PETOSKEY, Mich. – Okay, we've had a whole year to bask in the warm glow of the limited-production, $39,000 Dodge Challenger SRT8, with its 21st-century muscle updating the classic hemi models in a run of retro Detroit updates. Now it's time to talk about the car that most of us will end up buying, the fuel-sipping 2009 Dodge Challenger SE. After driving it for a day this summer, we just finished putting a whopping 669 miles on a Challenger SE over the weekend, driving from our base near Detroit up to the Bay Harbor resort community that lies between Petoskey and Charlevoix on Michigan's Little Traverse Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan.
On the open road, we found this basic Challenger model to be a surprisingly pleasant car that delivers good acceleration, fuel economy and, of course, that classic clean look. Granted, the SE won't run with its fellow Challenger models at the drag strip, nor will it shame the new Toyota Prius or Volkswagen Jetta TDi when it comes to fuel economy. We just proved that the current Prius and new VW diesel are kings of the road in one of these beastly miles-per-gallon runs, but as a comfy, cool, $25,000 ride that won't sting at the pump, the Challenger sure makes a compelling case. Read on for just how much sting we saved.... —Jim McCraw
The DriveOur model of the Challenger SE, in a stealthy dark titanium metallic finish with a dark slate gray cloth interior, starts at $21,320. But with a full load of standard power and convenience equipment, including 18-in. alloy wheels, it totaled $25,240. Dodge's 250-hp 3.5-liter V-6 makes 250 lb-ft of torque and is paired to a 4-speed automatic and a 3.64:1 rear-end ratio.
The SE is rated to deliver 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, and throughout our trip, we found it quiet, responsive and relatively smooth. We were attempting to drive for max mileage on this trip, so we used cruise control as much as possible, and kept a light foot on the go pedal at all times.
Instead of taking Interstate 75—the commercial and industrial spine of Michigan—the entire trip, we chose U.S. 127, an agricultural high road. This great route starts in Miami as U.S. 27, changes to 127 outside Chattanooga and ends at the intersection of I-75 in Grayling, Mich. With our favorite copilot, eats and drinks, a Valentine One radar detector and a Cobra NavOne portable navigation system on board, we left in the rain at 8 am on Saturday and arrived at home in the rain at 7 pm Sunday evening.
We were pleasantly surprised as how tight and quiet the Challenger SE rode, with very little tire and wind noise intruding. The suspension was smooth and supple, soaking up the big bumps and deep potholes with ease. Steering feel was solid, too, and the big brakes worked well, albeit with a bit too much empty pedal travel. The standard cloth bucket seats were amazingly comfortable and supportive, and we arrived refreshed and relaxed, even after fighting the weather for five hours. The trunk is the largest in its small class of competitors, according to Dodge, and the rear seat is a 60/40 fold-down that adds huge storage potential if and when you need it.
The Bottom LineWe ran two tanks of fuel nearly dry on our 669-mile jaunt and ended up with a calculated overall fuel mileage for the trip of 23.4 mpg. At this rate, with its 18.5-gallon tank, a Challenger SE could potentially travel close to 430 miles per tankful. With a switch to a more modern six-speed automatic, acceleration, driving fun and fuel mileage would certainly improve.
Dodge's aftermarket performance arm, Mopar, already offers a Pro Stock-style hood, a spoiler, a bright fuel filler door like the one on the SRT8 and even replacement shifter, and 20-in. forged aluminum wheels. So you could create a one-of-a-kind SE for far less than the price of an R/T and get V-6 gas mileage every day. Not a bad deal.