On the Road Review: Dodge Challenger SRT

For the weeks either side of Halloween, some Detroit muscle showed up to put the trick-or-treat season in true perspective. For this driver, it turned out to be a real treat to drive three of America’s hottest tricks.

First came the previously reviewed Corvette Stingray, which was followed by the updated Dodge Challenger SRT. At the end of this two-week interval, Ford offered up a chance to drive the all-new Mustang — in both EcoBoost trim as well as the latest GT. Each of these samples of American muscle car/pony car offered exciting V-8 power, plus refinement and virtues that will knock buyer’s socks off. We will look at the Challenger here, and finish with some comments about the new Mustang.

The Challenger is easily the best looking of the retro-styled pony cars currently on sale, retaining much more of the original look of the 1970s era Challenger than do the Mustang and the Camaro of their ancestors. Based loosely on the Charger/Chrysler 300 rear-drive platform (which is actually a descendant of the Mercedes E-class chassis), the Challenger is the largest of the three American pony cars. It is 198 inches long, 75.7 inches wide and 57.5 inches tall, on a lengthy 116.2-inch wheelbase. The Challenger trims the scales at over 4,200 pounds in SRT finish — over 400 pounds more than the new Mustang.

The trade-off is a roomy, people-friendly coupe body that readily accommodates real passengers. The trunk also is the largest in this segment. The best asset of this size, however, is the car’s overall ride; placid and composed when left in standard touring mode in the programmable settings. Access the SRT Apps function on the U-Connect screen and the driver can program Sport or Track settings that markedly adjust steering feel, throttle settings, chassis feedback, as well as engine performance. On one hand, you may think that the SRT seems expensive, but think of it as three cars in one — that is how much different these settings are.

Sport and Track unleash the full fury of the 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 — 485 hp and 475 pound/feet of peak torque. Teamed with an excellent clutch and a short-throw Tremec manual transmission, the Challenger can obliterate its 20-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tires with little provocation. Lurid burnouts may be attractive, and addicting, with this car, but remember that those track-developed Michelins are almost $500 — each.

The Hemi produces absolutely delicious V-8 music, with you orchestrating the volume with each action on the right pedal. Impressively, the SRT is reasonably quiet at highway speeds — a comfortable cruiser every bit as efficient as a family sedan — despite the constant burble behind your ear.

Enjoying the music, and the powerful acceleration, reveals how inefficient the Hemi is when it comes time to feed it. Fuel economy is an EPA projected 14/23/17-mpg with the six-speed transmission, slightly higher with the all-new eight-speed automatic that is available. Suffice to say; those numbers were quite elusive during the SRT’s eight-day visit. No regrets about that either…

While piloting the SRT along lonely stretches of New England byways, it became evident that today’s pony cars are far more capable than their predecessors. In addition, that notion presents itself with the many things that we now take for granted in our cars. You can have long-distance conversations with Bluetooth, navigation takes you to addresses, hotels, or nearest gas stations, you can get the latest traffic, weather, and a single radio station wherever you are — with Sirius. The Challenger has a heated steering wheel, really supportive heated cloth sport seats, plus an automatic climate system that adjusts itself for humidity.

Throw in the electronic traction and stability aids, including Launch control for the SRT, as well as the programmable performance settings and performance reporting available in the selectable screens in front of the driver, as well as the center panel, and technology is a strong suit in a car pretending to look like the iconic pony car that first captured our attention 44 years ago.

Like Camaro and Mustang, there is an “entry-level” base Challenger coupe with V-6 power, starting now at just over $27,000. Next up is the R/T trim at $32,990 with the 5.7-Hemi engine. This is approximately the same price as the new Mustang GT and about $1,500 less than a Camaro SS.

The new SRT/Scat Pak edition brings the 485-hp 6.4-liter Hemi engine to the masses for $39,990. Our TorRed (get it?) SRT/392 has a base price of $45,990 with more amenities than the Scat Pak. If you need more power, well, the 707-hp SRT/Hellcat starts at $60,990 and already has a lengthy list of wannabe owners who will probably shell out a lot more money than that to get one.

SRT high points include the great seating, the clever halo daytime-running LED lights and the overall styling of the car, as well as the variable ride attributes. The power is addictive, the V-8 soundtrack ever present, the performance controllable, and the included technology (for modern drivers) is easy to use and access. In fact, all of the Challenger’s controls, switches and buttons are user-friendly, with clear displays that you control. Functions are intuitive and the information comes seamlessly from the center screen — not a lot of finger strokes are necessary to make simple changes. Chrysler does not get enough credit for how well it has done creating these convenient interior designs in their latest offerings.

