By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Chrysler better do something — quickly.
Because the current (2013) Challenger no longer is.
Current, that is.
Rather, it’s a carryover — with the same engines as before. And the same power/performance — which is no longer competitive with the competition. The vaunted Hemi V-8 that’s optional in the R/T Challenger still makes only 376 hp. A new Camaro SS gives you 426 hp.
A Mustang GT, 420.
The V-6 Challenger — with 305 hp — is still on par with the V-6 versions of Mustang (also 305 hp) and Camaro (323 hp) but unlike the competition, you still can’t get a manual transmission in a six-cylinder Challenger.
Nor is there a convertible Challenger.
The clock is ticking.
Supposedly, there’s a major update in store for 2014 — including a possible resurrection of the ‘Cuda nameplate under the SRT8 label. But 2014 is a ways off yet. Much can change between then and now. Fiat — Chrysler Corp’s owner — may decide it’s time to bag it, in view of the changing landscape, including the 35.5 MPG federal fuel economy mandate that goes into effect three years from now and given that latter-day muscle cars are not an easy sell in a depressed economy. Fiat may decide to spend its resources on cars that better fit the times economically and politically — like the 500, for instance.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
WHAT IT IS
The Challenger — like Camaro and Mustang — is a latter-day expression of the late 1960s/early 1970s muscle car concept: Throbby engine in a big RWD two-plus-two slathered in attitude, heralded by booming exhaust note, its passage marked by two smoldering black stripes seared into the asphalt.
The main difference, Then vs. Now, is that you don’t have to buy the V-8 model to get some real muscle. In fact, the base V-6 versions of all these modern muscle cars have almost as much muscle as most of the V-8 versions of the originals did: 300-plus honest (SAE net, production engine with production exhaust and accessories, at the rear wheel) horsepower vs. (typically) around 340 or so dishonest (SAE gross, finely tuned, on an engine stand, without accessories or full exhaust) horsepower.
And the V-8 versions of these modern muscle cars have more muscle than the last three Mr. Olympia contests combined.
2013 Challenger prices start at $25,795 — which gets you into an SXT with 305 hp 3.6 liter V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission. For a more luxury-minded Challenger (including leather-trimmed seats) you can step up to the SXT Plus for $27,795.
There is also a performance-minded (and almost R/T) Rallye Redline package ($29,695) which includes a more aggressive 3.06 axle ratio, a 20-inch wheel/tire package, paddle shifters for the five-speed automatic and a bold contrast color stripe down the car’s centerline.
The R/T — with the 5.7 liter Hemi V-8 and 376 hp (372 with the automatic transmission) starts just slightly higher at $29,995.
For the ultimate Challenger, there’s the SRT8: 6.4 liter Hemi and 470 hp. Base price for this one is $44,775.
There is the already mentioned Rallye Redline for V-6 Challengers.
For V-8 R/Ts, there is also an R/T Classic package, which dials up 1970 with a set of twin side stripes — plus a 20 inch wheel/tire package unique to this model. You also get functional hood scoops.
Best impression of a classic-era muscle car.
Only new muscle car with back seats fit for people.
Huge trunk (vs. no trunk to speak of — in Camaro… and not much trunk in Mustang).
New Rallye package addresses affordability issue for younger buyers — who often can’t afford to insure (or feed) a Hemi.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No manual transmission available with V-6 engine — even in the Rallye Challenger.
No convertible, period.
Though still a strong performer, Challenger’s performance isn’t as strong as either Camaro’s or Mustang’s.
UNDER THE HOOD
Like its Chevy and Ford rivals, the Challenger offers both V-6 and V-8 engines in its latter-day muscle car. And as in the competition, both engines are powerful. The Challenger’s standard 3.6 liter V-6 makes 305 hp (same as Mustang’s standard V-6, slightly less than Camaro’s 323 hp V-6). Back in the day, the non-performance versions of cars like Challenger, Camaro and Mustang were exactly that — non-performers, all hat and no cattle. They looked tough but went slow. To get the goods to go with the looks, you had to buy the performance version — the R/T Challenger, SS or Z28 Camaro, the GT Mustang.
Not so anymore.
