Dodge introduced the Challenger SRT8 for 2008; this year they followed up with the entry-level Challenger SE and the mid-level Challenger R/T. The SRT8 remains the big dog of the Challenger lineup, with its 6.1 liter (370 cubic inch), 425 horsepower, 420 lb-ft HEMI V8, but this year the dog has a new trick: It now offers a six-speed manual transmission. Does the six-speed stick make for a better Challenger? Read on. $42,245 base (including $1,700 gas guzzler tax), $44,530 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 13-14 MPG city, 19-22 highway.
First Glance: Love lost, love found
When I first drove the Challenger SRT8, I fell head-over-heels in love -- for a week. Then the car went back to Chrysler, and I was sad for a while. But a month after my test drive, I was trying to remember what all the fuss was about. As cool and as fast as the Challenger SRT8 was -- and it was very, very cool and very, very fast -- the things that stuck out in my mind were the problems: The dull interior, the floaty ride, and the cave-like back seat.
Fast-forward a few months, and I'm back in the driver's seat of a Challenger SRT8, this time with the new-for-2009 manual transmission. And once again I am in love, hot and heavy as ever. Except this time I'm in love for different reasons. And this time, I'm determined not to forget what it is about this car that makes my heart go pitter-pat.
The first time I drove the Challenger, it was the styling that attracted me. I'm a big fan of Chrysler muscle cars, so I loved the way the new Challenger so closely mimics the 1970 original. That was then; this is now -- I've driven four different Challengers and have grown used to the drop-dead gorgeous looks. But the rest of the world clearly hasn't: The Challenger attracted as many stares, smiles, and cell-phone cams as ever. My wife Robin drove the car and complained that everyone wanted to race (cute chick in a red Challenger? Who could blame them?), and my tire dealer, who owns a Hemi Orange SRT8, noted that it's almost impossible to change lanes because there's always someone sitting on your quarter-panel admiring the car.
In the Driver's Seat: Love, interrupted
It is said that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all, and I am sorely tempted to leave this section blank. The Challenger's interior isn't truly horrible, but neither is it lovable: It's dark and dreary and covered in low-quality plastic. My biggest gripe is that it doesn't look any different from the cabin of Dodge's four-door Charger: The dash is a different shape, but the gauge layout and the steering wheel are the same.
My second-biggest gripe has to do with the back seat (link goes to photo). Not that it's small -- actually, its spaciousness and comfort drew compliments from everyone who rode back there. (And there were a lot -- everyone I knew wanted to go for a ride, and naturally, I obliged.) It's that getting back there is so difficult. The power-operated driver's seat doesn't tilt forward enough to provide back-seat access. All passengers have to get in and out from the right side. (How are rescue workers supposed to get you out if the right door is damaged?). Kind of a shame -- so few coupes provide decent back-seat space like the Challenger does.
But there was one new (and very cool) bit in this particular Challenger: The six-speed shifter, a modern and more politically correct interpretation of Chrysler's famous pistol-grip shifter of the 60s. The modern-day pistol grip trades the old one's wood and metal construction for brushed chrome, weaved plastic, and a faux-leather boot, but it looks great -- and feels even better.
On the Road: Love that transmission
As much as I enjoyed last year's automatic SRT8, it was the six-speed manual that I really fell in love with this time 'round. Spare me the arguments about spending too much time in traffic -- unless you have a bum left leg, there's no reason to buy a Challenger SRT8 without the stick. The clutch is light, the shifter is smooth, and the engine has so much torque that you can practically pick one gear and stick with it the entire day. The transmission even has a hill start feature that holds the brakes so you won't roll back. The manual really highlights the HEMI engine's broad, smooth torque curve -- the engine pulls so strongly and evenly that I kept running it right into the redline. (Good thing modern engines have electronic rev limiters.)
Drawbacks? The transmission is a little reluctant to shift when it's cold, and it has an annoying skip-shift feature that tries to make you shift from 1st directly to 4th at speeds between 19 and 21 MPH. (Solution? Drive faster.) Sixth gear is very tall, and any sort of acceleration requires a downshift. (That said, the tall gearing works: I averaged 13 MPG in town but saw close to 20 on the freeway, and my week-long average was 16.9.) And the stick is actually an extra-cost option -- not that $695 matters much on a $42,000 car. I should also mention the sound of the engine (fantastic at wide-open throttle -- I felt like the sound effects guy from The Dukes of Hazzard -- though a little too quiet at idle) and the ride (soft and floaty, yet it crashes hard over bumps; still, the handling is better than I expected).
Journey's End: This time, I won't forget
Every day during my Challenger test drive, I woke up genuinely excited by the prospect that there was some reason to drive the Challenger -- friends to visit, photos to take, milk to be bought. I loved every day with the Challenger, and I must have been wearing my heart on my sleeve, because when I casually mentioned to my wife that I would miss the SRT8 when it was gone, she said, "Oh no, we are not buying one."
If I was going to defy my wife and buy a Challenger, I'd look at the R/T model, which is $12k cheaper (lower price and no gas guzzler tax) and nearly as fast, though it lacks the SRT8's stiffer suspension (no big loss) and bigger brakes. Whichever Challenger I risked my marriage to buy, I'd definitely get a stick-shift. A Challenger with an automatic transmission is like an ice cream sundae without a cherry on top -- still pretty good, but you're missing out on the best part.
The Challenger's best rival is the Ford Shelby GT500. It's smaller and trimmer than the Dodge, has a better interior, and packs the added thrill of a supercharger. But while I loved the GT500, I wasn't in love with it. (Guys, how many times have we heard that one?)
Bottom line: I've driven cars that are faster, better handling, more thrilling, and more talented than the Challenger SRT8, but few others to which I have became so attached. And the addition of a manual trans ensured that this time, my love will last. Now if I can just come up with an excuse for Chrysler to loan me another one... -- Aaron Gold