The dirty little secret in the musclecar hobby is that the key to our automotive happiness (to a large extent) resides in the hands of a few elite. After all, they are the ones who set the prices on our favorite cars, right? Go to any major car show or big-time auction, and you'll discover that a regular Joe can no more afford a Hemi Challenger than he can get a date with Scarlett Johansson. So you skulk back to your two-car garage, and your four-door Slant Six, hoping that some day you'll win the lottery or find Aladdin's lamp somewhere.
Don't blame the rich elite for your woes, though; they're as mindless as the next guy. They can no more control their affection for one of history's sexiest automotive forms than you. Blame it on Dodge if you want. They're the ones responsible for the original 1970 Challenger shape, and they're also responsible for the new 2008 SRT8 Hemi Challenger. Stop for a moment, and look again at the cover date of this magazine. It says August 2008. Remember that date, because it marks your emancipation as a true-blue car guy. No longer will you have to pay seven figures, or even six, for a mint Hemi Challenger.
It's almost as if we found the proverbial genie in a bottle, and got our three wishes: Please bring back the Hemi Challenger, please make it affordable, and please make it fast. We first got wind that there might be a genie in the bottle back in 2006 when the Challenger concept car first rolled onto the scene. Was this thing too good to be true, we asked? The concept looked so good we figured even if they did build it, some major compromises must be in the offing. But then, another improbability: The production car is actually a visual improvement over the concept. Pinch us, just in case we're dreaming.
Until the first week in April, all we had to go on were pictures of the Challenger concept and a few fuzzy spy photos. They looked great from all the predictable angles, but nothing could prepare us for our first face-to-face encounter. At first, your mind isn't sure it's totally real. The shape is there, but your eye darts everywhere-to the grille, the A-pillar, the rear quarter, the wheels, the greenhouse, then back to the overall shape, measuring all the relationships and proportions. Sigh. It's all there like we remembered it.
But we're not here to look, we're here to consummate. The highly bolstered, race-inspired seats have grippy suede inserts that positively suck you in place, and it's a good thing, because we saw max cornering forces from the built-in g-meter hitting 0.99. Stab the push-button starter, and the Hemi comes to attention without drama, producing a low-restriction burble that quickly builds to a crescendo as the 6,400-rpm redline of the 6.1L Hemi is reached. The meaty leather-wrapped steering wheel has a confidence-inspiring feel that is further reinforced by the responsive rack-and-pinion steering and SLA front suspension.
On this day, our Chrysler handlers didn't just provide a friendly little drive through the country. No sir, they booked the high-speed 2.5-mile, nine-turn road course at Willow Springs. And where Chrysler's competitors would have limited ham-fisted journalists to one single high-speed lap at a time, all scribes in our group were invited to turn up to four laps at a time. Are these guys confident in their product, or what?
The Challenger is built on Chrysler's LX platform, which currently underpins the Dodge Magnum, Chrysler 300, and Dodge Charger. All are four-door family sedans with impeccable road manners, a solid feel, lots of interior space, and plenty of power-even in V-6 form. The Challenger differs from these in two significant areas: it has two doors and a wheelbase that's 4 inches shorter. Otherwise, it's mechanically the same and shares many of the same attributes, like being roomy, solid, and powerful. Even with the shorter wheelbase, the back seat accommodates two normal-sized adults without drama.
Dodge chose to release the SRT8 version of the Challenger first, which is contrary to the standard procedure of introducing the bread-and-butter product first. Pure genius, we think. Let the dealers mark up the first glammed-out Challengers so the elitist snobs can pay top dollar, then sell them on eBay to other elitist snobs. By the time you see this, all 2008 SRT8 Challengers will be gone, traded like so many Honus Wagner baseball cards, then you can place your order for an identical 2009 model, for which you will pay no more than sticker. Brilliant.
For your $38K, you'll get the SRT8 package, which consists primarily of the big-inch 6.1L Hemi making 425 hp and 420 lb-ft or torque. You'll also get forged 20-inch Alcoa wheels and your choice of all-season or ultra high-performance Goodyear F1 Supercar tires. (Our test car had the F1s, and that's the only way to go as far as we're concerned.) As with other LX-platform SRT packages, you get upgraded suspension parts, huge Brembo brakes, interior and exterior cosmetic upgrades (don't forget the g-meter!), and performance programming unique to the SRT. We're kind of out of sorts in explaining exactly where the SRT's improvements are relative to the standard R/T package, because we don't actually know what's in next year's R/T. Whether or not you made the right choice to buy now and get the SRT won't be revealed until the other shoe drops, so to speak.
If you can't wait and must have the SRT8 right now, you'll only have to decide a few things: which of three colors you want (black, silver, or orange), whether you want the F1 tires, whether you want to add the nav system with the MyGIG infotainment system, and if you can live without a sunroof. For our money, we'd go stripped-down with just the F1 tires ($50 extra), but the touchscreen navigation system (an improvement over last year's pushbutton unit) was a big help on several occasions during our testdrive.
What SRT's engineers have accomplished is amazing. As we transitioned from normal street driving to hardcore road racing, the SRT8 seemed equally comfortable on both. Most notably, the SRT's 4,140-pound curb weight just melted away when urged by the big Hemi, scrubbed by the huge Brembos, or redirected by the gooey F1s. It was hard to believe I was piloting over two tons at close to a buck forty going into a braking zone. Not only did I do it, but it was easy, too.
For performance figures, Dodge quotes 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds, top speed of 170 mph (governed by aerodynamics), and 60 to 0 braking in just 110 feet. We have no reason to disbelieve them based on our experience here, and fully expect all the minivan magazines to meet these numbers without trying hard. The Challenger SRT8 is light-years ahead of its 1970 counterpart, yet it evokes every bit of the original's passion at a fraction of the price. But if late-model comparisons are your bag, the SRT8 is just a blower kit bolt-on away from Corvette Z06 territory.
Most of us have had to stand by the sidelines for years, while classic Challengers have become the sole domain of the rich and famous. Now the Dodge boys and Chrysler's SRT group have come to our rescue, bringing ultimate performance to the masses at an incredible value price. We predict the Mopar faithful will respond in droves, and even some GM guys (who are tired of waiting) will get behind the wheel of a new SRT8. All this affordable performance will surely have GM and Ford engineers frothing at the mouth to get even. It's a good thing we can't put that genie back in the bottle!
Chrysler's 6.1L Hemi is reserved solely for SRT models, and produces 425 hp from just 370
The 2006 concept car had the Dodge crosshair grille, which was roundly (and rightfully) cr
For now, the only transmission available is a five-speed automatic with AutoStick manual c
Gone is the spaceship interior of the 2006 concept car, and in its place is a sane and ver
We really like the retro chrome fuel cap, which is positively latched at the rear and hing
You normally think of 20-inch wheels as being associated with bling, but SRT used forgings