The V-6 Challenger — like the V-6 versions of its rivals — has plenty of go-power. What it hasn’t got is a manual transmission. Dodge only sells the V-6 teamed up with a five-speed automatic. This is a big liability for Challenger — especially the new (and ostensibly performance-minded) Rallye Redline Challenger. People who crave cars like Challenger — and Camaro and Mustang — tend to crave manual transmissions. The fact that Dodge doesn’t offer one with the V-6 Challenger- while both Chevy and Ford do with the V-6 versions of their cars — has probably sent a lot of otherwise-interested buyers over to Chevy and Ford stores.
The automatic-equipped V-6 Challenger is also less-quick than its rivals. Zero to 60 takes about 6.3 seconds. A Mustang V-6, with the available 3:31 axle ratio, can make the same run in 5.6 seconds — which by the way is also almost as quick as the V-8 equipped Challenger R/T (more on that in a minute). The Camaro V-6 with six speed can get to 60 in about six seconds flat. It’s slower than it ought to be — given 323 hp (because it’s such a fatty — almost 3,800 lbs. for the base V-6 model) but it’s still significantly quicker than the Dodge.
Bottom line, the V-6 Challenger hasn’t got the fun factor of the V-6 (and manual-available) versions of its rivals.
The V-8 R/T does come with a stick — but it only comes with 376 hp.
Considered in isolation — or by the standards of 2008 — this is certainly a respectable number. The problem is the power offered by the competition is more respectable: 426 hp in Camaro SS. 420 in the Mustang GT. A huge deficit in terms of the raw numbers — and also in terms of the performance of these cars.
An R/T with the six-speed manual can get to 60 in about 5.5 seconds. Again, not bad — considered in isolation. But remember: The V-6 Mustang can get to 60 in 5.6 seconds. And the 420 hp V-8 Mustang GT gets to 60 in 4.7 seconds.
A Camaro SS does the run in about 5 flat.
There is the SRT8 version of the Challenger. It comes with a larger, 6.4 liter (392 cubic inches) version of the Hemi V-8 and 470 hp. It beats the Mustang GT and the Camaro SS: Zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. But it’ll cost you $44,775 vs. $30,300 for a new V-8 Mustang GT that’s only two tenths behind the SRT8. Or $32,635 for a new Camaro SS that’s only half a second less quick.
How much quicker could either of these two be made with say $5,000 in aftermarket speed parts?
Chevy and Ford also offer devastator versions of their muscle cars that mop the floor with the SRT8 Challenger. There’s the 580 hp ZL1 Camaro — and if that’s not enough to give you a chubby, there’s the 662 hp Mustang GT500. At $54,200 it does cost $10k more than an SRT8 Challenger. But you’re getting almost 200 more hp — and 200 MPH top speed capability.
Challenger is simply not up to speed anymore.
2014 can’t get here soon enough.
ON THE ROAD
Challenger is a big car.
At 197.7 inches long, it’s close to a foot longer overall than the Mustang (188.1) and 7.1 inches longer than Camaro (190.4 inches). Curb weight (R/T) is 4,082 lbs. vs. 3,603 for the Mustang GT and 3,860 for the Camaro SS.
If you were born after 1980 and grew up with compact-sized FWD imports, the linebacker massiveness of the Challenger will probably take a little getting used to. Like a full-frame .44 magnum.
Challenger takes up the whole lane (be careful about low shoulders) and even though it’s a coupe, you’ll discover that it needs about the same room for parking as a current medium-large sedan. In fact, it’s only about two inches shorter overall than the Charger sedan on which it’s based.
Which means: It’s a handful.
In the curves, too. Barreling down the highway with the Hemi singing is muscle car Nirvana. You are king of the road. But the car’s proportions — and its weight — do limit its ability to corner like a sports coupe — which of course, it isn’t. (Camaro has the same issue, incidentally; of the three, the Mustang is by far the least beefy feeling.)
The upside is the same as pulling a .44 magnum out of your holster, Dirty Harry style. Size does matter — and though the Challenger is no longer the quickest of the three, its sheer presence makes up for a lot, including its relative lack of hp.
Ass up, front end low. When the Hemi roars — and the rear tires go up in smoke — you will feel like it’s the summer of 1970 again. All that’s missing is the hood pins — and premium leaded for 30 cents a gallon.
AT THE CURB
Ford has done a really nice job incorporating retro styling elements to the new Mustang — and the new Camaro does a fine job of hinting at the ’69 — but the Challenger actually looks like it teleported here in one piece from the early Nixon Years.
