Meet the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, the newest retromobile from Chrysler. A modern-day homage to one of Chrysler's legendary muscle cars, the Challenger SRT8 backs up its superior styling with big-V8 punch and an allure that's bound to thrive no matter how high gas prices go. Those who believe that cars are more than metal, glass and plastic -- in other words, those who believe that it's possible to fall in love with an automobile -- should beware the Challenger's siren song. $40,095 base, $41,045 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 13 MPG city, 18 MPG highway.
First Glance: Love makes a man write strange things
This review of the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is proving to be frustratingly difficult to write. I've typed up more drafts than I care to admit, most of which went into great detail about the Challenger's history, or its engine, or its styling. Problem is, there are dozen other reviews that say exactly same thing. But what no one is talking about is the emotional experience of driving the Challenger.
Don't worry, I'm not going all tofu-and-scented-candles on you. (If I was, would I be waxing poetic about a 425 horsepower car that struggles to get 15 miles per gallon?) But the Challenger really did affect me on a much deeper level than I ever expected. And it started the moment the Chrysler guys dropped it off at my house.
I had seen several photos of the Challenger. I knew it was gorgeous. But nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in person, on my own street, with a smiling young man in a well-pressed polo shirt proffering the keys. Back when I was in college, I had a recurring dream wherein Kathy Ireland fixed me with her piercing green eyes and confessed that she was secretly in love with me. (The dream ended there, so minds out of the gutter, please.) That's what it felt like when I saw the Challenger. My insides actually melted a little. So this is what it's like to fall head-over-heels in love, I thought. Eat your heart out, Kathy. I had to fight the urge to throw my arms around the Challenger and start licking the sheetmetal, at least until the guy from Chrysler left.
In the Driver's Seat: Some rain must fall
From the outside, it's clear that the Challenger was designed by designers, not engineers or accountants. There are so many cues picked up from the original 1970 Challenger (link goes to photo) that us fans of old Chrysler muscle are bound to get carpal tunnel syndrome from pointing them out to each other: The full-width taillights, the twin-scoop hood (with a modern carbon-fiber-patterned twist on the old blacked-out hood stripes), the old-school fuel filler cap, and the quad headlights (the inner lights are actually the turn signals). And then there's the chrome-loop grille. One designer told me that the marketing staff was pushing for the traditional Dodge cross-hair grille, as seen on the Challenger concept. But the designers fought for the loop, and -- happily -- they won.
But if the designers won all the battles over the Challenger's exterior, it would seem that when it came to the interior, they dropped their weapons, threw up their hands, and did their best impression of France. The Challenger's interior is a virtual carbon copy of the one in the Dodge Charger (seen here), the car with which the Challenger shares most of its mechanical bits. Yes, the shape of the dash is different, but the rest -- the location of the stalks and switches, the gauge layout, the desolate black plastic that covers everything -- is pretty much identical. Even the steering wheel is the same. I know development money is tight, but couldn't they have at least sprung for a new steering wheel? Ah well. I guess in every love affair, you have to overlook something.
On the Road: Feel the rightness
Nothing fans the flames of affection like a drive in the Challenger. Yes, it's fast -- great gawdamighty, is it fast -- but it's not just the power that's special. It's not the sound, either, though the 6.1 liter HEMI V8 does sing beautifully when you floor it. (That said, it's almost disappointingly quiet and smooth at idle. Makes you forget that back in The Day, 400+ horsepower meant an engine that would barely idle and would foul its spark plugs every 5 minutes.) It's not even the handling or the braking, though both are leagues better than any old-time muscle car.
No, what makes the Challenger so special is how right it feels. My Defining Challenger Moment came not when I was whipping my way up the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road (which the Challenger did surprisingly well, with little of the drama one expects from a car that directs 420 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels). Nor did it come when I was doing brake stands and leaving long black strips of rubber on the road. (All in the name of consumer education, mind you.)
No, my Defining Challenger Moment came when I was cruising down the freeway, no more than 5 or 10 over the limit (okay...15 over), looking down the long, broad hood, tires humming softly, engine thrumming serenely. And that's when I felt it -- the rightness. I felt like I could point the Challenger east, drive through the night, and take over the world. I remember thinking, I don't know what it felt like to drive a real muscle car back in the days when gas was cheap and parts were plentiful... but I sure hope it felt like this.
Journey's End: Breaking up is hard to do
All love affairs must come to an end. Sometimes they fizzle out; sometimes they are parted by death; and sometimes the guy with the nice polo shirt comes to pick up the car. In all cases -- well, except your own death, perhaps -- one has to find a way to move on.
I found solace in thinking about the Challenger's future. Is it really the Greatest Thing Ever? Well, it's pretty darn good. And it will get even better in 2009, when Dodge adds a 6-speed manual option to the SRT8 ('08 cars are automatic only); when the more affordable SE and R/T models join the lineup; and when dealers stop charging $20k over sticker.
But what happens when the novelty wears off? I think the Challenger will face fierce competition from the Ford Mustang. While the Challenger is better looking on the outside, the Mustang carries the retro theme to the inside. And the Next Big Thing is already waiting in the wings: Chevrolet's 2010 Camaro. Visually, I don't think it can hold a candle to the Challenger, but I bet its interior will kick some Chrysler butt.
But can the Camaro possibly tug at my heartstrings the way the Challenger did? I doubt it. The Mustang -- as much as I like and respect it -- doesn't. And judging from the way the public reacted to the Challenger during my week-long affair -- er, test drive -- I know I'm not the only one who felt an emotional connection. What we have here is one of the great American cars of this decade -- not flawless, perhaps, but great nonetheless. And very easy to fall in love with.-- Aaron Gold