Of the muscle cars back in the 1960s-70s, I always find myself drawn to Mopars the most. Something about their cartoonish, yet badass nature. A bright green Challenger, a purple Plymouth Barracuda, and the roar of a 426 Hemi V8, that just defines the flavor of the era for me.
Back in 2008, Chrysler blessed the world with the reincarnation of the legendary Dodge Challenger. With its retro look, it seemed poised to reignite the muscle car wars with the Ford Mustang, and the soon-to-be-released Chevrolet Camaro. However, we are not in the 1960s anymore, and there are far more contenders than just the good old American boys these days.
My real question going into this drive was, where does the Challenger fit in today? Is it still a Muscle Car in the traditional sense, or has it adapted, like the Camaro SS has, to meet modern expectations of handling performance?
In terms of style, the Challenger is undoubtedly my favorite of the modern muscle car crop. It is a spittin’ image of the original Challenger R/T, just with a bit of modernizing to meet safety regulations and whatnot.
Expectedly, it is also quite a bit larger than Challengers of old. Its size gives it a menacing road presence, one that will surely strike fear into the hearts of hybrid drivers the everywhere. The Challenger continues to represent mischief and “badassary”, with the flavor of the original car well preserved. Fans of the movie Vanishing Point can enjoy living out their “outlaw on the run” fantasies, but hopefully they won’t crash head-on into a digger when their finished.
The quality of the Challenger’s interior is a bit yester-year. I found that Chrysler’s build quality has come a long way when I drove the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, but most of that improvement has yet to find its way into the Challenger. The only new part I noticed was the steering wheel, with its paddle shifters and flat-bottom design. Everything else was very pre-economy-crisis-Chrysler, and that’s not any form of praise.
Looking past the material build quality, the Challenger does have many nice features, like navigation, but nothing really outstanding. Its big bucket seats hug you extremely well, and would be very comfortable on a long journey. The back seats will fit four people decently, but not in any great comfort. In terms of practicality there is a deep trunk, but it will be awkward for heavy items because of its high opening. It is all pretty middle of the road, and for $52,000, a bit sub-par.
On The Road
Let’s not beat around the bush here, the main event of the Dodge Challenger SRT 392 is its 6.4L Hemi V8 engine. It makes 470hp and 465ft/lbs of torque, and has a character that suits a proper muscle car well. A loud roar erupts when you open the taps, as the car throws you back into your seat. There is also nice pull from any RPM, thanks to all that V8 torque lthroughout the rev range.
While the Challenger is certainly quite fast by the standards of most people, I found its performance a bit lackluster. I’m not saying that 0-60 in 4.7 seconds and a 1/4 mile time of 13.3 seconds are anything to scoff at, they arent, but I’ve sampled many of this car’s competitors. Frankly, in terms of speed, the Challenger SRT is similar to a Camaro SS, and cannot even hold a candle to the likes of a Camaro ZL-1, Cadillac CTS-V or a Shelby Mustang GT500. That would be fine if this weren’t the top of the Challenger range, but it is.
Now, 470hp certainly gives the Challenger a lot to work with, in theory. I found that two things really held it back, its hefty weight and its gearbox.
The Challenger weighs around 4300lbs. These days there are many cars that weight that much, or more, even in the realm of high performance. However, they all seem to have 500, 550, 600, or even 650 horsepower. By comparison, the Challenger’s 470hp is lacking by a fairly substantial margin. If the Challenger weighed something like 3800lbs, 470hp would be plenty, but with well over two tons to haul around, those with seasoned automotive experience will find this car underwhelming — especially for the price it demands. I’ve been saying for a while now that Chrysler has needed to supercharge the 392 Hemi in order to keep up with the pack. It would be a painfully easy improvement to make, but for some reason they haven’t bothered.
Also holding this car back is its gearbox. I drove one fitted with the 5 speed automatic, and it just feels dated at this point. I loved the new 8 speed auto in the Jeep SRT, but like many things, that trans has not yet been fitted in the Challenger. Shifts were sluggish and the transmission would hesitate for far too long when being controlled by the paddle shifters. You can have the Challenger with a manual gearbox, and maybe that would fix some problems, but the automatic ruins any chance the engine may have had to be effective.