There aren’t just echoes of the original 1970 Challenger. The modern Challenger could easily be mistaken for a meticulously restored ’70 Challenger from 20 yards away — especially if you order yours in one of the available day-glo colors with the optional stripe and decal packages — and add a set of black louvers to the rear glass.
It has the same arrogant squat and hungry-looking front end with deep-set hooded headlights and prominent chin spoiler, up-arched rear quarters and twin-scooped hood as the original car did.
Dodge really ought to offer side-exit megaphone exhausts.
Inside, though, it’s safely 2013.
Though the Challenger does get a unique dash (it’s not the same as in its parent car, the Charger) the steering wheel is identical and the overall look is — not to be mean — nothing special. The original Challenger’s interior was. And the new Mustang (and Camaro’s) is.
What you get inside the Challenger is a hooded four-gauge pod, tach on the left, speedo on the right (the reverse of Charger) with two smaller gauges on either side — one for fuel, the other for temperature. There’s no gauge for oil pressure (though you can dial it up on a digital info display) and while there is a pistol grip-style shifter, it’s much more subdued than the chrome and wood original.
It’s all very functional — just not very striking.
The interior layout doesn’t mesh with the wild child exterior — or match the retro coolness of the interiors of its competition.
But, there is an upside — space.
Lots of space.
As mentioned earlier, the Challenger is a lunker of a car. It has a much bigger trunk — 16.2 cubic feet — than either the Camaro (11.3 cubic feet) or the Mustang (13.4 cubic feet) as well as actually usable rear seats, which can accommodate three people vs. two bags of groceries. The Challenger is the only latter-day muscle car that can claim to seat five.
Mustang and Camaro ought not to claim they can seat four.
The Dodge has 32.6 inches of backseat legroom vs. 29.8 for the Mustang and 29.9 for Camaro. There’s also two-plus inches more headroom in the Challenger’s backseat area.
This roominess — pus the car’s visual impact and retro-historical appeal — are probably its biggest assets, even more so than its 0-60 and 1/4 mile times. The useable back seats make it a plausibly practical car for people with kids. And the spacious front seats (again, significantly more headroom vs. the competition) make it more comfortable for bigger (and less flexible) people like the typical over-40s who are probably the most likely people to lust after one of these trips down Memory Lane.
And able to afford one, too.
The fastback rear glass somewhat limits rearward visibility — and there is a little bit of a blind spot at the B pillar near the rear quarter glass. But bottom line, the Challenger looks great from any angle and as with the car’s outsized proportions, you quickly get used to the minor visibility issues.
Seat patterns also echo the early ’70s — though modernity shows through in the form of the optional LCD display for the GPS/audio system (with MyGIG music hard drive) as well as the air bag-equipped steering wheel and Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
A Super Track Pack option group is available for R/Ts. It includes more aggressive final gearing and other performance-minded upgrades. SRT8s come with higher-effort steering, Brembo brakes, ultra-firm suspension and 20 inch wheels with ultra-performance tires, among other numerous enhancements.
The Rallye Challenger is a step in the right direction. Now Dodge needs to take another step — and offer a six-speed manual transmission. Even better, make it standard.
In a muscle car, automatics ought to be extra.
There is another area where the Challenger reminded me of the 1970s.
Gas mileage is atrocious — with all these machines. Well, with all the V-8 versions of these machines. The V-6 iterations actually do ok. Though here again, Challenger does less ok than its rivals: 18 city, 27 highway vs. a very impressive best-case 19 city and 31 highway for the Mustang V-6 (with automatic; manuals register 19 city, 29 highway). Camaro gives you 19/30 — again, with the automatic; manuals are slightly piggier at 17 city, 28 highway.
Order the Hemi and expect 16 city, 24 highway (stick versions) as your best-case scenario.
Real-world, expect to average about 18.
Drive it like you ought to and you’ll be closer to 12.
It should also be mentioned that Challenger’s size and mass confer an inherent safety advantage — even without the air bags and ABS and all the rest of it. Like its forbears, this 4,000 pound-plus hunka-hunka burnin’ love would accordionize a Civic with only a few scuffs on the bumper to show for the encounter.
THE BOTTOM LINE
2014 better get here soon. And it’s possible it may never get here. We live in weird times — times unfriendly to cars like this. So if you’re interested, make haste.
This could be 1974 all over over again.