World's First Test of Dodge's Newest Muscle Car
The 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a muscle car, right? An American muscle car. So naturally, the first thing I want to do when I jump behind the wheel is a big American smoky burnout.
"Not here," says Pete Gladysz, the Dodge guy babysitting our test car and riding shotgun, as he looks around the leafy, tranquil residential street we're on in the middle of Pasadena. "Wait 'till we get to the track."
Gladysz, powertrain senior manager for Chrysler LLC's SRT Group, sounds serious. So I wait.
Carving up Mountain Roads
Instead of the burnout, I carve our way up into the mountains east of Los Angeles on the Angeles Forest Highway, a tortuous two-lane road that cuts and weaves its way northeast toward Willow Springs International Raceway. It's a road custom-made to test the new Challenger's handling mettle.
The 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is no rapier of a pony car, and it even makes its iconic 1970 inspirational predecessor, which I road-tested many times back in the day, seem compact. Instead, this new 2008 Dodge Challenger is more like a broadsword, a big brute of a car weighing 4,152 pounds.
Remember, the new Dodge Challenger is really a Dodge Charger sedan underneath with a scant 4 inches chopped out of the wheelbase. But Dodge tuned the suspension to be more compliant this time around. Softer than the suspension on the Charger SRT8 we tested a few months ago.
According to Gladysz, the engineering team realized it was unnecessary to tune the suspension so uncomfortably stiff to get this rear-wheel-drive platform to handle.
A Big Brute
With all that bulk and its softer shock tuning, I frankly don't expect much in the handling department. Like that Charger, around town the Challenger is a big, heavy, ponderous car, a feeling amplified by its heavily bolstered, leather-upholstered bucket seats and the greenhouse of mail-slot-size windows.
But the harder I push the Challenger on the endless curves of the Angeles Forest Highway, the lighter on its feet it gets. This car belies its nose-heavy 54 percent front/46 percent rear weight distribution with a neutral feel right up to the point where the electronic stability program (ESP) starts to activate.
In fact, the ESP is programmed to let you play a little with oversteer if you want to balance weight transfer with throttle in tight corners. And in broader sweeping turns, you can actually hang the rear end out a little before the ESP selectively applies braking and modulates throttle input to save you from yourself.
Later, at the test track negotiating our 100-foot slalom, the Challenger's capabilities once again became obvious on the first flat, controlled pass. From then on, it's only a matter of finding the quick way through the cones. Our testers note a quite neutral balance despite being a little vague on turn-in, but the short suspension travel helps transitions from left to right.
At the Test Track
When it's all over, the big 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 records a fine 66.2 mph through the slalom. On the skid pad, its mild understeer on the limit transitions to gentle lift-throttle oversteer, which translates into nice 0.86g lateral acceleration.
Likewise, the Challenger excelled in our braking tests, recording 60-to-0-mph in just 115 feet. Its Brembos provide a firm pedal with excellent feel, very little ABS noise and no fade whatsoever throughout the test. Brake dive is also kept in check.
No doubt contributing to the Challenger's fine handling and braking are the optional 245/45ZR20 front and 255/45ZR20 rear Goodyear F1 Supercar Performance three-season tires. Standard are 245/45ZR20 Goodyear RS-A all-season tires all around.
A Citation Makes History
Of course, with 425 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 420 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm thumping out of the 6.1-liter Hemi engine, you can do just about anything you want with this car, including passing anything on the road — except the radar unit of a California Highway Patrol officer.
Once off the Angeles Forest Highway and onto the 14 freeway, I open it up to test the Challenger's over-the-road passing ability. Our orange-on-black rocket is up for it, too. At 85 mph I punch it. The five-speed automatic kicks down, the acceleration pins us back in the seat and the Challenger blasts forward. This thing definitely has game.
As we approach our exit to Willow Springs, I put the turn signal on and move to the right lane. At that moment, also going on are the rooftop lights of Officer Edward Smith's Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. He hits the gumballs and makes a hard left across the median, spewing grass and dirt into a huge rooster tail behind him, then pulls another hard left onto the northbound pavement, rear tires blazing. Nice driving, Officer Smith. He catches us as we stop at the top of the exit ramp.
