Challenger. The word itself conjures imagery of a dreaded foe, a fighter, or perhaps a competitor. And right now, sitting outside of a café looking at the Tor Red Challenger parked in front of me I’d certainly say that’s the case.
Dodge has been vying for the hearts of muscle car lovers since the heydays of the Challenger nameplate (before it was somewhat sullied by the Mitsubishi collaboration in the 80’s). Fighting hard against the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro, the Challenger always felt like a bit of an underdog.
The Mustang is arguably what everyone thinks about when they think “muscle car”. Steve McQueen’s car chase in the movie Bullit not only cemented the Mustang’s position in automotive hall of fame, but transformed the car into a cultural icon – meanwhile the Challenger crashed in the scene. Chevrolet pulled off a similar act with Bumblebee – ‘nuff said.
Yet today, as I toss my Americano into the trash and swing open the heavy doors of the Challenger, I can’t help but feel that it is the most authentic muscle car on the market.
Let’s begin with the styling: among the rest of the muscle car stable, Dodge’s entrant looks like a direct descendent of its forefather (the original, not the second gen Mitsubishi rebadge). The new design has been on the market for eight years now and while other designs look old and tired, the Challenger maintains a modern take on a classic design.
The front end is the absolute business: the quad headlights are a nod to its history and the slight overhang from the bumper gives it a menacing squint – think Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. You know something serious is about to go down.
Admittedly, the interior doesn’t quite have the same allure as more premium offerings, but it isn’t far from the Mustang or Camaro. Truthfully, had Dodge cut the depth of the massive dash in half, the amount of hard plastics saved could probably be donated to three Dodge Darts.
Plop yourself into the lazy-boy front seats and your immediate instinct is to drape your hands over the steering wheel and cruise. Push the engine start button and listen to the 5.7L hemispherical V8 crank to life. The heart of this muscle car is old too – the rhythmic “lug lug lug” of the cylinders at idle sounds nostalgic of classic muscle.
As it should, while most modern V8s have dual overhead cams and aluminum blocks, the Dodge keeps a cast iron block and pushrod actuated valves. Coupled with the Mopar Exhaust equipped on this tester and it spits a brawny roar that shouts “’Merica!” Except these new Hemis feature variable valve timing so perhaps “Sensible ‘Merica!” is more appropriate.
The 5.7L V8 produces 375 hp and you can control all of it through a Tremec 6-speed manual transmission. Power of course, gets routed to nothing but the rear wheels (anything else is blasphemy, though reports have suggested an all-wheel drive Challenger is in the works). The clutch is heavy, and requires a fair amount of force to operate.
When your drive ends in an inevitable traffic jam, modulating the clutch isn’t difficult. Shift throws are tight but very notchy. The lever must be rammed through each gate and the clutch needs to be stomped on. All of it cumulates to a driving experiencing that is big, bold, and purposeful – as a classic muscle car should.
The gears are spread far apart too, prolonging each crescendo of cylinders just a bit longer. Passing on the highway almost always requires a rev-matched downshift (you got to do it yourself here too) into third or fourth to really squeeze the most out of the Hemi. And when you do, people around you know damn well that you’re about to change lanes.
As if all the other tidbits of the past aren’t enough, the Challenger also takes chapter one, page one, out of the muscle car handbook – don’t bother cornering. Huck it in one and there’s a fair amount of roll. It doesn’t feel as tight or composed as its Camaro and Mustang brethren. Rather, it feels large and bloated, as if you’re commandeering a boat.
It’s a distinctly old-school feel. The weight is another penalty on the Challenger too – pushing the car in the turns is a test of your gonads as the 245 section tires feel like they are at the limit of their grip. Shifting the weight too violently and the car kicks its tail out like a bucking bronco leaving you facing the wrong direction, sobbing uncontrollably into the wheel and wondering if anyone will notice the newly minted stains on the back of your pants.
And these glaring “drawbacks” are precisely the reason why I adore this R/T. It has an aura associated with it. Later that evening I left for a jaunt down the DVP. As I was cruising along I spotted another Challenger in the distance. Remembering I had to downshift for any sort of power, I dropped the car into third and caught up.
A darting glance to my passenger side and I instantly recognized his prominent Shaker Hood. That was a Scat Pack Challenger. Easing off the throttle and resuming my leisurely pace, the other Challenger followed suit. It was in that moment, two Challengers cruising down the DVP side by side, that everything felt cool. It’s not the fastest car around a track but it doesn’t need to be – Dodge has proved that they’ve got the know how with the Viper ACR.
While other brands transformed their muscle cars into sports cars, Dodge has stayed the course and coincidentally true to the Challenger’s origins as an all-American muscle car. While the Camaros and Mustangs are forever chasing each other around the circuit, the Challenger sits idly in the parking lot of that classic Californian drive-in Diner with a gaggle of teenage fans ogling it. “I’ll take my burger with a side of smokey burnouts please.”