On the Track
After several hours of plodding through city traffic, then breezing through twisty two-lane back roads, we ended up at the E-town road course. It's an oddball little track in the sense that it's too short and narrow to be a full-blown road course, but too long with too much elevation change and too much speed to be a true autocross. We would've preferred the same high-speed course at Willow Springs where we flogged the SRT8 Challenger back in the spring, but as it turned out, the tightness of the track would actually be better at exposing any flaws of a relatively heavy car like the Challenger R/T.

Normally, we'd expect two tons of fun to plow through corners (The Challenger R/T is over 300 pounds heavier than our big-block '68 Chevelle), but Dodge's engineers were able to mitigate virtually all of the negative characteristics of the mass. We are big fans of the Challenger's ESP programming, which is chiefly responsible for the Challenger's excellent track manners. ESP is automatically activated in its strongest form upon start-up. If you do nothing to turn it off, it will pretty much save your bacon if you hang it out too far. ESP collates huge amounts of information, including yaw angle, braking, throttle, steering angle, wheel speed, and accelerometer data, then makes transparent changes to throttle and braking. On the R/T model, you can turn ESP "off," but portions of it will still remain active. With the SRT8, it is even possible to completely deactivate ESP by pushing down on and holding the ESP button for several seconds. Be forewarned: If you choose to completely deactivate ESP on your SRT8, you better be awesome behind the wheel!

Our time on the track was primarily behind the wheel of several manual transmission-equipped R/Ts. The Challenger R/T gets a Tremec TR-6060 six-speed for 2009 (all '08 SRT8s were automatics). This box is built to handle abuse, and we piled heaps of it on. We were impressed with the shape and feel of the pistol grip shifter handle; the uptake of the dual-disc Sachs clutch was seamless. The dual-disc clutch is a necessity on such a heavy, powerful car-its twin discs effectively doubling the clamp load without doubling the effort. Coupled with hydraulic actuation, the R/T's dual-disc clutch was silky smooth.

With the ESP turned "off," we were able to combine hard trail braking with heel-and-toe downshifts for some very satisfying driving. The Challenger flicks easily-a tad of throttle just before the apex sets the rear at the proper angle, and exiting a corner is a joyous mix of throttle and steering. The relationship between the brake pedal and accelerator seems a little too distant, and takes some getting used to. This is our only complaint with the Challenger R/T as a track day car, but the aftermarket will address this, no doubt with a wider, bolt-on scuff plate for the accelerator.

Good brakes seem to be on everybody's radar these days. The Mustang had them on the GT in 2005, the Camaro will have them when it hits in 2010, and the Challenger has them right now. The front discs are 13.6 inches in diameter (vented) with aluminum dual-piston sliding calipers; the rears are 12.6-inch vented discs with single-piston aluminum calipers. Running multiple laps at full tilt created no fade, and seemed to have no adverse affect on braking. Chrysler engineers have really done their homework here.

Finally, A Six-Speed!
With the RWD Hemi formula established back in 2005 with the introduction of the Magnum and 300C, the only serious questions being asked by enthusiasts were, "Where's the coupe?" and "Where's the six-speed?" The coupe seen here answers that first question in spades. The other shoe finally dropped when Dodge uncorked the Challenger R/T with the world-class Tremec six-speed manual. Essentially an updating of the bulletproof Borg-Warner T-56 we all know and love (Viper, '93-02 Camaro/Firebird, C5 Corvette, Mustang Cobra, and so forth), the TR-6060 is the way to go if you want to have fun with your new Hemi.

One look at the traditional pistol-grip shifter, and we were sold. If you've ever banged your knuckles on the dash with the original (we have), don't worry-the new one has none of the bad manners of the old one, which felt more like a wooden yardstick stuck in a bucket of marbles. The new one will have you shouting "yee-haw!" in no time flat. Shifts are snappy, and gear gates are right where you expect them to be. The feel may be slightly rubbery for some, but aftermarket shifters will be available soon. One last cool feature on the six-speed is the automatic Hill Start Assist (HSA) feature. When coming to a stop on an incline, HSA senses the brake pressure and incline of the ground. When your foot comes off the brake to slip the clutch, HSA holds the brake pressure for 1.5 seconds, or until the clutch is let out-whichever comes first. If you select reverse gear, HSA holds the brakes for three seconds to give you more time to parallel park. In our cross-country drive, we encountered inclines at stop lights several times, and gained a quick appreciation for HSA. We got to thinking about the HSA's programming, and figured it would be an easy chore to hijack it for line-lock duty.

With the availability of the six-speed and the increase in power to 376 hp (for manuals), you can pretty much do the math in your head-the Challenger R/T is one fast car. We would've loved testing it on E-town's quarter-mile, but the road course turned out to be far more revealing of the R/T's true character. High 13s should be the norm for 5.7L Hemi cars with the six-speed and an experienced (i.e. powershifting) driver. Chrysler quotes 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds, 60-0 mph braking in 125 feet, a top speed of 138 mph, and 25 mpg on the highway (16 mpg city). Based on our driving experience on and off the track, those numbers are right in line. And the most important number: the Challenger R/T starts at $29,995.

In 1970, a new Challenger R/T sold for $3,226, which works out to $17,925 in 2008 money. While we're on the subject of cost, a '70 Challenger R/T in restored condition today starts around $35,000. What the numbers don't show is that today's Challenger R/T is far better in every respect, and can hardly be compared to the inflationary price of a dozen eggs. The new R/T far exceeds the original in every measurable category. Yet Challenger R/T gives up none of the original's styling or attitude. In our judgment, the '09 Challenger R/T is a no-compromise solution for anybody wanting the classic styling of an iconic muscle car, along with all the performance, handling, safety, economy, and conveniences of the future.

Mopar Performance Options
Dodge dealers and private owners will be able to customize their Dodge Challengers with these cool over-the-counter options. Check out the "Shaker" hood (not a true shaker), the strobe graphics, 20-inch "Cragar S/S-style" Mopar wheels, and "Hurst-style" Mopar shift handle. No word yet on pricing or availability.