Photography by David Freers
Sorry, Ford. Your by-default reign over the American musclecar party is about to come to an end. This is clear the instant we climb aboard a final engineering prototype of the Challenger SRT8, fire its 425-horse Hemi V-8, and plant our right foot hard to the mat. The engine screams to over 6000 rpm, the rectangular exhaust outlets bellow, and the Big Bad Dodge's husky butt fishtails in response, just like the good old days. Better, in fact.
The Mustang has been the only pony in the show for a while now, ever since Chevy lamentably flushed the Camaro at the end of the 2002 model year. Chrysler has been absent much longer; Gerald Ford was president when (pre-Daimler) Chrysler produced its last rear-drive Challengers and Barracudas. But the waiting for a digitized, new-millennium version of "Ford versus Chevy versus Mopar" is nearly over. Dodge's reconstituted Challenger enjoys a limited run this year (it's colloquially referred to in-house as a 20083/4). Chevy completes the triumvirate this fall with the reborn Camaro for 2009.
The Hemi Orange Challenger SRT8 on these pages isn't the concept that bowed a little more than two years ago at the Detroit auto show. It's the real deal. While they may look similar at first glance, the car has been productionized and differs in myriad details, although the concept's purpose came through loud and clear on its way to the showroom. Architecturally, it's a Dodge Charger that's been shortened four inches between the wheels. There's more front and less rear overhang in order to achieve the musclecar-appropriate long-hood/short-deck proportions. The most noticeable change has been that the concept's split grille has given way to an undivided grille treatment. A lot of aero work was required by the SRT team to get the car balanced enough for their trademark 150-mph lane change, including a small lip spoiler out back, plus a splitter and two small dive-plane winglets up front, the latter (not shown here) resembling those on a 1970 Challenger T/A. While everything has changed, the result is true to designer Mike Castiglione's 2006 concept and isn't shy at all about its direct, heritage-inspired connection to the original of 1970-1974.
Contrary to the norm, the SRT version is the first model to hit the streets, instead of coming out six to 18 months after mainstream variants. Not more than 10,000 of these 2008-and-change versions will be built, and all will be powered by the familiar and bloody wonderful 6.1-liter Hemi. It's the same as in SRT versions of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, as is the five-speed automatic transmission, the only gearbox offered at launch. Dodge is mum about future model and powertrain offerings, but if you look at what else can be had in the sedans, it's not unreasonable to figure out. Expect a base version running the 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and a midlevel (likely badged R/T) Challenger packing the 5.7-liter, 350-horse Hemi. One if not both of the V-8s will be offered with a manual transmission.