Wednesday, April 30, 2008

First Test: 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8

Worth the 38-year wait

By Arthur St. Antoine
Photography by Wesley Allison

Impatient? Why, yes. Guilty. You try driving a cool automotive prototype and then trying to forget about it for, oh, two years. Happily, Dodge's all-new Challenger was worth the wait.

It's that long ago that we drove the one-of-a-kind, retro-aware concept car that led to the production Dodge Challenger SRT8 you see here. While the concept was a handbuilt showpiece, not sorted for road-testing, the essentials were in place: 6.1L Hemi V-8, bulging wheels and tires, an updated interpretation of that unmistakable 1970 shape made iconic by the 1971 cult-hit movie "Vanishing Point." The faithful nodded their collective heads in admiration of Dodge's show-car handiwork, but almost immediately the rumblings began. "You gotta consider the Michael Jackson factor," said many. "The next time we see it, how much of that stuff will have fallen off?"

Fear not, Mopar mavens: Despite every exterior surface being different, the production Challenger is a near-clone of the fervor-building show star, sporting necessary alterations that do little to diminish the shape's impact. The production version's most significant edit is a three-inch trim in width-a revision you'd notice only if you happen to have the concept car handy for comparison. Whereas the concept's bodywork tucked in dramatically at its lower edges (a feature designers admitted early on would never make it to showrooms), the production car wears a thick black band along the bottom of the body, an addition that simplifies metal shaping and visually reduces the perceived thickness of the car's flanks. The famed four-headlamp "bandit" grille, borrowed straight from 1970, remains, though Dodge admits to considerable wind-tunnel work and changes to the hood's overhang needed to reduce lift (a new black rear spoiler also appears to add some rear downforce). A thicker B-pillar enhances roof strength, clever design work has retained the "full-width" look of the taillamps, and a new, chrome fuel-filler flap adds exterior drama. Gone is all costly carbon fiber; the production car is crafted in steel.

Though the concept's interior wore splashes of brushed-aluminum in the dash and center console, the production Challenger will look familiar to anyone who's seen the inside of a Charger or a 300C. The same, huge four-spoke steering wheel greets drivers; it's a shame Dodge hasn't employed a smaller, sportier three-spoke rim-at least in the top-level SRT8 edition. No complaints about the seats, though: They're beefy, leather SRT8 buckets, comfy for extended cruising and ready to embrace max-lat maneuvering.

For 2008, the Challenger's first model year, Dodge will sell the car only in high-output SRT8 trim: 6.1L Hemi making 425 hp and 420 lb-ft, 20-inch forged-aluminum rims (which save 25 pounds in unsprung weight over cast-aluminum, Dodge says), Brembo four-piston discs front and rear, five-speed automatic with AutoStick. Dodge simply wasn't able to get a six-speed manual ready in time, and that's a glaring omission-the Challenger should've reappeared with a manual first, including the famed pistol-grip shift lever that Kowalski repeatedly slams home in "Vanishing Point." Still, even before release, Dodge had already nearly all the 6400 Challenger SRT8s it intends to build the first year. And the pistol-grip Tremec six-speed version will arrive for 2009-along with an R/T model (370-hp, 5.7L Hemi V-8 with either transmission) and a base car (250-hp, 3.5L V-6; automatic only) that should start at under $24K.

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