Back at the end of the "muscle car" era, Dodge produced what became one of the icons of that period: the 1970-74 Challenger coupe. Like the potent Hemi-Chargers, Boss Mustangs, SS Chevelles, and Plymouth 'Cudas of that short-lived time frame, the Challenger appeared to be relegated to the realm of automotive history.
Not quite. Following up on the modern-day Charger that Dodge launched as a 2006 model, that Chrysler division has added a batch of retro-look Challengers. Unlike the Charger, which had been a two-door model in its heyday but added two more for its modern counterpart, the new Challenger has the same two-door coupe body as its ancestor.
Body style isn't the only thing that's unchanged. The current Challenger looks surprisingly similar to the original, both externally and from the driver's seat. It may also be equipped with a Hemi V-8 engine - a modernized, higher-tech descendant of the Hemis that powered a host of Chrysler performance products in the 1960s and early '70s. Dodge refers to the new Challenger as "a modern-day muscle machine representing the best from the past and present." Like the original, it has rear-wheel drive - built on the platform used for the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans. Not only is the Challenger's shape reminiscent of the past, it's virtually devoid of brightwork or trim - about as plain as any car on the market today, for a down-to-business personality.
Dodge actually released the Challenger initially as a 2009 model, but only in super-performance SRT8 trim with a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8. Now, for 2009, three models are on sale: Challenger SE with a 3.5-liter V-6, Charger R/T with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and SRT8 with the big Hemi.
In the SE coupe, the V-6 produces 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, driving a four-speed automatic transmission. The R/T's Hemi V-8, mating with a five-speed automatic, develops 372 horsepower and 400 pound-feet. A six-speed manual gearbox is available for the Challenger R/T. In that form, the 5.7-liter V-8 is rated at 376 hp and 410 pound-feet. Topping the performance pack, the SRT8's 6.1-liter V-8, offered with either six-speed manual shift or a five-speed automatic with Auto Stick, churns out 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet. It may be no coincidence that Chrysler's original Hemi V-8 engine, back in the 1960s, had an official rating of 425 horsepower.
Dodge claims "best-in-class" rear head room (37.4 inches) and rear leg space (32.6 inches), allowing space for three adults. Only the young and agile are likely to welcome an opportunity to climb back there, however. Trunk space is the same 16.2 cubic feet available in the Dodge Charger sedan, but the compartment is quite shallow.
Even when holding a V-6 engine, the 2009 Challenger performs with impressive exuberance. Steering has a surprisingly heavy feel, which may help mimic the sensations of the "muscle car" era; but for some drivers, that could get rather tiresome on long treks through curvy byways. Enthusiasts are more likely to savor that heaviness.
No matter who's driving, the Challenger isn't a car for wintry weather. Even the V-6 model has some trouble starting off from a standstill when the pavement turns a bit slick.
Don't expect anything approaching a gentle ride, either. Even the tamest Challenger model yields a high level of harshness. Again, enthusiasts might adore those bumps. Others are likely to grumble a bit. Even the V-6 engine emits a touch of gurgling sound, reminiscent of the distant automotive past.
Challenger pricing starts at $22,545 (including the $725 destination charge). Side-curtain airbags are standard. So are an Electronic Stability Program and antilock braking.
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