Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Dodge Challenger SRT8 cruises into supercar class


'I built that," retired Chrysler assembly worker Jimmie Wilson said, hurrying across the parking lot of Athens Coney Island in Royal Oak toward the silver 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. "No. Wait," the 65-year-old Detroiter said as he got closer to the muscular new Dodge coupe. "It's different."

The new Challenger looks enough like the 1970 car that inspired it to fool a guy who built the original. Under the skin, though, it's better in ways the engineers who cruised Woodward Avenue a generation ago never dreamed of.

The Challenger, a performance coupe that comes only in max-performance 425-horsepower SRT8 trim for the 2008 model year, will grow into a full model line this fall, as less-expensive 2009 models with smaller engines and higher fuel economy arrive.

Prices for the '08 SRT8, which features a 6.1-liter version of Chrysler LLC's iconic Hemi V8 engine, massive race-ready Brembo brakes among other upgrades, start at $39,420, including a $2,100 federal gas-guzzler tax but excluding destination charges. The only options Dodge offers on the SRT8 are a navigation system and sunroof and a $50 charge for summer tires.

I drove a Challenger SRT8 with the summer tires.

The Challenger SRT8 has a top speed of 170 m.p.h. and accelerates to 60 in 4.9 seconds.

Those figures put the Challenger SRT8 squarely in the supercar class with elite models like the BMW M3 coupe, but its price is thousands of dollars less.

For a fast car, though, it sure takes a long time to get anywhere in the SRT8. The big coupe draws a crowd in every parking lot and can stop traffic as other drivers maneuver for a better look and ask questions: Is it fast? Does it have air bags and other modern safety features? Can I buy one? Do you like it?

Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes.

The Challenger rides on a shortened version of the platform that underpins the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. That means it comes with antilock brakes, electronic stability control and curtain air bags and powerful four-piston ventilated Brembo disc brakes.

The technologies Chrysler used to create the LX platform that underpins the Challenger didn't exist when the 1970 Challenger rolled off the assembly line under Jimmie Wilson's eye.

A fully independent suspension and sport-tuned 20-inch all-season performance tires provide the new Challenger with road holding and grip infinitely superior to Detroit's first generation of muscle cars. Those cars were fast and furious in a straight line, but they did not approach the handling possible with modern tires, suspension and computer-aided engineering.

The suspension holds the Challenger secure through dramatic turns and on hyperspeed straightaways, but the Challenger's ride is also very comfortable, absorbing the bumps of rough pavement without the teeth-jarring impact that came with first-generation muscle cars.

Comfort and road holding are both superior to the Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500, which uses the same muscle-car formula but is limited by its solid rear axle.

Powered by an upgraded version of the Hemi V8, the Challenger's head-snapping acceleration is channeled smoothly through Chrysler's six-speed automatic transmission. That gearbox responds well in tap shift mode, but the lack of a true manual is one of the Challenger's few shortcomings. The 2009 SRT8 will offer a six-speed manual when it goes on sale this fall.

Anyone who buys a car like the Challenger SRT8 and complains about fuel economy should stop whining. That said, the SRT is thirsty. It requires premium gasoline and has EPA fuel economy ratings of 13 m.p.g. city and 18 m.p.g. highway.

The front seat is roomy and comfortable, with plenty of storage bins and pockets. Rear legroom is less generous, but rear headroom is good and the 16.2-cubic-foot trunk has a regular shape that makes it easy to use all its space.

The interior lacks a couple of features you should take for granted in a car this price, however. There's no memory function for the seats and mirrors, the tilt and telescoping steering wheel is manual rather than power, and the keyless pushbutton start does not have a feature to automatically lock and unlock the car when you walk away and as you approach it. Many new vehicles with keyless ignition share this shortcoming.

The sporty looking leather seats could also use a more scooped-out bottom cushion to secure occupants during aggressive maneuvers, and the serving-platter-sized steering wheel is too big and badly out of place in a high-performance car with such fast and responsive steering.

The exterior styling is nearly perfect, from the throwback shape to detail touches like the chrome flip-open fuel door. The old-style exterior door handles could stand to be larger and deeper, though. They're difficult to grip and feel like a feature that will break long fingernails as quickly as the SRT8 hits 60 m.p.h.

Dodge will build 8,000 2008 Challenger SRT8s. Every one is already sold.

The small production run for the '08 Challenger SRT8 means that the only review vehicles available are pre-production models. It's either review them or don't review the Challenger until the '09s arrive a few months from now.

For that reason, I'll mention a couple of glitches in the pre-production Challenger I tested, but they didn't affect the car's rating: the climate control fan whistled when set to high, and the front fascia that wraps around the grille does not line up perfectly with the front fenders and hood.

If those matter to you, check for yourself before you leave the dealership. If you don't like the Challenger SRT8, there'll be a line of people behind you who will be happy to take it.

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