The Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a proper American muscle car, in that it’s allergic to corners but is still immensely fun to drive.
With Chrysler hinting that the next generation Challenger may be made in right-hand drive and head to Australia in 2016, and with the demise of Australian-built large muscle cars around the same time, it’s worth testing the current model less than three years before the new version likely lobs here.
From the outside, this is a nicely-styled, aggressive and yet not overdone muscle car. The Dodge Challenger brings near perfect proportions, with short overhangs, a beefy body size and chiselled silhouette. You may call it bold, but it’d be tough to argue it’s ugly.
At Chrysler headquarters in Detroit, in -14 degree temperatures, there’s no reason to stay out in the cold, particularly when there’s a 6.4-litre HEMI V8 to warm up the bonnet. It’s an engine we’re familiar with in the Chrysler 300 SRT8, but here it offers 351kW of power and 637Nm of tyre-destroying torque.
The Challenger SRT8 weighs around 1900kg, which results in its 0-100km/h time right below five seconds, a reasonable feat from either its six-speed manual transmission (as tested) or the ageing five-speed automatic. It does the old American quarter mile (400 metres) in about 12.5 seconds and can go from a standstill to 160km/h and back to zero in 15 seconds. If you happen to find a long stretch of road, it can also hit its top speed of 292km/h.
The Dodge Challenger SRT8’s interior is incredibly simple. This generation of vehicle came out in 2008, so it definitely does not feel like a model about to slide into 2014.
It’s basically as if the absolute bare minimum equipment levels have been placed inside to maintain its true muscle car heritage (or if you’re a cynic, keep costs down). If it were any other any car, it would be a dreadful interior. The cheap plastics, clacky air-conditioning controls, ancient infotainment system and an instrument cluster that would make a 1999 Toyota Camry look advanced are all (im)properly American.
Thankfully then, it’s not any other car, it’s a Dodge Challenger SRT8 and regardless of how simple and cheap it feels inside, the second you press the start button it starts to make sense.
Clutch in and go for first gear; this isn’t an easy gearbox. There’s a long throw between gears and the pedal positions aren’t exactly ideal for heel-and-toe. The gigantic steering wheel is telescopic (goes in and out) and was easily adjusted to our desired driving position. The clutch pickup is low and easy to manage but, in the snow, even the slightest touch of the accelerator will provide tyre spin followed by the car’s traction control modules going into a meltdown.
Best to turn them off then.
As we pulled out of Chrysler Drive heading south on Interstate 75, we squeezed on the accelerator pedal and listened to the V8 roar to life as the rear tyres struggled for grip.
A bright red American muscle car in snowy conditions – it’s hard not to smile.
The Challenger is not an easy beast to control in the dry, let alone in the snow. Yet, it’s so utterly predictable. Every hint of oversteer is felt through the steering-wheel long before it needs to be corrected and after a few minutes of driving we felt confident in the Challenger’s ability to go either straight or sideways.
It simply doesn’t like to corner properly. It almost fundamentally opposes the notion of turning the wheel at too tight an angle. Around tight corners, the Challenger feels like it’s about to fall over if it’s driven at a reasonable pace. There’s no sense of cornering compliancy and its heavy American muscle car attributes are evident.
That’s not to say it’s not fun. While a well-engineered sports car would eat up corners in a breeze, the Challenger makes the driver work. Brake heavy before a corner and feed the wheel slowly and do not dare to be aggressive with the accelerator pedal until the time is right. And it almost feels as though the time is never right.
It’s all about car control, it’s all about the motion of traditional driving physics. Extreme focus is crucial if there’s a desire to go fast around bends because one little mistake – particularly in the snow without traction control – can end in disaster.
Unlike the Chrysler 300 SRT8 we competed in Targa Adelaide with this year (also in very wet conditions), the Challenger, which shares the 300’s shortened platform, feels less agile. That may just be the American suspension tune, though, tailored for comfort and straight-line performance over all else.
Despite all its cornering, interior and American-build quality problems, driving the Dodge Challenger SRT8 is a treat. It’s the sort of car that you actually have to drive, rather than have an array of computers do the job for you.
It may not be that quick around a track and it may be a little thirsty (officially 10.2L/100km in the American fuel cycle, but more likely to be circa-14L/100km in real life), but if muscle car is what you want, it’s hard to argue.
In the USA the Dodge Challenger SRT8 range starts from under $40,000. Given Fiat-Chrysler Australia’s ability to bring in cars for reasonably similar prices as their American counterparts (taking the USD-AUD conversion into account), in today’s money the Challenger SRT8 Core edition would be on sale for under $50,000. At that price we suspect it would be a big hit.
The next-generation Challenger is rumoured to be based on the new Alfa Romeo rear-wheel drive platform, which we suspect will mean it’ll come with significantly better driving dynamics.
It’s another two years away, and is likely to arrive after the new Ford Mustang, and possibly a Holden import of the next Camaro, but the Dodge Challenger (or whatever it ends up being called, given the Mitsubishi Challenger nameplate clash) can’t come to Australia soon enough.