It was the summer of 1964. The New York World’s Fair displayed the latest and greatest in technologies, including a new “pony car” from Ford called the “Mustang.” Along with Plymouth’s recently debuted Barracuda, a new class of small, sporty rear-drive cars was born.
In 1966, Chevy’s Camaro, followed by the Pontiac Firebird and then the AMC Javelin, arrived. By late 1969, Dodge was finally a player in the pony car wars with the new Challenger.
Today, only three of the original pony cars are still built. Ford’s Mustang is the current sales leader, now followed by the Dodge Challenger, with the Camaro slipping into third place. Aspirants to this class, like the heady BMW M2 or M4, carry a rich performance cache but lack the outrageous V-8 engines that have so long populated these muscle performance cars.
Surprisingly, it has taken 53 years for the first pony car to offer all-season all-wheel drive. The Challenger GT is the first American AWD pony car — even if technically it is built in Brampton, Ontario.
Why Dodge and why now? Porsche has given us AWD 911s for years, as well as Audi and others, so it is not a foreign concept to employ all four wheels for enhanced traction for all driving elements. Even Dodge’s own Charger — the four-door equivalent to the Challenger — has given us AWD versions for quite some time.
Perhaps it is the oldest reason in business — profit. Dodge has doubled-down on a distinct philosophy for its remaining cars: add dollops of performance (the SRT, Hellcat and Demon models) to create exciting limited-edition, much-sought-after muscle cars based on the tried-and-true base platform while also introducing clever trim and engineering packages for the large volume products in the lineup. Knowing that Charger models enjoy strong sales in Northern belt states because of AWD, it makes perfect sense to create an AWD version of the Challenger to boost sales volumes and profits of this still quite popular pony car.
And with Challenger sales rising due to its increased performance halo — the Hellcat effect — why now further distinguish this pony car from its rivals by creating a car that expands consumer desire. Why sell low-profit Dodge Darts when consumers really want pony cars that generate more profits?
Arriving mid-March — just in time for sleet, heavy rain and a large snowstorm — the Challenger GT proved to be every bit as impressive as our earlier winter day-trip experience. After 1,200 miles together, including a 400-mile day, the Challenger GT is driving fun no matter what the elements are.
Using the stable wide-track, long wheelbase stance that is different from Mustang and Camaro, the GT displayed none of the tramlining or steering pull that can sometimes afflict sporty cars tuned to the edge of handling supremacy. Balanced, smooth and always predictable, the Challenger’s independent suspension produces steady steering feel and great road manners. Perhaps not the track star of its lighter rivals, the Challenger is much more user-friendly in the daily grind while still exhibiting a playful and sporty demeanor aided by sportier suspension tuning borrowed from the Charger Pursuit package.
While definitely a rear-drive biased chassis, the Challenger GT’s quick transition to an AWD sporty car is seamless. Mash the gas pedal on slippery, snow-covered surfaces, and the car swiftly pushes forward — no dramatics, no panic, just assured confidence. Wheel spin is minimal with grip strongly evident in spite of the all-season Michelin Primacy XM4 tires. This driver never felt compromised in bad weather while piloting the Challenger GT.
Mash the throttle at 40 mph on better surfaces, and the 305-hp 3.6-liter V-6 produces a surprisingly strong mid-range surge that will keep performance drivers happy. Passing moves, merging and general throttle responsiveness up to illegal velocities will reinforce the Challenger GT’s mission: all-season performance.
And while the AWD gives the GT crossover-like efficiency in heavy rain and snow, it has not undermined the Challenger’s character.
It is the same great-looking coupe, with the same roomy cabin and spacious trunk as before. Those now-signature round amber daytime running lamps — everyone was looking at them — plus the larger lower air dam up front and rear spoiler atop the trunk lid all work with the unique 19-inch wheels and dual chrome exhausts to complement a handsome coupe.
With high marks for most of the interior, great textures, nice accents, rich looking materials on the doors and seats but some hard grained plastic still present, the Dodge’s cabin is quiet and easier to work with than the tighter spacing in Mustang and Camaro. Sight lines are generally good, and controls and switchgear are easy to access. Ignition is by red push-button; shifting is by paddles or console if you want, plus the U-connect system’s screens are easy to employ as you drive. Heated power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, check. Heated and ventilated suede/cloth/leather seating, check. Remote starting, sunroof and navigation — all available.
You find out a lot about a car after you spend 400 miles in it during a single day. The Challenger GT was faster than I thought it would be, the drive is more entertaining and sporty than you expect, while the creature features entertain and comfort you — Sirius radio, power seats, plus Apple/Android capabilities. Alas, there is no longer a CD slot but several ports for optional electronics.
The middle “eye” on the lower front fascia is not another fog lamp as some viewers thought. It is the sensor for the Challenger’s Dynamic Adaptive Cruise control and Forward Collision Warning system — both of which performed well until snow restricted the radar’s ability to “see ahead.” Blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert systems are available as part of the Driver Convenience Group, $1,095, while lane departure warning is fortunately not. Challenger GT pricing starts at $33,395, while our TorRed sample stickered for $39,765 with several option packages. After our week of winter weather, 23 mpg seems pretty livable given the conditions — EPA estimates are 18/27/21 mpg.
As you read this, there is another Challenger model coming — the high-performance Demon. It is a singularly focused performance car 180 degrees opposed to the versatility and all-season functionality of this Challenger GT. Such is the flexibility of a car created in 1969 yet thoroughly rounded for today’s true pony car heyday.