Conversely, one-touch windows are missing, there is no rev-match feature like Chevy and Nissan offer, no optional heads-up display like we sampled on the Corvette, and the big brute uses a foot-emergency brake instead of an electric or hand brake. Not bad, but still old-school.

When Chrysler spawned the 1965 Plymouth Barracuda in April 1964 — just weeks ahead of the vaunted Mustang — from the tepid Valiant, who could have known that just a few years later, in 1970, the whole pony car class would explode. The full-body Challenger and second generation Barracuda appeared then and took Chrysler Trans-Am series racing against Camaro and Mustang and the AMX. Sales exceeded expectations as America readily embraced high-performance pony cars — right up to 1974, when increasing insurance regulations, greater emission constraints, plus the first OPEC oil embargo, combined to submarine the whole segment.

Chrysler has been generous with sharing its latest models with the automotive press. We (New England’s scribes) often tell the automakers to only send us the cars they want to sell. Chrysler apparently understands this better than most, as it continuously sends us almost everything it makes. Do you think that this is reactive to their rapid sales growth this year — far ahead of the rest of the marketplace — or all of this exposure is the cause for those increasing sales?

For the 2015 model year, buyers get the best pony cars every produced. This Challenger proved to be one of this year’s favorite cars — not because it was rowdy and fast, but because it was comfortable, fun, nice-looking, rowdy and fast. With the new Mustang now on sale, plus a revised Camaro coming next fall, pony car buyers have the best products ever produced.

Do not overlook the Challenger SRT. It is a likable pony car that will surprise and please many drivers.

Mustang Debut

It is the 50th anniversary of the original Mustang this year, and Ford is rolling out a completely new design. Gone is the solid rear axle that is a holdover to the Mayflower, gone are the clunky controls inside, while the new European-inspired styling dominates throughout as Ford hopes to sell this car in both left and right-hand-drive markets.

On a recent cold and damp evening, Ford offered up two Mustang samples; the new 2.3-liter EcoBoost Mustang, with 310 hp, as well as a new GT — with 435 hp this year. The EcoBoost motor was teamed with an automatic, while the GT tested featured a new Getrag six-speed manual gearbox.

First off — the new grille does not raise my excitement meter. I was hoping that in person, the picture presentation would be corrected, but it is not. It is dowdy looking, much too similar to the Fiesta and Focus ST models and not at all like the Fusion’s Aston Martin influence. Yes, the new lamps add cache and work well, but it is hard to look at the yawning front fascia and not think of a catfish rather than America’s longest-running pony car.

The rest of the car looks great; the flanks, the greenhouse, the rear fascia all come together to make a nice presentation. Perhaps the front face will grow on me, but Internet forums also have been critical of the awkward face.

Inside, Ford has done a great job of integrating the latest technologies and new information into the Mustang, with multiple info screens. There are toggle switches low on the center dash, plus selectable gauges all over — some relaying unusual pieces of information, like intake pressure, gas/air mix, etc. Both cars were well-equipped models with lots of bells and whistles that necessitated 19 buttons on the steering wheel. That is a lot going on in a tight space.

In the GT, the highly bolstered sport bucket was excellent. Fit and finish in both models is markedly improved, with better plastics and surfaces throughout. The GT also offers the programmable Touring, Sport, and Track settings for performance that our recent Corvette and Challenger SRT included. The interior looks good, feels modern, and will impress.

On the street, the ride is WOW better. Steering feel is much tighter and overall handling feels like a big notch better. The EcoBoost four-cylinder produces very good power — more than the standard V-6 model — but you must get the engine spinning to get at this power. The car is quicker than you might think — a little four-cylinder engine carrying around a heavier Mustang.

The GT felt great. It still has the deep basso rumble, the crisp clutch and a tight shifter (hey, it is brand new). The GT felt like it had the same acceleration fury as the more powerful SRT, but this is where weight plays a roll. The new Mustang actually gained some pounds, but it is still almost 400 pounds lighter than the larger Challenger. Chevy says the upcoming Camaro will be smaller and lighter. That would be great.

Of these three muscle/pony cars recently sampled, the Corvette produces the most exhilarating experience — it is faster, sharper handling, and just a totally different experience. The Challenger SRT and the Mustang GT however are more livable sports cars day in and day out.

With the Mustang actually slipping in the sales race with the Camaro this year, Ford is counting on the latest car’s myriad enhancements to reverse a three-year trend.

Mustang fans will love the new model’s interior, excellent ride and drive dynamics and the revised powertrains. Most will embrace the exterior styling too I am sure. Can’t wait to see how the sales numbers roll in and how America votes on the new Mustang.

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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