LET'S GET the unpleasantries out of the way: The Dodge Challenger is to our current economy-and-energy nexus what a bull fiddle would be to Nero's burning Rome. This reimagining of the Chrysler's E-body classic, the 1970 Dodge Challenger, is very close to the last thing the world needs right now, as instantly ludicrous as a campaign to repeal the 22nd Amendment (presidential term limits) or a health-and-beauty book by Amy Winehouse.
Behold a $40,000 muscle car that gets single-digit fuel economy when your boot's in it -- and, come on, your boot is always in it -- aimed at upper-middle-class to wealthy males between ages 45 and death. Not exactly the car of tomorrow. Last week, when the first production cars began rolling off the line in Brampton, Ontario, the average price for a gallon of sweet petroleum liquor was $3.61 a gallon -- oh, sorry, that was for regular unleaded, whereas the Challenger's 6.1-liter, 425-hp V8 would much prefer to burn premium. Meanwhile, the economy could give the Everglades lessons in stagnation. If that weren't enough, looming on the horizon are tough new fuel economy standards that will make snot-flinging V8s like the Challenger's "Hemi" the stuff of history books.
In other words, the Dodge Challenger is brilliant. Here's a short list of reasons why:
If ever a genre of automobiles needed a last hurrah, it's the pony car. In the next two years, the Challenger and the coming-soon Chevrolet Camaro will re-create the pony car wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then go away for precisely the same reasons they did in the early 1970s: increasing fuel economy standards and the price of gas. I'm fascinated by the symmetry of it. Watching Camaro and Challenger go at it will be like watching the misty, misguided nostalgia of Civil War reenactments, except here both sides lose.
As for these cars' environmental irresponsibility, sure, some, but it will be largely symbolic and notional. Sold in relatively low numbers and left to slumber in garages for most of their lives, these neo-pony cars' greenhouse impact will be a rounding error compared to the giant fleets of right-sized commuter cars like the Saturn Aura or the Honda Accord.
The Challenger is a cheap program: Before Chrysler can get to the business of building greener cars -- and on this score it's the most backward of all the auto companies -- it has to stay in business. To that end, the Challenger offers a huge rate of return in publicity and street cred. The car is essentially a rebodied Chrysler 300 (the same as the Dodge Charger, minus 4 inches of wheelbase), built on the same assembly line. According to the Detroit News, Chrysler spent a mere $151 million on the program, going from concept car to Job One in fewer than 21 months. Chrysler could never make a dime off the Challenger program and happily write it off as a marketing expense. And that's almost certainly what will happen.
Recession-proof: The relative handful of geezers who buy this car -- the 2008 model year run of 6,800 units has already been sold -- will not be fretting fuel economy, the price of gas or the perspiration of polar bears. The car is aimed like a Hellfire missile at the emotional groins of boomers who have loads of cash and empty nests. They just won't care about other considerations. The car will sell like mad for a year or two and then fall off a cliff. That will make it relatively rare, enough to give it the cachet of a collector's item. Can't wait for Barrett-Jackson, circa 2038, when this thing is worth, like, $8 billion.
Cultural bedrock: There's plenty of room for disagreement here, but if I had to identify the most iconic Mopar monster from the era, it wouldn't be the Plymouth Superbird or B-body Charger R/Ts, it would be the Challenger, simply on the strength of the 1971 movie "Vanishing Point." This comically overdrawn and faux-existential chase movie stars a white Challenger R/T hardtop (the last car ever to look cool in white) and Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, a car-delivery driver gone Crazy Ivan. Utterly gravid with counter-culture cliches -- bad cops, Jesus freaks, soul brothers, free-love sisters -- "Vanishing Point" is nonetheless an essential car-guy movie, a Mopar-powered romp across the American West. I would go so far as to say that without the movie, the new Challenger would never have come to be.
Reason last: The new Challenger is a really nice car. I know -- I was surprised too.
The retro-futuristic interpretation of the classic Challenger is truly ingenious, pulling all the lines and details -- the blacked-out grille, the race-style fuel filler cap, hood scoops, the kicked-up character line, the overall proportions -- into a visual algorithm that suggests the original car while actually being nothing like it. The new car is huge, with 6 inches more wheelbase (116 inches) than the old Challenger. The old car, with its sculpted turn-under and sides, seems almost delicate compared to the big, bluff neo-Challenger. Plainly, the designers had to work around the many hard points of the 300's boxy body structure. Still, they managed to hide the bulk convincingly.
There was, unfortunately, nowhere to hide the weight. At 4,140 pounds, the Challenger's poundage is the consequence of the project's short development and low budget (taking weight out of a car costs a lot of time and money). Still, there's no denying 425-hp, 420-torque V8 under the hood. This is big, cackling, evil-sounding thrust, with an angry lunge off the line and a peaky, on-the-cam feel in the upper registers. Zero-to-60-mph accel is about 5 seconds (the exhaust note has been engineered to sound like the old car) but the Challenger makes its happiest/orneriest noises at 5,000 rpm in third gear, as it snatches the air from the passing lane.
No one will adore the five-speed AutoStick transmission used here. It works fine and, yes, you can shift it much like a manual transmission using the lateral shift gate (but no steering wheel paddles). Still, going around Willows Springs race track, I felt a little handcuffed by the positioning of the shifter. The Challenger just screams for a six-speed manual and a limited-slip diff. Both are coming to future models. One assumes the Hurst Pistol Grip will be reborn.
If you liked the handling of the Chrysler 300C SRT8, which is like swinging a 40-ounce bat, you'll love the Challenger SRT8. The chassis development team has been hard at work tweaking the tire-and-suspension package (unequal-length arms up front and multilink in the rear, with Bilstein coilovers at four corners), so that the Challenger -- even with its weight, relatively high center of gravity and roll centers -- manages to stay unusually composed while cornering. Turn-in is nice and linear, the front tires bite, the rear end follows the front obediently, the lateral Gs build up until a benign and predictable understeer sets in; and then, when you pick up the throttle and unwind the wheel, the chassis settles down immediately. The steering is a touch over-boosted but agreeably sensitive. The Brembo brakes shed speed without drama.
This is, obviously, no sports car, but a big, muscle-bound road car, with excellent ride quality and more than adequate cornering. A good time can be had by all.
Oh, it's got weaknesses. The interior has none of the retro charm of the exterior. Honestly, it might as well be a whole other car from the inside (great seats, though). The pre-production cars I've driven had some wild seams between the body panels -- here Chrysler honors the old car all too faithfully.
An instant anachronism, this car should have been called "Challenged," not Challenger. Still, it's pretty charming and charm is what the world needs now.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
Base price: $40,095
Price, as tested: $40,095
Powertrain: 6.1-liter, overhead-valve V8; five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 425 at 6,200 rpm
Torque: 420 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm
Curb weight: 4,140 pounds
0-60 mph: 5 seconds
Wheelbase: 116.0 inches
Overall length: 197.7 inches
EPA fuel economy: 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway
Final thoughts: A vanishing breed