08/10/09 11:10PM Challenger, Dodge, hot rods, Muscle Cars, SRT8

Dodge Challenger SRT8 -- a hot rod for the 21st century

Dodge Challenger

Hunker down, I say. Hunker down, son, and dream about the old days, back in the 1960s and 1970s when God made engines the way they were intended to be made. Hemi. Four-forty. Big, big four-barrel carbs. Honking huge exhaust systems that barely paid lip service to the law. Glasspacks. There was a time when you could sit in a Dodge Challenger or a Chevy Camaro and rev that motor and feel the car rock from side to side from all that raw, unmitigated horsepower. Whomp. Whomp.

Well, with all due consideration for the age in which we find ourselves -- an age replete with sensible, polite, inoffensive, and, well, subdued automobiles -- the resurrected Dodge Challenger, with the 6.1-liter (372 cubic inches), 425-horsepower son-of-a-gun of a motor, and a slam dunk pistol-grip six-speed stick on the floor, will take you right back to dragging for pink slips in about the time it takes that Challenger to get from zero to 60, which is less than five seconds.

For a week, we had a 2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 (the SRT stands for Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology group, a bunch of engineers who, if the SRT8 is any example, are not spending their time on gas-sipping little shopping cars.)

The new Challenger is a pretty faithful, if 21st century replication of the famed 1970 Challenger, a car that was a member of the "pony car" class, named for the original pony car, Ford's Mustang, which came out in 1964. The cars were a big hit, beloved for their long hoods and truncated trunks. As the Sixties moved along, the cars got hotter, and by the end of the decade the Big Three -- Chrysler, GM and Ford -- were stuffing monster engines in cars that were still relatively small.

But the auto industry is nothing if not evolutionary, wedded to constant change as the handmaiden of marketing. Stay the same and you die. Change and you live, even thrive. Something, of course, went wrong over the past several years, and so we have now have the supreme irony of the Big Three -- two of which have tasted the bitter roots of bankruptcy -- turning out three really charged-up go-fast cars in an age when that is not exactly the soup du jour in the horribly bruised and nearly fractured auto-selling business.

Still, these hot coupes are out there, and the Challenger SRT8 is one hunk of attractive muscle -- and that's not really me saying it; it's the people who stopped me on the street, or rolled down their windows at a stoplight to ask about it. And what is it?

It's a two-door coupe whose design characteristics make you really feel as if you're in a 1970s version of this car. The windshield is smaller and more vertically oriented than the current vogue. The trunk has a high liftover -- back when the Challenger originated, the auto makers didn't realize that people don't want to lift a heavy suitcase over a high bridge of the car's rear end steel.

The inside has sumptuous leather bucket seats, but is otherwise pretty plain-spoken -- intentionally so, I think, given the car's orientation to performance. With a sop to current marketing demands, the SRT8 had all the mod cons we're used to -- navigation, super stereo, power everything, automatic trunk-lid opener -- but the main thrust of the car (so to speak) is performance. And that's where things like radios and power windows become superfluous.

First off, the six-speed stick shift is really worth it. I normally am not a fan of rowing a gear stick back and forth in urban traffic jams, but this one is so slick and, well, hot-roddy fun, that it didn't matter. (You can also get the five-speed automatic, but the manual tranny will make you think you're 10 years younger. Or something like that.)

Starting off, you will find that 425 horses in a two-ton coupe will move you down the road with alacrity. The engine has so much torque that you can easily skip a gear -- shift from first to third to fifth -- and you could tool around town all day using second and third.

In the hills, the SRT8 is not going to handle like a Porsche Boxster or Honda S2000, but that's not why you're driving it. The fun of this big hot rod is the overall sense of it -- you can hear those deep, throaty exhaust noises, you can feel that big engine rocking the car -- and the feeling of being in a new iteration of something that was a honking great auto experience some 40 years ago.

Of course, Chrysler is not alone in this revival of hotted-up pony cars -- Ford has its Mustang Shelby GT500 (5.4-liter, 540 horsepower) and Chevrolet has the Camaro SS (6.2-liter, 426 horsepower).

None of these cars is something designed for our current age of caution, this time of economic and resource turbulence and mild paranoia.

No, they're not making hybrid versions of the SRT8 now and for all we know, this car may be history a few years down the road, given the absolute shipwreck that is the U.S. auto industry these days.

So enjoy it while you can.

SPECIFICATIONS:

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8; front engine, rear-wheel drive two-door coupe.

Price: test model, $45,525 (Base price: $39,820)

Power train: 6.1-liter V8 425-horsepower engine. Six-speed manual transmission.

Curb weight: 4,140 pounds.

Seating capacity: five.

Fuel consumption : 14 mpg, city; 22 mpg, highway.

Fuel tank capacity: 19 gallons.

Length: 197.7 inches; width: 75.7 inches; height: 57.1 inches; wheelbase: 116 inches.

Warranty: three years/36,000 miles.

Dependability: Dodge ranks 24th out of 37 brands (below industry average) on the J.D. Power and Associates 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study.

Safety: for vehicle safety ratings, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Source: Chrysler Group LLC; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.



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