Photos by Tony Firpi
When I stepped into the 2009 Challenger, I could feel the ghosts of 1970. They flowed over the curvaceously wide bodywork, nodded at the short-throw Pistol-Grip shifter, and flashed an evil smile at the 425-horsepower Hemi V-8. With the 2008 release of the Challenger SRT8, Dodge had created a muscle car so similar to the original E-body of decades past that instead of comparisons, Dodge enthusiasts needed a DNA test to separate this modern-day upstart from one of the most famous muscle cars of all time. The new Challenger is very similar to the 1970 model: big at 197.7 inches, with a 116-inch wheelbase. Heavy too, weighing a solid 4,140 pounds, and it gets its much-needed thrust from a fuel-injected Hemi engine that at 14 city/22 highway mpg, could give a damn about fuel mileage. The most obvious similarity, of course, is the throwback styling: performance coupes don’t come much better looking than the 1970 Challenger, and the Dodge boys’ modern interpretation of those timeless lines was near-perfect.
But as a complete performer, the 2008 SRT8 wasn’t perfect–for instance, an “anti-spin differential” and automatic-only transmission were puzzling standard features for the second coming of this famous muscle car. So the ghosts were very happy about 2009’s upgrades: the previously mentioned Pistol-Grip came alive thanks to a brand-new Tremec TR-6060 six-speed manual transmission, which sends torque rearward to a standard limited-slip diff. I was told that these changes–along with the 3.91 axle ratio–made a quick coupe even faster. Of course, I’d have to see for myself.
When I took delivery of our 2009 SRT8 tester at the AutoTrader Classics offices, I was ready to scratch deeper than the Bright Silver Metallic surface. Sure, everybody loves the looks of these cars–but how are they to drive and live with every day? Upon opening the door, I was pleasantly surprised to find a purpose-built, Dark Slate Gray interior that contrasted nicely with the bright exterior. Upon climbing into the cockpit, I found the seats to be extremely comfortable: The upper and lower side bolsters are leather, with perforated Alcantara in the center–and the embroidered SRT emblems are a great touch. The captain’s chair has eight-way power, and both front seats have lumbar support and warmers.
The steering wheel is pedestrian and high-class all at once: it looks like any other parts-bin Chrysler wheel; however it does feature a carbon-weave, dual-spoke, leather design, with tilt and telescoping functions. On the right are cruise, audio volume, and Reconfigurable Display (RCD) controls for the digital readout under the speedo. To the left are windshield wiper system and audio controls. Directly in front of my eyes were the two large gauges: the 180-mph speedo, and the 8000-rpm tach. Both were easily readable, with redline showing about 6500. To the left was the fuel gauge, to the right the temp indicator. This car had Package 21X installed as well, which features a very good Sirius satellite radio system with a large-screen, six-disc CD/DVD player. It works in concert with Boston Acoustics speakers and an amplified, 200-watt Kicker sub. The instrument cluster gauges get white faces with this upgrade, a very nice touch. The dual express down windows were fast, my hand fell perfectly onto the Pistol-Grip, and my eyes wandered to the Start button.
The 6.1-liter mill fired up with a huge rumble–not a high-strung 1970 Hemi cackle. However, any nostalgia-based disappointment was quickly shelved, as its EFI configuration trumps the old-school carbureted mill by starting quickly and idling perfectly in any conditions–ah, technology. As the big Hemi shook, I noticed the Electronic Stability Program button directly in front of the stick. Pressing it turns off the electronic nanny–which, coincidentally, usually separates overzealous drivers from center medians. And one illuminated orange ESP Off lamp later, it was time to have some fun.
The Track Pak is a $695 option in the SRT8–and it’s worth every penny. A 3.91 axle ratio is called in to keep the engine in its powerband. (Two other features of this package–bright pedals and Hill Start Assist, are nice thoughts but don’t ultimately affect performance.) Once the shifter went into First two things were apparent: one, the SRT8’s dual-disc clutch is very light, allowing for a smooth center release. And two, this gearing is very tall: I’m hardly in First before the revs peak and I need another gear. Though the 6.1-liter Challenger has a 1-4 skip shift feature for light-throttle situations, I doubt I’ll be using it much. This manual trans/big gear combination really wakes the heavy Dodge up. When an empty stretch of road finally opens, I mash the gas and 420 lb-ft of torque flows through the Goodyears, leaving two wide black strips on the pavement and pulling me toward the back seat: after the initial hit, the horsepower starts to really come on strong when the revs get above 4000. The big engine’s pull is harder and gloriously louder all the way to redline, and a few quick shifts later it’s clear that this brute would have no problem hanging with the mighty 426 Hemis of yore. But unlike those classic Challengers, the SRT8 has Fifth and Sixth overdrive gears to allow hypersonic travel at a reasonable rpm. At 60, the Hemi calms down to right around 2000 rpm in Fifth, but with all that torque it is still pretty responsive. At this speed and rpm the engine noise and exhaust rumble is barely perceptible; wind noise was never a problem, no matter how fast I went. And when it came time to dig into the brakes, the SRT8 responded with serious, head-whipping deceleration. The 14-inch front/13.8-inch rear rotors are controlled by four-piston Brembo calipers, which are more than capable of hauling the heavy Challenger down from speed. The only area where I didn’t feel completely comfortable in was the handling department. Don’t get me wrong, handling was good thanks to a specially tuned, five-link IRS suspension and massive 20-inch rim/Goodyear F1 tire combo, but my experience with lighter, smaller performance cars had me a little out of my element when attempting to navigate the twisties at 9/10ths. There was too much mass and a bit too much understeer than I was used to with the Challenger, and I found that backing off a little ultimately made for a cleaner and smoother transition out of the turns. ESP and Traction Control are installed in new cars for a reason–and with only a few days to familiarize myself with this big rocket, that seemed like a good reason to me.
But I wasn’t able to spend a ton of time driving the SRT8 hard–or at all. I spent a large part of it speaking with rabid fans of the new Challenger. I was gestured to, swerved at, revved at, and stopped for conversation nearly every time I took it out. And that’s really what this ride boils down to: it elicits such an emotional reaction from other drivers that it’s very hard to focus on its few faults. Dodge didn’t create a perfect muscle car–or even a perfect rendition of the 1970 model. What it did create was rolling, rumbling nostalgia that car enthusiasts of all backgrounds can’t help but love. This is a great looking, hard running, smooth braking coupe that commands attention wherever you go. The ghosts of 1970 can be seen in this new Challenger–alive and well after all these years.