First Drive: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE, RT

Challengerse

Fun as the tire-pulverizing Challenger SRT8 is, Dodge cannot survive on 425-hp cars alone. (Or trucks, apparently.) For 2009, the automaker expanded its Challenger lineup to include a full crop of trim levels and drivetrains, and not a moment too soon: Ford has an upgraded Mustang in the works for 2010, and, um, we hear there’s this new car from GM...

Dodge held a press preview of the ’09 Challenger in New York early this month, where we drove the full range — SE, R/T and SRT8 — along with a couple ’08 Mustangs to compare. As you might expect of a car built off Chrysler’s 300/Charger LX platform, the Challenger is big, but balanced. Refinement can be a double-edged sword: Though the R/T feels quicker than a Mustang GT — and all trims remain unfazed when the road gets rough — the Challenger lacks the Mustang’s brash, hang-the-tail-out demeanor. This design might have more staying power, though: It garners more attention than the current ‘Stang did in late 2004. Provided Dodge doesn’t flood Hertz with V-6 models, it could draw stares for some time.

Stay tuned for a full review. Below is our two-minute rundown for each trim; prices exclude a $675 destination charge. There’s also a full photo gallery.

Challenger SE — $21,320, 18/25 mpg: I’ve never been a fan of Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V-6. It delivers so-so power, especially hooked to a four-speed auto with longish first and second gears, and by the upper revs it sounds overtaxed. A combination of 65-series tires and cushy suspension tuning give the car an equally sedate drive, and alas, there is no manual transmission. I drove an SE back-to-back with a Mustang V-6 automatic — which, incidentally, is a much smaller car. Though down by 40 horses, the lighter Mustang’s short early gears (it’s a five-speed auto) and torquey 4.0-liter engine deliver a huskier exhaust note and quicker off-the-line power. Its suspension seems a better accomplice for hanging the tail on an empty corner. It’s just more fun to drive. The Challenger comes out ahead in total refinement: The highway ride remains hushed, the brakes are solid and the rear axle stays put, while the Mustang’s chatters like Fran Drescher. The value equation isn’t bad, either: 17-inch alloys, nicely contoured bucket seats with power adjustments for the driver, a telescoping steering wheel and six airbags are standard. We wish antilock brakes and stability control were, too, but at least Dodge includes them in the most basic option package.

Challenger R/T — $29,320, 16/25 mpg (auto or manual): This one’s my favorite. Lower-series tires and stiffer suspension tuning strike a sweet spot: The R/T tracks curves significantly better than the SE, yet it remains easy on the spine for regular cruising. Did we mention the 5.7-liter Hemi? It delivers a wallop at any speed; I also drove a manual Mustang GT, and while it didn’t feel much slower, its power requires winding out the tach a bit more. The Challenger’s six-speed manual, a first with this engine, has a chunky, substantive feel. The clutch is heavy but smooth — the Mustang GT’s has snappier, rougher engagement — and the positions feel well-defined. I’m not crazy about how close the gates are; on fifth-to-fourth, I accidentally put it into second a few times. (Yeah, go ahead and make fun of me.) I logged a few dozen miles in a five-speed-automatic R/T, and it manages crisp shifts where the SE’s four-speed hesitates. The manual function sticks to its gear, too. In the non-SRT Charger, manual mode will override you with a downshift when it thinks it knows better. Nice to see Dodge fixed that.

Challenger SRT8 — $39,320, 13/19 mpg (auto), 14/22 mpg (manual): With the R/T’s next-gen Hemi, there really isn’t as much reason to get an SRT8. Its 6.1-liter engine no longer feels remarkably quicker, so unless you’re taking your car to the track, there’s little reason to get it. Track drivers, take note: We took R/Ts and SRTs to New Jersey’s Englishtown Raceway Park, and the SRT exhibits much more neutral handling – quicker steering, better grip and none of the R/T’s mid-corner understeer. The manual shifter feels no different from the R/T’s, and, expectedly, the suspension beats you up on the highway. The SRT’s six-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo sounds much better than the R/T’s weak-sauce four-speaker system, but, fortunately, upgraded audio is optional on lesser Challengers. Now if they just found a way to get the SRT seats in those…

Stay tuned for that full review later this week.

By Kelsey Mays | August 18, 2008 | Comments (16)

Comments 

DL

as a testament to how incredibly fast the Infiniti G35/37 is, even the SRT can't match its speed!

Mark

Ugly car; if you can't afford one with 425 hp, why bother?

Bowrider

Can't get past the Chrysler interiors. They are just so bad.

