Dodge's new 2011 SRT-8 Challenger is an enigma. With 470 hp on tap from its 6.4-liter Hemi, it's by far the most powerful ponycar currently offered, besting both the Ford Mustang GT and the Chevy Camaro SS. (Although that's only for a short time until Chevy's 556-hp LSA-powered Camaro hits dealerships.) Nevertheless, all that power is out-manned by the SRT-8's 4,200-plus pounds of mass, making it the slow kid in class. All that bulk does put a wet blanket on the festivities when the hammer drops, but is straight-line acceleration all that matters? To a lot of guys, the answer is "yes," and the conversation stops right there. To others, the sun doesn't rise and set on the 0-60 number, us included.
Our 2011 SRT-8 Challenger...
Our 2011 SRT-8 Challenger was a Limited Edition model (one of just 2,000), which sports a unique white leather interior. The blue stripes and piping mimic the unique graphics on the hood; standard SRT-8 models retain the "392" script, but forego the pimp-daddy white and stripes for charcoal leather. The Fiat influence can be seen in the new-for-2011 three-spoke steering wheel.
Here's the scoop: when you take a full-sized rearwheel-drive four-door sedan and turn it into a muscle coupe, there are going to be certain compromises to performance, and acceleration is just one of those. Cornering and stopping also suffers, because those same tires also need to overcome all that inertia. Clearly, if you approach the SRT-8 Challenger from a ponycar mentality (a big engine in a tossable lightweight car), the SRT-8 falls short. But what happens if you come from the other direction, say, as a family guy looking for a high-speed family hauler that turns heads, sounds great, and that can dominate everything on the road except said lighter ponycars?
That is an entirely different ballgame-one in which Dodge's top hot rod excels. With the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT-8, you have a completely different mission statement: arrive with your entire clan in tow with style and speed. Ironically, the notion that the Challenger is a "ponycar" is carefully fostered by Dodge, but in fact it's a misnomer.
We didn't have enough seat...
We didn't have enough seat time in our week-long drive to fully sort the steering wheel buttons, but we did like the "page scroll" feature, which changes the speedo display between fuel economy, trip odometer, track performance, engine parameters, and others. Buttons for the stereo volume are no longer on the front, but behind the wheel, where you might expect paddle shifters to be.
That said, proportionally and stylistically, the Challenger is every bit the ponycar. The SRT-8's large 20-inch wheels fit perfectly in huge wheel arches. Those arches are likewise positioned tantalizingly close to each other, further fostering the ponycar impression. Large Brembo brakes clamp down on beefy, slotted rotors, and a rakish greenhouse terminates on a muscular c-pillar. Its proportions are so perfect, you'd need a full-grown adult to stand next to it to betray its size. Ahh yes! Put yourself in that picture, and the real beauty of the SRT-8 Challenger reveals itself.
Small lightweight cars do have their advantages, but holding humans in comfort isn't one of them. Open the door to an SRT-8 Challenger, sit inside its sumptuous leather seat, and all traditional ponycar pretentions evaporate. This is a personal luxury coupe-simply put, this ain't no Piper Cub, it's a Gulfstream. And like a Gulfstream, it's fast. The SRT-8 tops out at 180 mph, goes from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds, and runs the quarter mile in 12.9 seconds. Not as quick as a new Mustang GT, but it's a darned sight better than a blinged-out Chevy Tahoe, and it holds nearly as many people too-that's five adults comfortably.
You might expect the Garmin-based...
You might expect the Garmin-based GPS to work like a charm, but its operation defies intuition. Only rote learning of its many nested pages reveals a semblance of functionality. As for the noodle-matic six-speed manual shifter, don't walk, but run to your favorite speed shop and get a real shifter. The Hurst version is the hot ticket.
Dodge's ponycar trompe l'oeil goes beyond just visual impersonation; enough improvements to suspension and steering have been made to perpetrate the ponycar ruse from behind the wheel. Increased wheel camber gives the heavy Challenger better cornering bite, stiffer shocks and springs for 2011 improve transitional handling, and electronic steering with a faster 14:1 ratio (2010 was 16:1) give the SRT-8 a quicker turn-in. And it goes without saying that 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque get things moving in a hurry, at least by traditional ponycar standards. On a road course, the SRT-8 Challenger is in its happy spot at about 8/10ths-anything beyond that and you'll need professional reflexes to avoid embarrassment.
To that point, the Challenger SRT-8 suffers from a trait common to heavier cars. The Challenger can be "challenging" to master at the limit, exhibiting wholesale understeer without a thoughtful cornering line, and massive wheelspin with too much throttle. All this is gratis the insufficient tire contact area for the given vehicle mass. On the six-speed manual test car we had, we also noted excessive driveline whip at slow speed in lower gears, and gear snatch from a dead stop. (Inordinate care is needed to keep from stalling the engine at stoplights.) Dodge's engineers made a good move by fortifying the larger Hemi with a stronger dual-disc clutch (which helps channel all that power), but its too-quick uptake doesn't resonate well with the car's mass and stiff suspension-at least not well enough for a car with a $47,575 MSRP. This is Corvette territory, so a smooth clutch uptake is the price of admission at this price point.
The SRT-8's push-button start...
The SRT-8's push-button start looks cool, but unlike its counterpart at GM, needs to be pushed and held until the engine fires. We'd like it better if it fired with a short stab.
We also noted a few electrical gremlins in our test car, which taken at face value wouldn't be so bad, but we know two owners of older SRT-8 Challengers who've also had problems. The turn-by-turn voice commands on the GPS alternated between whisper quiet and super loud (when we could get them to work at all), and the keyless entry worked only about a third of the time. When we tried to upload MP3 song files via the USB connection, the entertainment system was unresponsive to repeated prompts. And while not strictly an electrical gremlin per se, the newest version of Dodge's GPS (the third in just five years) was frustrating and counter intuitive to operate. (Conclusion: you're better off with a $100 Tom-Tom from Best Buy.) Lastly, the push-button start needs to be held down a good two seconds before the engine cranks-which when combined with frequent stalling from a hair-trigger clutch can lead to much embarrassment.
A final gripe we had that's unique to the manual trans is the really rubbery feel to the shifter. While the shifter does a great job isolating driveline vibration from the luxurious cockpit, this is at the expense of feel. With the lever in gear, the handle can still traverse a two-inch range with modest effort-not something that inspires driving confidence.
Make no mistake, the 2011 SRT-8 Challenger is a great car; if you're a family guy who needs quick and classy transpo for the brood, this is your steed. A stout powerplant fortified with a solid suspension, a beefcake driveline, killer curb appeal, and class-leading comfort are a combination that's hard to beat-and one that the competition just can't muster. Add that to your Dodge dealer's best offer and you're off to the races-or the workplace, whichever meets your fancy.
For 2011, the SRT-8's Hemi...
For 2011, the SRT-8's Hemi inflates from 6.1 liters to 6.4 liters-by happy accident that equals 392 cubic inches, the same as the top variant of the gen-one Hemi. Horsepower is up from 425 to 470, and the new engine gets attractive injector covers sporting 392 Hemi script. The power is explosive-that's the good news. The bad news-even with sparing use of the throttle, we could only manage 19 mpg on the highway.