exhaust note as the revs build that will never get old. Whether you like or dislike the "old" (read: retro) styling of the Challenger, there's no denying its sheer road presence.  Of all the cars I've had the opportunity to sample here at S:S:L, the TorRed Challenger has gotten the most attention from everyone, period, point blank.  Whether cruising down the boulevard, stopping to get gas, or even at the church parking lot, the Challenger was never without a cadre of admirers.  Of today's current crop of retro-muscle, the Challenger is probably the closest to its original inspiration, and even if the retro is lost on you, it's hard to miss Chrysler's big coupe on the road thanks to its exaggerated proportions. While the Challenger is a blast to drive in a straight line, it stays true to the classic muscle-car paradigm when it comes to on-road ride and handling - that is to say, it's not so good at either one.  Any assessment of handling when it comes to the Challenger will always have the "it handles surprisingly well... for a car this BIG" caveat attached.  Likewise, the best way to describe the ride quality of the car would be with this visual image: picture a fat guy riding an innertube being pulled by a speedboat on a rather choppy lake.  When the pavement gets a little irregular and the speeds start to increase, the springs and dampers just have a hard time keeping control of the Challenger's heft. There's no doubt that the engineers at SRT have prepped the SRT- 8 reasonably well for track work. It has big brakes, thick rollbars, and reasonably well-sorted damping. On the road, however, the package doesn't deliver top-notch ride quality or solid broken-road handling.

At the end of the day, the pragmatist in me takes a long look at the sticker price and can't help but be, well, Challenged.  From a "base" price of $40,220, a Gas Guzzler Tax of $1700 and a Destination Charge of $725 takes the minimum actual base price to $42,645.  Beyond that, the potential Challenger buyer must pony up an additional $695 for the why-would-you-have-it-any-other-way 6-speed manual transmission, $225 for any paint color aside from black or silver, and $1,045 for "SRT Option Group II", which basically means "bad ass stereo system".  These options took the final tally to $44,610 on our tester, and this, folks, is where we have a problem.  See, that kind of money will buy you a Ford Shelby GT500, which is the best car ever.  That kind of money will also get you pretty close to a base C6 Corvette.  Even worse, once V-8 Camaros start hitting showrooms in numbers, you'll be able to get a Camaro with the same power and torque for at least TEN GRAND less  - and you won't have to pay extra for the 6-speed manual tranny.  So, as nostalgic and enjoyable as the Challenger is, I just can't see the value - unless retro Mopar exclusivity is your primary aim.  And if it is, well, mo'par to ya.

Jack Baruth: Carl's right. The SRT-8 costs serious money, and the competition offers either more power for about the same cash (Ford) or a lighter, faster car for less (Chevrolet, assuming the Camaro sticks around in the Government Motors era). But it's worth noting that the original Challenger didn't directly compete with the Mustang and Camaro. It was a larger, more luxurious car that offered a slightly older, more prestige-conscious audience the same shove in the back as the ponycars did. Viewed in this light, the Challenger makes sense. It's just plain bigger and more expensive than the equivalent Mustang or Camaro, and it offers what the competition doesn't: a bored-out HEMI V-8 paired with slab-sided retro styling that looks more like an original Challenger than... an original Challenger does, honestly. Truth be told, I could live with the weight penalty, the dark interior, and the steep sticker price, no questions asked. There are only two reasons why I'm not already an SRT-8 owner. The first is that I have an Audi S5, which is a better-looking, smoother, more luxurious, and more competent ponycar than the Mopar or the Camaro. The second, more serious one is this: Dodge won't sell you an SRT-8 in white. You can have an R/T in white, but those of us who are fans of both "Vanishing Point" and stopping the car without drama on a road course are the proverbial you-know-what out of luck. A Challenger you can't get in white? Get real. [nggallery id=28]
               

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Carl Modesette

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