Thursday, May 14, 2009

Challenger Ride and Drive

The following is a write-up of a ride-and-drive I did with the Dodge Challenger last year before its debut. Enjoy...

After debuting the Dodge Challenger with the 425-hp SRT8 version for 2008, Chrysler follows up with the SE and R/T trims for 2009, with the 3.5L V6 and 5.7L Hemi V8 respectively. This strategy is in contrast with the launches of its prime competitors, like the Mustang and Camaro, which launched, or will be launching, standard versions first, following them up with super-performance versions like the Mustang GT500 and the Camaro SS, which debut at the same time as the base models.

Dodge is also adding a six-speed manual option to the SRT for '09, which should make many enthusiasts who waited very happy. Of the ~7,000 '08 SRT8s already on the ground, Chrysler says around 60% have been sold. This lines up with the reports from the media, which corrected earlier reports that nearly the entire first run had been spoken for. Still, dealers are looking to get well over sticker for these cars, which may be a big part of the slower-than-expected sales pace.

Chrysler opened the order bank for the '09s on May 12, and since then dealers have requested more than 22,000 cars. Of those, 22% are already sold to customers. There is also a very strong trim mix, with 41% being R/Ts and 32% SRTs--higher than the percentage of SEs!

My colleague and I were given the chance to drive two '09 Challengers around the 'burbs of New Jersey and back into Manhattan. The novelty of the car is still fresh, and everywhere we went there were stares and thumbs up. A cop even blocked traffic to ask Danny about the bright red R/T model he was in. That car was equipped with a pistol grip 6-speed manual to wring the most out of the 376-hp Hemi. Like GM will do with the Camaro, Dodge gives the manual version more horses and twist, though the difference in the Challenger (4 hp and 9 lb-ft of torque) is relatively small compared to the Camaro. It also has a different ratio for its rear axle and no cylinder deactivation, so the mileage is around the same as the auto.

The black SE we drove is only available with a 4-speed auto, and as such does not even offer AutoStick capability. When the new Phoenix engine arrives in 2012 it will be paired with a new 6-speed auto box, but until then this powertrain will bear a disadvantage against the Mustang (in gear ratios only) and especially the Camaro.

I started out in the R/T, and was immediately impressed with the suspension calibration. It wasn't a hard-core sports car with no body roll, but the compromise they chose seems to be the right one. The R/T soaked up bumps with little drama, a big contrast with my R32. You certainly feel the car's mass through corners, but it is well controlled and confidence-inspiring.

The steering had a nice weight to it, but I was a little disappointed with the lack of feel. This is a direct result of the car's LX-platform origins, and wasn't surprising. Speaking of trade-offs based on the car's platform, my coworker and I were both a bit puzzled by the car's foot-pedal parking brake, given the fact that it is a stick-shift. No hand-brake assisted drifting here! It was explained that this was due to the car's Mercedes E-Class ancestry, and it would've been prohibitively expensive to reengineer.

The stick in the R/T could be a little notchy and high-effort, but never inhibited the fun factor. The one time it became an issue was when I experienced the 1st-to-4th skip shift feature, which locks out 2nd gear when you rev it high in 1st. It was definitely tough to engage 4th at that moment. The shifter is a throw-back pistol grip, but excecuted in a nice modern way. With most stick drivers accustomed to the typical ball-top manual, it can be a bit strange to use. It's angled perfectly to grip as intended, but if you want to grab the top as you normally would in another car, it feels too narrow and angular. I'm not sure how long it would take to get used to, and this shifter is standard equipment, with no Mopar alternative yet in the offing. This may change, though.

Moving on to the best part of the car, the engine is a symphony. For most of the drive in the R/T, I left the radio off, content to listen to the under-hood music (okay, it was probably mostly the exhaust pipe's doing). It's bad-ass in the just the right way, and never got tediously loud or obnoxious. And of course it's quick: 5.5 seconds to 60. It had flexibility all over the place, and it left the SE behind easily.

The Challenger R/T was a thoroughly impressive car, with relatively few criticisms. One improvement needed is the steering wheel. It's pulled straight from the sedans, and it has four spokes in just the wrong places. In fact, in the 9:00 and 3:00 position best for serious driving, the spokes keep you from wrapping your fingers around the rim. The Chrysler guy said they're considering a more sporting 3-spoke version, but didn't know the timing on it.

The interior materials were an improvement over the sedans, especially on the upper dash, which is soft-touch, but the center console is still covered with unappealing hard plastic. The seats, however, were top-notch, some of the most comfortable I've experienced on a long drive.

Going from the oh-so-satisfying R/T to the SE secretary's car set me up for a big disappointment, as my colleague pointed out. Having started in the lower model, he was relatively happy with the driving experience. He's probably somewhat right about my opinion, but I did have some specific gripes about the SE.

The first was the suspension. While it's clear that this model was tuned for more compliance over bumps, I actually found that I preferred the R/T suspension, even in comfort cruising mode. The suspension seemed jittery over bumps, with worse control over rebound.

The steering was also not as good, with the same lack of feel, but here accompanied by a lack of weight.

The engine was obviously not nearly as exciting, but I found it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. The sound was relatively smooth and refined, and the power felt adequate for the task of hauling a nearly 3800-lb car around. Sometimes the transmission seemed a bit slow to kick down, and having only four ratios does disadvantage the car somewhat.

With the combination of its tepid 250 hp, its 4-speed auto, it's lackluster steering and its unsatisfying suspension, to me the SE was not a car that could be called "exciting" (with the obvious exception of its styling). The V6 Chevy Camaro, on the other hand, with its 304-hp V6, 6-speed transmissions, and chassis less closely related to GM's full-size sedans, will probably be a legitimate performance entry, rivaling the Nissan 350Z.

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