NEW YORK — Last year, there was only one flavor of Dodge Challenger available—the raucous SRT8 version packing 425 hp from a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 and five-speed automatic transmission. It was quick, loaded with equipment and expensive—since Dodge built only 6400 cars. For the 2009 Dodge Challenger, we have three flavors and five powertrains to choose from, including the fuel-sipping SE model, the R/T with the “small" 5.7-liter Hemi engine, and, of course, the aforementioned SRT8, which returns with the option of a six-speed manual. Giddyap. —Jim McCraw
The SpecsThe new entry-level SE Challenger, powered by the well-proven 3.5-liter V6 engine, churns out 250 hp and 250 lb.-ft. of torque, backed by a four-speed automatic. This combination is rated at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway even without a more desirable fifth or sixth gear to boost the highway mileage. And with a 0-to-60 time of only 7.8 seconds, this might be a very popular choice in these days of high-priced fuel. The SE is distinguished by its smooth body, no SE identifiers on the front or rear end, no rear spoiler, and simple five-spoke alloy wheels mounting P215/65R-17 tires. In other words, the look is clean. And SE prices start at a mere $21,995.
The R/T uses the 5.7-liter Hemi V8, rated at 372 hp and 401 lb.-ft. of torque, with the five-speed automatic, or 376 hp and 410 lb.-ft. of torque with the optional Tremec 6060 six-speed manual. The Hemi gets two major improvements for 2009, variable valve timing on the camshaft and a bump from 9.6 to 10.5:1 compression ratio. The six-speed manual transmission is borrowed directly from the Viper, and the A580 five-speed automatic is the same one used on last year's SRT8 model. Tires are P235/55R-18 Michelins, with the option of P245/45ZR-20 Goodyear Eagle RSAs. Dodge says the R/T version will do the 0 to 60 hustle in a mere 5.5 seconds, and will get 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. Pricing starts at $29,995.
The top-of-the-line Challenger remains the SRT8 version. And it still packs a 425 hp, 420 lb.-ft. of torque wallop from the big 6.1-liter Hemi V8 engine. Only now, you can choose a Tremec six-speed manual in addition to an automatic. Both the R/T and the SRT8 versions use a new Getrag limited-slip differential. Tires are standard P245/45ZR-20, same as the optional tire on the R/T, with the option of split P245/45ZR-20 front and P255/45 ZR-20 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 supercar stickies on forged aluminum Alcoa wheels. The brakes are upgraded to 14.-5-in. front and 13-in. rear Brembos with a knock-back feature that keeps the friction material from dragging on the discs.
The SRT8 is distinguished by a deeper front spoiler, brake cooling ducts, and a rear spoiler. The SRT comes loaded with deep bucket seats, carbon-fiber trim, a 180-mph speedometer, and an onboard computer that can track 0-to-60 time, quarter-mile time, braking and acceleration. Good thing too, because the SRT8 can run all the way to an unrestricted top speed of 170 mph and hit 60 mph in 5 seconds flat. Fuel economy is projected at 13 mpg city, 19 mpg highway. Pricing for the nastiest Challenger of them all starts at $39,995.There are a host of options available on all three models, including Sirius, voice-activated navigation with real-time traffic, a Bluetooth phone option, a MyGig 30 GB hard drive for music storage, aux plug, iPod connector and remote starting.
The DriveWe spent a day driving all three versions of the Challenger in New Jersey's legendary traffic, snaking through Revolutionary War villages on old two-laners and churning along the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Oh, and we thrashed the tires right down to the cords on these cars on the one-mile track at Englishtown Raceway Park. And, yes, we were duly impressed by the acceleration, braking, balance and steering of these cars—which are all built on a shortened version of the same chassis as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans. These coupes have what Dodge says are the largest interiors in the class and what SRT director Kipp Owen says is “the best (chassis) we have ever done so far." We certainly agree when it comes to the suspension. But don't be fooled. These are not five-passenger coupes unless those rear passengers are small kids—or Hobbits.
The engine performance of the 5.7-liter R/T model is quite stout, and the fuel mileage substantially improved by the standard MDS or cylinder-shutdown system on the engine. The SRT8 6.1-liter Hemi has so much power, so much torque, that it will lay rubber at the mere prod of the right pedal and pull hard right on through fifth gear. And both of these V8s have that great American muscle-car soundtrack whether you're wailing at full throttle or decelerating into a tight corner. These cars will paste a broad smile on your face every day you climb behind the wheel. The optional six-speed manual in the red SRT8 was a joy to use, thanks to the new double-disc clutch adapted from the Viper. The transmission comes in the optional ($995) Track Pak along with a piston-grip shifter, a hill-holder feature, the limited-slip diff, bright metal pedal covers and a quicker steering ratio.
We were impressed by the overall tight, quality feel of the R/T and the SRT8 versions that we drove. We heard not a squeak, a chirp, or a rattle all day long. So what's not so good? Well, the materials used inside all three versions are a bit on the plasticky side. But at least the fit and finish are good. And the seats are very comfortable and supportive in fast corners as well as on interstates, whether the standard buckets in the R/T or the more heavily bolstered SRT8 thrones. The instrumentation, done in the same four-round-pod style as the original Challenger, is easy to read. The big, fat four-spoke steering wheel connects to a steering system that, while not as sharp as some European sporty cars, is very good for a 21st-century American muscle car.