Sadly, there is no saving grace for the Challenger when it comes to handling either. This is not a muscle car that has adapted to meet modern expectations of handling prowess. The Challenger is an old-school muscle car, at home on straightaways alone. When entering a corner with any vigor, you just don’t feel any confidence in the chassis. It has no sense of tightness between your steering inputs and a reaction from the car. Instead, as you enter a corner, the front end lags well behind of where you’ve tried to point it, and understeer sets in painfully early. It isn’t a long steering rack issue either, it is a loose chassis problem. I have driven much heavier cars that had plenty of confidence in corners, but the Challenger’s chassis is just is not set up well at all.
As far as braking goes, the Challenger SRT has Brembo brakes, like most other performance cars these days. It stops its large weight solidly, but like everything else, braking would be better if it weren’t so fat.
Dynamically, there isn’t much to love about the Challenger SRT. I find myself greatly disappointed with it because I wanted to like it so much. Simply put, the Challenger is a classic style, straight-line muscle car, and that would be okay if it didn’t get smoked by everything on the straights.
Dollars and Sense
The Challenger SRT 392 runs between $45,000 and $53,000. At that price, I cannot recommend it to anyone because you’d be far better off in a Camaro SS or Mustang GT with an extra $10,000 in your pocket. The Challenger isn’t much more powerful than either of those cars, and both the Ford and the Chevy are at least a few hundred pounds lighter.
If you are not solely looking at muscle cars, you would have probably already crossed the Challenger off of your list. A Subaru STi or a Mitsubishi Evo will run circles around a Challenger SRT in every situation, save a top-end highway drag race, while also still saving you the same $10,000 as the Camaro and the Mustang.
If you are open to used cars, then things just get completely silly. $50,000 is a ton, and I mean a ton, of money. You can find yourself a pristine Cadillac CTS-V with a mighty 556hp V8 under the hood. You can also find yourself a C6 Corvette Z06 for that money, which has 505hp (still 35hp over the Challenger), but also only has to propel 3300lbs (half a ton less than the Challenger). Those are just two good American options, I could go on, and on further about Porsche 996 Turbos, BMW M6s, etc, but I think you get the point.
Right after our stop to shoot photos of the car, I did a nice smokey burnout. I figured, “Hey, I’m in a Challenger with a Hemi, George Washington would roll over in his grave if I forwent burning some rubber.” Evidently the SRT rep, who was with me, did not feel the same sense of patriotic obligation, because he got all cross with me like “Woah, Waoh, Woah!!!” In truth though, doing a burnout was the one thing that felt natural to me in the Challenger. It just isn’t much good at anything else. It has a nice big engine, a crap chassis, and a horrible gearbox, but it looks and sounds great. A burnout is something that plays to all of its strengths.
Looking good while burning rubber is about all the Challenger SRT is good for, in my opinion. That is also true of many classic American cars from the 1960s and 70s. In muscle car terms, it stays true to the classic recipe, but that recipe alone just doesn’t cut it anymore.
In truth, this new Challenger has always been behind the eight ball. In 2008, the Shelby GT500 had 500hp while the Challenger SRT-8 had just 425hp. Even when they upped things a bit, they’ve only reached 470hp, still short of the 2008 GT500, and way short of the 660hp that the 2013 GT500 cranks out. I know I’m just talking power here, but these are muscle cars, after all. A well-driven Miata, despite its power deficit, will destroy the Challenger if there are corners, so if it can’t even keep up with the muscle car pack on the straights, then what good is it?
The Challenger needs a lot of work. It is near the end of its lifecycle now, so hopefully Chrysler will address its issues with whatever replaces it. They can keep the style and the engine as far as I’m concerned. They need to focus on weight savings, and maybe let the Fiat folks handle the chassis development. If the next Challenger sees the same sort of quality improvement that the Jeep did, then the new generation should feel worthy of a $50,000 price tag. But for now, I’d tell all interested parties to wait for the Challenger’s replacement to come out. For those of you who really want this car, do yourself a favor, and go buy a used one for $30,000.
WoM Score: Dodge Challenger SRT 392
Primary Function: Performance: 1
Secondary Functions: Luxury(1) Practicality(2): 1.5
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 0
Final Score: 5.5/10