Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dodge ponies up a Challenger: Muscle-car rival to Mustang makes appeal to young and old

It's the muscle car for the masses, the people's pony car. The first serious competitor to Ford Motor Co.'s Mustang: the 2009 Dodge Challenger.

The iconic Dodge makes its final debut today at the New York Auto Show.

We've seen the concept and the high-performance $38,000 Street and Racing Technology model with its 6.1-liter Hemi V-8. Dodge has already sold more than 10,000 of the SRT8 models, which won't even arrive at dealerships until May.

Now come the meat-and-potatoes models of the classic car: The R/T and V-6 SE.

These are the volume versions Dodge hopes reach nostalgic baby boomers and successful Gen Xers searching for automotive amore.

Dodge's marketing manager, Mike Accavitti, told me last month that the new Challenger is one of the few vehicles that could draw admirers from every age group.

"Everyone looks at the Challenger and appreciates it for different reasons," Accavitti said. Some love it for the memories, others because of its tire-melting good looks.

Indeed. It's an impressive coupe and, more importantly, these daily driver versions introduced in New York will determine the car's future. The 3.5-liter V-6 SE model still packs 250 horses under its double scooped hood, and the Everyman's performance R/T model comes with Chrysler's revised 370-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi.

Long-standing vs. new

When it comes to variety, however, Ford takes round one. The Blue Oval offers more Mustang variations than Dodge has car models. There is the base Mustang with a 4-liter V-6, the GT, with the 4.7-liter V-8, and the biggest bull in the stable, the Shelby GT 500, with its 500-horsepower 5.4-liter V-8. There's the limited edition King of the Road and Bullitt models. Add to that the convertible variants, and its no wonder Mustang sold 135,000 vehicles last year.

But the Challenger's smaller V-6 still packs more punch than Ford's V-6 and it has that new-kid-on-the-block advantage. Americans love new things.

"I think (the Challenger) is going to do the company a lot of good and the dealers a lot of good," said Jim Hossack, a consultant at AutoPacific Inc. "It's good looking, high performance at a great price, there's nothing wrong with that."

While Dodge won't project how many Challengers it expects to sell, experts project it could top more than 50,000 vehicles.

"There are a lot of things stacking up against these vehicles, new CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards and high gas prices, but they should continue to do fine in the market," said Casey Selecman, an analyst with CSM Worldwide, an automotive consulting company.

New and improved

Last week, I took a peek at the new Challenger and its inspiration, the 1970 Challenger T/A, with the car's lead designer, Jeff Gale.

Parked side by side, the 2009 Challenger R/T looks like a modern reflection of the Challenger with its muscle-bound Trans Am trim package. Beefier than the original, the new Challenger has all the trappings of a modern day car without all of the inherent flaws in one designed 38 years ago. The original didn't offer electronic stability control, traction control, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes, and other modern conveniences. The 2009 models do.

Back in the day, no one needed hands-free Bluetooth connectivity, a MyGig entertainment system or even a remote to unlock the doors. Now, people expect to control their iPod with steering wheel-mounted buttons. The new Challengers offer all of those things and keep the pistol grip shifter.

"We wanted the new Challenger to remind people of the original, but it had to come with all of the technology and conveniences available today," Gale said. "But we had to stay true to the design."

They did. And they improved it. The original, while able to house any of Chrysler's nine engine choices, lacked sound aerodynamics.

"If you look at the front end, it's not very aero friendly," Gale said. "When we put the T/A in the wind tunnel, it was ready to take flight."

The designers reworked the car to let it cut through the air without compromising the final look. It's pure Challenger, front and back. Even the tail lights include the center mounted white reverse lights with "Dodge" proudly written across them, just like the original.

They also used a few tricks to keep its classic form. From the side, the entire bottom edge is black, a detail the original lacked. The 1970 Challenger's body is narrow from top to bottom and the side panels curve under the vehicle sharply. Small body outside means small space inside.

With the new model, designers created the illusion of a thinner car by painting it black. It allowed the new Challenger to have a much roomier back seat.

"There's more room back there than any Mustang," Gale said. There are exactly 37.4 inches of headroom and 32.6 inches of legroom in the second row. Both numbers best the Mustang.

The car people want, not need

Is there room for both the Mustang and the Challenger in the market? Especially as gas prices rise, the overall economy languishes and experts predict lackluster performance for all auto sales in 2008.

"Absolutely," Hossack said. "There used to be a lot more cars in that segment. And most of the people who buy it are just adding it to their family fleet. If they need something more fuel efficient, they already have it. If they need something to haul the family around, they already have that."

In other words, it's the car people want, not the one they need.

For consumers, the best news is the Challenger will be priced competitively. Dodge officials have not announced final pricing for the SE and R/T models, but they have said it will be priced to take on the Mustang, which starts at $20,000.

Let the pony wars begin.

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