Track Days: Dodge Challenger


Had a blast driving the ’09 Dodge Challenger at the Motor Press Guild Track Days, Oct. 22-23 ’08 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

Actually, it was a blast driving three different versions of this totally 21st century ponycar with the spirit and feel of a ’60s ponycar. Chrysler brought three different flavors of its Hot Car to the track and wow, was I impressed. After a limited production run for the 2008 model year, Dodge dealers have four flavors of the coupes for 2009, running from the hot Hemi 6.1 liter SRT8, two versions of the R/T with the 5.7 liter Hemi, and the still fun SE G with the 3.5 liter V-6.

First, the driving impression. The closest thing on the road to it today is the Mustang, but this is a bigger car. As you’ve probably read, it’s based on the same platform as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, a full-sized car these days. But really it reminded me of my dad’s ’68 Pontiac Tempest 2-door hardtop, the late ’60s GM A-body that was morphed into everything from the Chevy Chevelle to the Pontiac GTO to the Buick Skylark. That swoopy, Coke-bottle coupe with the nearly horizontal back window that is still so popular on the collector car circuit.

The car’s bigger than a Mustang — taller, probably a bit wider, a higher beltline. Comfy and plenty of room for my 6-1 frame. The backseat is probably best for kids, but it looked about the same as it was in the Tempest… and I was in high school and pretty tall and still riding around in that back seat. It’s just the way is was back then.

That’s where the similarities end. This is a 21st century car. It corners on a dime. Stops on the same dime. Twitch the steering wheel and the car turns. If you’ve ever driven a car from the drum brakes/worm-roller-recirculating-ball-yuck/leaf spring and shocks era, you know that the good old days weren’t so good. This car handles and drives up to today’s standards, which makes it much more fun. I’m looking forward to taking it out on a Weekend Driver trip in the future.

The biggest difference between the models are the engines and trim levels.

Let’s start with the V-6, since at a list of $24,790 and a pledge of 25 mpg on the highway, it’s an option for folks looking for a sporty coupe. Like the six-cylinder Mustang, it’s the volume option that will put a lot of these cars on the road (if anyone can get a car loan). It was a road-test car, so we cruised on the cracked pavement and semi-truck clogged streets around the speedway. The automatic-equipped car was fun and manageable, and the power from the six was nothing to sneeze at. Chrysler’s V-6 attached to the 4-speed auto takes a couple of seconds to wind up — annoying but easy to get used to. Once it kicks through the gears, you’ll find yourself blowing past the speed limit.

The 5.7 litre Hemi I drove had Chrysler’s fine five-speed automatic, which responds faster than the four-speed. Between the growling engine and the fast response, it was off to the races on any straightaway. Who cares about burning gas on jackrabbit starts… Chrysler was paying for the gas. Anybody should be happy with this baby if a V-8 is your only engine choice.

The SRT8 with the 6.1 liter Hemi was just a beast. Taking off from stop or accellerating anywhere kicks in the audio track from a NASCAR race and pushes passengers against the leather-covered headrests. Cops will love this baby.

And with all the modern suspension, steering and suspension tuning, you really have to think about what’s the better value: $42,390 for a hot ’09 Hemi SRT8 or $150,000 for a ’71 resto mod. While the ’71 is a really cool museum piece that would look great at that weekend car show and probably won’t devalue that much (even in our lousy economic times) the ’09 is a real driver that would probably make the office commute fun.

Now, if they only had a convertible. Hopefully Chrysler can survive long enough to put one on the road… or the new owners will see the light.

Comments (2)

  1. Suppose I don’t have $42k for the 6.1L Hemi? How much is a mere 5.7L going to cost me? Will it beat my old 302 Mustang on the quarter mile?

  2. Jack Brandais

    The auto writers gravitate to the Hemi, but the 6 is no slouch and might beat an old showroom stock 302 Mustang:

    3.5-liter high-output single overhead cam 24-valve V6 engine generates 250 horsepower at 6,400 rpm with 250 pounds-feet of torque at 3,800 RPM

    It is a bigger car, though.

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