On the Road Review: Dodge Challenger GT AWD Coupe

Not everyone gets the chance to enjoy a winter workday pirouetting around an icy skid-pad, dodging snowbanks on a slushy autocross course or hammering the throttle on a snow-packed drag strip in the Ossipee Lake region of New Hampshire.

And fewer individuals get to take a secondary road trip from Portland to Tamworth, N.H., exploring the real-world functionality of this same car, all in a brightly colored caravan of clean coupes that really stood out amidst the dark browns and dirty whites of January.

Yet, you too will soon have the chance to drive and own the car that was used on these wintry exploits — the new Dodge Challenger GT AWD Coupe.

Wait a second; an all-wheel-drive Challenger? No other pony car sold here comes with all-wheel drive, and that is exactly the point of this car. Instead of worrying about grip when the snow flies, or worse, putting your favorite sports coupe away for the winter, Dodge now gives enthusiast drivers a real alternative, a four-season, performance all-wheel-drive sports coupe that retains its playful rear-drive stability.

Your first reaction might be to ask “What took so long?” And after spending a day exploiting the car’s capabilities in the aforementioned environments, you would only conclude this is as great as sliced bread, only with the marshmallow, peanut butter and jelly all included. Yeah, it’s that big a deal.

Some perspective. The Challenger GT’s AWD system is shared with its sibling, the Dodge Charger, which has featured this powertrain for several years. Both of these cars still utilize a strong foundation developed when Chrysler and Daimler-Benz were married — about a decade ago — the bones from the E-class sedan. Nice family roots, don’t you think?

With a fully independent suspension, long wheelbase and wide track stance, the Challenger is naturally predisposed to on-road stability and smooth road manners. None of that has been altered; in fact, the car’s on-road performance is probably enhanced a notch with the inclusion of the “Pursuit Package” suspension settings from the Dodge Charger police sedans — stiffer shocks, different damping rates, plus larger 19-inch wheels. As we pushed through rural Maine over to the track — the private Club Motorsports track — the GT demonstrated the composed handling we have become familiar with, plus a modest boost in the firmness of the ride. No complaints were mentioned among the assembled auto scribes, which is a rarity in itself, as pundits tend to be a bit whiny.

Power comes from the corporate 3.6-liter V-6, 305 horses on tap, running ahead of an eight-speed TorqueFlite automatic with paddle shifters. The GT’s additional hardware adds roughly 200 pounds to the Challenger’s base weight, leaving the V-6 with roughly the same accelerative prowess as before. More about this in a minute.

The AWD hardware employs multiple sensors to gauge wheel speeds front and rear, steering wheel angle and throttle settings to determine when power must shift to the front wheels. These vehicle dynamic controls are “tuned” to retain the car’s natural rear-drive emphasis while not ignoring the inherent and immediate benefits of initiating front drive as needed. The driver also can select levels of AWD engagement as desired.

At this point, you must remember that the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro are strictly rear drive only. If you want a performance coupe with AWD, then you would have to visit a German-branded dealership, like Audi, BMW or Mercedes, to get any sort of vim and vigor in a svelte two-door body. And none of the German alternatives has the back-seat space, trunk room or the cache of an American pony car as cleverly retro-styled as the Challenger. To most viewers, the Challenger is the truest reincarnation of any of the original domestic pony cars — a look that continues to evolve with successful sales.

And those German coupes — all nice cars — cost a whole lot more than the Challenger GT. Base pricing for the Challenger is just over $27,000. A new GT starts at $33,395 plus destination fee. That price gets you the active transfer case and all-speed traction control (which can be turned off) Keyless Enter ’N Go, Dodge Performance Pages on the standard U-Connect screen, heated and ventilated Alcantara sport seats, a heated steering wheel, reconfigurable center info panel with AWD monitoring, Apple and Android Car-play, premium audio with Sirius, dual-zone auto-climate, plus much more.

