It gives us a headache just to think of the myriad choices that were made through the course of designing, engineering, and bringing to market one of the most significant performance cars to hit the road in more than 30 years. The goal with the 2009 Dodge Challenger was to capture proverbial lightning in a bottle-and in a very sexy bottle at that.

With an uncertain economy ahead and drastic CAFE standards looming on the horizon, all the smart money says run away and hide from a manufacturing commitment for a high-performance, rear-wheel-drive V-8 coupe-of which the new Challenger is the poster boy for. Except the smart money can't feel the surge of adrenaline when you stab the starter button on a pulsing V-8, or feel the pulse quicken when you grab the shifter and let out the clutch.

The reality is that logic doesn't rule over the auto industry, nor does it even pretend to reign over the world economy. Emotion is clearly the driving force, and that's a good thing, because the 2009 Dodge Challenger creates lots of emotion in huge, throbbing bundles. The principle issue at stake: Can a retro-styled, 100-percent purebred muscle car survive and thrive in 2009? We think the answer is a strong "yes."

We got the chance to sample the new 2009 Challenger in New York City this August. We experienced a variety of driving conditions, from gridlock traffic and potholes, to rolling countryside and some open track time. Since we already had driven the SRT8 back in the spring, and we've raved about the five-speed automatic overdrive with Auto Stick, we're concentrating on the bread-and-butter R/T version, which features an uprated 5.7L Hemi and a new six-speed manual trans. We did drive a handful of miles in the base V-6 version, but after the Hemi, it was somewhat anticlimactic. The V-6 will make a great-looking, fuel-efficient commuter, but we're all about the V-8, so the R/T is our focus here.

The Right Formula: V-8, RWD, IRS!
If you're going to steal the hearts and minds of enthusiasts, you need to push all the hot buttons. Lots of power, plenty of grip, deep brakes, and the right dynamic balance between all the players. For the most part, those traits translate easily into a cold, hard bill of materials, starting with the engine. The Challenger for 2009 comes equipped with an ample 250hp V-6 as standard, or in the case of the R/T, a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. And here's the first piece of good news: For 2009, the Hemi gets a huge bump to 376 hp. (Automatics get slightly less, at 372 hp.)

Hemi watchers will easily spot the increase in power over the previous year's model, which sported an already healthy 340 hp. A slight increase in static compression ratio and the addition of variable valve timing puts those extra ponies in place without any increase in displacement. In fact, the Hemi boasts a 4 percent improvement in fuel economy over the Hemi in last year's LX platform mates (Dodge Magnum, Chrysler 300C, and Dodge Charger R/T). As a side note, the automatic version of the Hemi retains its Multi Displacement System (MDS), which deactivates four cylinders on the fly for improved economy. When teamed with the new six-speed Tremec TR-6060, you'll have all eight cylinders running all the time, and that's fine by us.

Proven Architecture
The Challenger is built on a four-inch-shorter version of the LX platform (wheelbase measures 116 inches), which it shares with the longer Charger and Chrysler 300. Otherwise, the Challenger shares key suspension components and geometry. As a consequence, the Challenger enjoys a ride that is taught and responsive, yet smooth and livable like the near-luxury cars it's based on. This is no solid-axle kidney-banger for teenagers, but a grown-up car that handles crappy roads with authority and dignity. As the Challenger is aimed substantially at empty nest baby boomers, the LX platform is an excellent fit.

An SLA independent front suspension is teamed with a five-link independent rear suspension (IRS) to keep all four wheels planted for maximum effectiveness. We discovered how well it all works while negotiating the tight road course at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey. The Challenger's LX chassis has a sweet progressive camber gain that maintains good grip deep in the corners, and is aided by a very transparent but effective electronic stability control program (ESP).

The entire chassis and suspension of the Challenger are confidence inspiring, and we found ourselves drifting through corners that would've had us puckering in some of our project cars. Beyond that, these sorts of antics are played out with just the right amount of mechanical drama-the right exhaust tones, the right tire noises, and the right feedback through the steering. All the correct cues get communicated, without giving you the harsh race car environment.

What we really dig is that the Challenger R/T feels far lighter on its feet than the scales otherwise show. The engineers have done a great job disguising the R/T's 4,041-pound girth. It's on this point that all the heated discussion will hinge in the coming weeks and months at all the internet forums. With the '10 SS Camaro just around the corner with more power and less mass, the battle lines will be drawn between those wanting more performance (the Camaro SS) or more of everything else (the Challenger R/T), such as comfort, room for humans, room for stuff, and more traditional muscle car styling. At the end of the day, one needs to understand that the additional mass (about 250 pounds) of the Challenger (over the Camaro) is there for a reason.