Officer Smith, out of the California Highway Patrol's Mohave barracks, writes us up for "excess of 100 mph." This may be the first speeding ticket written for a 2008 Dodge Challenger in the entire USA. At least that's what I'll tell my grandchildren.
After this episode, I do not test SRT's claim of a top speed of 170 mph for the Challenger. By the way, the car has no electronic speed limitation. The 170 figure is a "natural" top speed, according to SRT engineers.
Just Stomp and Steer
Our test car is a rocket ship on the drag strip, too, recording a quarter-mile of 13.2 seconds at 107.5 mph — ironically, nearly identical to the runs I once made in an original Hemi Challenger in 1970. The new car's 0-60-mph time of 5.1 seconds (4.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) is right on, compared to factory claims.
An interesting fact not to be overlooked is the quarter-mile trap speed of this car. Both the 1970 426-cubic-inch Hemi and the 2008 370-cubic-inch Hemi are rated at 425 hp. But the '08 car is 647 pounds heavier. As the quarter-mile speeds of these cars are almost purely a function of horsepower-to-weight ratio, you have to wonder which horsepower rating is fiction.
Best acceleration runs result from merely stomping the throttle to the floor from idle with ESP off. No brake torque at all. With the 3.06:1 rear axle ratio and 3.58 1st gear in the five-speed automatic, the car produces textbook-perfect, bog-free, wheelspin-free launches. Manual upshifts with the console-mounted Autostick are blazingly fast, or the transmission does it for you right at the 6,200-rpm redline.
Of course this kind of yank costs. The EPA rates the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 at 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway, which is thirsty enough to slap the car with a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax (which we've included in its base price). During our 10 days and 2,000 miles with the car we averaged 14.5 mpg.
And yes, we finally do some burnouts in the Willow Springs area. Doing a burnout in this car is somewhat tricky. You can't just mash on the brake with your left foot, feed throttle with your right until the tires start spinning, then floor it and go. That worked in the original '70 Challenger. Forget about it in 2008. The culprit is modern technology.
But you can do it. First you have to shut off the ESP, which itself is a two-step process. Hit the dash button once and you get a "soft" shut-off, which means it's still kind of on. Then hold the button for 5 seconds and it's off — kind of. Yes, it's off but it will still intervene in certain circumstances.
For 2010, the federal government has mandated certain ESP interventions on all cars regardless of whether the system is off or on. Since the engineers were designing a new system for this car anyway, they dialed in the compliance for the 2010 regs. So for instance, if you mash on the brake pedal with your left foot and open the throttle with your right foot at a steady setting for 2 seconds or longer, the ESP computer interprets that as the car being "in distress" and shuts down the engine.
Big Brother Takes the Wheel
To do a really major burnout, you have to trick the electronic brain and slightly modulate your foot on the brake as you spin up the rear tires. (Modulating the throttle doesn't work as well.) The computer interprets this modulation as the driver having fun, and it's actually programmed to allow for fun. Then you'll have your burnout.
By the way, when you release the brake, don't let the revs hit the rev limiter at 6,200 rpm or the computer will shut down the engine, shift you into 2nd gear, then give you back control.
It's all a bit tricky but once you get the hang of it, you can smoke the tires at will and look like a NASCAR hero after a big win.
The Real Deal
The 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 will be the talk of the town for the next few months, as well it should be. Available in Hemi Orange, Bright Silver Metallic or Brilliant Black, it looks, feels and sounds like a muscle car. It's got one of the sweetest exhaust notes you'll hear this side of a Flowmaster muffler. And they're only building 6,400 examples before they move on to lesser-powered versions.
Of those, 4,000 are already sold. With all the standard leather inside and all kinds of high-tech stuff in the instrument panel, it's something of a performance bargain at its $40,095 base price.
It's a true muscle car in every sense of the word.
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I'm really into this car now, but I'm sick of this color. I'll take Black or Silver.