Add the Technology Group, $1,195, and the Driver Convenience Group, $1,095, and you gain rain-sensing wipers, automatic high beam control, adaptive cruise and forward collision warning system, HID headlamps, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic sensing, plus remote starting. GT Interior package, $995, adds nine-speaker audio with 506-watt amplifier as well as enhanced trim pieces, while the Harmon Kardon premium sound group, $895, gets you an 18-speaker stereo that will rock your ride. U-connect navigation and directional programs is another $795, so all in, as shown, our assembled GT’s stickered for $39,465 in the array of “high-impact paint schemes.”

After a brief overview of the Challenger GT from brand manager Ben Lyon and chief engineer Alison Rahm, our brightly painted fleet of Challengers pulled out of Portland and headed for the promised fun at the snowy racetrack. Once in New Hampshire, the capable stewards from Team O’Neil Rally School (Dalton N.H.) guided us through the skid-pad exercise, the rutted autocross sections, as well as the deep-snow drag strip. With the winter sun warming the surface through the day, the various track conditions kept changing — just like they do when you are driving in a snowstorm from the coast of Maine inland. Snow, ice, slush and more deep snow — we got to drive in all of it, and the Challenger GT handled it with ease. Fully displaying how the rear-drive orientation of the chassis and powertrain allows for rear-steering maneuvering for icy turns, with the front wheels instantaneously engaging and pulling the car, illustrated how this AWD package is the hot-ticket for drivers who live above the Mason-Dixon Line.

In fact, Dodge’s research showed that 50 percent of Dodge Charger sales are AWD models in the snow-belt states. And that AWD Charger sales were up 12 percent last year. So why not build an AWD Challenger too? Why not indeed.

I repeatedly returned to the skid-pad with the Team O’Neil escorts. The Challenger GT just proved to be masterful at getting around this deep snow and now-slushy course with an eagerness that destroyed preconceptions about how pony cars should perform in winter. Finally getting around the pylon in a complete 360-degree power-controlled drift, the Challenger GT proved that this concept is truly a no-brainer powertrain package.

Querying the track staff, it was revealed that over 60 ham-fisted journalists had bludgeoned the cars during the week, in all conditions, and not one Challenger had broken anything. Not one broken air dam and no broken fog lamps or dynamic sensor balls (low and exposed in the front fascia) as the cars slid through snowbanks and packed snow, ice and slush throughout the wheel wells and other body parts. Not even a flat tire — all-season tires to boot — had disrupted the scheduled events. Very impressive. Almost as impressive as swiftly riding snowmobiles around the Club Motorsports road-course and not worrying about trees, other obstacles or oncoming riders. A lot of adrenaline used on this day — an unusually tough workday.

V-6 powered models comprise over 50 percent of Challenger sales, so it makes the most sense to use this powertrain first for any AWD Challenger development. However, the halo models of this brand — R/T, SRT and Hellcat — all employ powerful Hemi V-8 engines. Will Dodge gift us one of these coupes with traction-bending AWD?

It would seem that the answer is yes. None of the Dodge folks at our event would confirm the creation of a V-8-powered Challenger GT, but Dodge fans already have been watching the teaser videos on the internet (ifyouknowyouknow.com) for the upcoming Dodge Demon release. Plans call for this car’s debut at the New York Auto Show in April.

What has been revealed so far is a wide-body Challenger, at least 3.5 inches wider, atop 315 tires, with more power than the Hellcat. The front hood scoop is doubled in size, jamming more fresh air into an even more powerful supercharged engine that may even be able to use race gas. And the photos reveal four burnout patches, suggesting that the Demon will be an AWD hyper-performance pony car — probably a drag-strip stallion of the highest order.

Until we get to Demon, the Challenger GT proved that there is a lot of life left in this platform and that it is good, very good. Two thumbs up to Dodge and FCA for expanding the pony car paradigm with such a capable offering.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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