By Jason Harper
Aug. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Not good: flashing police lights in my rear-view mirror. Understandable, one might think, considering I'm driving a yellow 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 5.7-liter Hemi under the hood, which makes a vroom-inducing 440 horsepower. However, I'm under the speed limit, so what gives?
The officer edges his cruiser alongside and suddenly I understand.
``You want to look at the car, don't you?'' I say through my open window.
``Yeah, pull over.''
The car-mad state trooper recognized at a glance that the Dodge is unique. And it is: A product of XV (Xtreme Velocity) Motorsports, this Challenger costs $176,000 and is actually very new. A muscle car reborn, if you will.
The company's president, John Buscema, is riding shotgun, and he's soon telling the officer about the car's refinements. While the 1970 exterior is original, the Challenger has a completely new suspension, steering components, brakes and engine -- all specifically engineered for this car, using modern racing technology. The result, he promises, is a classic muscle car that handles like a modern sports car.
Buscema and partner Sean Hyland started XV in 2005 with a vision: to take Chrysler-brand cars such as Plymouth Challengers and 'Cudas and Dodge Chargers from the 1960s and 1970s and completely re-engineer them, retaining only the original shell. To achieve the performance they envisioned, many totally new parts had to be built. The level of detail elevates XV beyond an aftermarket operation. In essence, XV cars are their own brand.
Each car is custom-ordered, and they don't come cheap. Depending on the rarity of the original body (1970 and 1971 'Cuda convertibles shells bring top dollar), the size of the engine (a 6-liter Hemi with 600 horsepower is available), and options ranging from full leather, six-speed transmissions and GPS navigation systems, the cars run from $140,000 to $230,000. It takes six to eight months from start to finish.
The XV showroom is in Irvington, New York, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. The cars are actually put together in Woodstock, Ontario, under Hyland's supervision. He has long experience developing aftermarket parts and engines.
The company's biggest challenge was engineering and tweaking a new suspension. Among the major drawbacks of the original models were their simple (and poorly handling) leaf- spring rear suspensions and solid rear axles.
The shop also sells non-modified Chrysler-derived muscle cars, and I drive a stock 1970 Challenger first for comparison. The Challenger is a classic muscle car, with a big snout and flowing yet beefy lines. This one has a four-speed manual and original interior, and it's full of rumbling power.
Making nimble turns, however, is next to impossible. The steering is so loose that you have to spin the wheel all the way around for a turn to take effect. I wrestle just to keep it inside my own lane. Buscema laughs. ``And this one was installed with the special handling package, too.''
Next up is the XV Challenger, XV's first prototype, which is not for sale. (XV is currently building six cars for customers and can handle up to 18 custom jobs a year, Buscema says.)
Before I can open it up, though, we are pulled over by the car-loving cop. He eventually turns us loose after kicking the proverbial tires. A bit mischievously he notes that he'll be driving the other way, and we'll have the road to ourselves.
``Just don't leave 30 feet of skid marks when you pull outta here,'' he adds.
The XV Challenger is not an exercise in subtlety. In fact, it's the kind of really expensive car you'd buy to really tick off your spouse. It's hugely loud, even inside the car, and the tight suspension is not especially accommodating to the spinal column. It's finicky in traffic, too, and I manage to stall it once. An everyday commuter car it wouldn't be.
On the open road, though, it comes alive. Buscema promises that the harder you push the XV into curves, the better it reacts. I run through the five-speed gear shift in quick succession -- the noise from the V-8 reverberating throughout my chest -- and the dotted yellow center line quickly blurs. We charge into a deep bend and the XV sets firmly onto my chosen line, with absolutely no body roll. The steering is every bit as tight as the original Challenger's is loose.
Even when I purposely try to upset the suspension, the car remains solid and sure. No doubt you could break the back wheels from the road, and yet even at high speeds on curves, it feels predictable. The brakes are equally sticky and fade-free.
I'm impressed, and Buscema is grinning like a proud poppa.
Dodge will be selling a completely new, revamped Challenger of its own in 2008. The concept car, first shown at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, is a nice-looking vehicle. Still, it doesn't seem nearly as muscled and gritty as the original.
XV's model is loud and brash, the definition of a muscle car. And I'm betting that its XV ilk will almost surely be able to spank Dodge's brand-new Challenger up and down the road and back again.
The 1970 XV Challenger at a Glance
Power: 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 440 horsepower.
Drive train: Five-speed manual.
Price as tested: $176,000.
Best features: The sound of the roaring engine; first-class handling.
Worst feature: The sound of the roaring engine if you're trying to talk to a passenger; the spine-punishing ride.
Target buyer: The muscle-car lover who wants performance in a classic package.