GR

Wow! Even the Jeeps have a nicer interior ... and for $40,000 on the SRT8, that's not good enough. At least it's not as "contrived" as the interior of the upcoming Camaro. I certainly hope Ford doesn't botch the 2010 Mustang.

sheth

the interior is plain, but it doesnt look cheap or "bad" to me at all. It's just devoid of gimmicks. Its a very Euro approach to an interior really.

Cj

Sheth, what's your issue? First you say the TL's new interior is Accord quality and then you say the Challenger's interior is Euro! I've read a lot of reviews of the TL and they all say interior quality is top notch and I personally think it looks leaps and bounds better than the EXL Accord. OTOH I've read reviews of the Challenger and it's interior is not Euro. It's the same cheap Chrysler junk they've been selling for years. It's really not attactive for such an expensive car, I think the Mustangs interior looks better.

sheth

CJ,

Sorry I dont conform to your ideas. Its apparent that you are yet another car fan that worships foreign cars and despises anything from the US. The Challenger interior is dull but few reviews have said it's cheap. The TL's interior is the same old Acura stuff we have seen before and to me it's too similar to the Accord. Read Leftlanenews.com's review and they note the interior of the TL isnt on the same level as it's key competitors. I agree, especially when you check out the real world pics as opposed to the press shots.

The interiors of Acura's vehicles are nice by mainstream standards but they are clearly not on the same level as interiors offered by German automakers. The designs are very avant garde and high tech in appearance but the actual materials are little better than what you find in a Honda. In addition, Acura models (except 2009 RL) dont use real wood trim or metal trim. Apparently the new TL actually does have some real metal on a few access doors but this is not the case on other models.

Bloke

Sorry Cj, I should have posted over here first. You are a complete idiot. Let the guy have his opinion.

Cj

I saw both of your post Bloke. I don't know why you're trying to defend Sheth, as if he's defenseless lol.

Cj

Sheth, how can you say Acura's interiors aren't on par with the Germans when the German's don't even use real leather on base models. I'd take real leather over that fake pleather stuff BMW/Audi/MB put in their cars. All of the metal trim in the TL is real, not just some accent pieces.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRj-c7a2ksw

sh

CJ,

I dont know why I have to explain to you the difference between an acura interior and a German interior. Just sit in the cars and see for yourself. The Passat has a more upscale and solid interior than the 2008 TL or RDX or MDX. I have not read anything that suggests the TL has all real metal trim on the dash but perhaps you are correct. All I know is that Acuras use fake wood trim while other luxury brands use real wood. German cars are overpriced and thus come with leatherette standard in many cases. I don't approve of that but in most instances the leatherette is still nice quality. The dash surfaces, knobs, door panels and other interior materials in a BMW or Audi feel more expensive than what's offered in comparable Acuras and Infinitis. The G35's interior is even cheaper feeling than the TL's.

Brian

The whole idea of "designing" an automobile around a 40 year old design is positively ABSURD! I have nothing against the original '70 Challenger, it was a relatively attractive design. Although the '70 Challenger was far from anything grand. It was nothing cutting edge in it's time, and certainly has no merit of being replicated 35 years later. Now Chrysler is popping out a chunky, over weight knock off know as the Challenger. In a time when gasoline prices continue to soar and people are finally wising up and demanding more fuel savvy vehicles, Chrysler introduces the backward thinking Challenger complete with a big, thirsty V8. Boy, just what the average consumer needs! The Challenger will likely appeal to a fringe of auto consumers. Rapidly aging baby boomers and old gearheads will salivate of this thing. Is it any wonder why Chrysler is slipping down the sales charts? Mercedes was smart to unload Chrysler when it did. And if Chrysler doesn't get it's act together and start with ORIGINAL designs of fuel savvy cars and trucks, it's gonna be bye, bye for Chrysler! Retro-ism is a sickness in the American auto industry. I say: let the past rest. The original classics were that: original, attractive designs that were unique all their own. Where is there any creativity, originality or ingenuity with these retro knockoffs? There simply isn't any. It used to be that auto designers would use subtle cues from the past, not blatant copies of what were seeing today.

Mike

I love the retro style. The RT get's 25mpg with it's MDS system. I'm going to buy one.

Bill

You all can have your TL,Acuras,BMW or whatever the same ole look is. For me...I LIKE IT!!! But I'm just an old muscle car guy.

phdfromdeast

I got one and love the guzz guzzling beast. So hate me LOL. 20-30 years from now when I'm in my mid 40s this car will cost more than your house and savings combine mark my word.

DodgeFan

The interior looks very simplified but nice. It seems very well put together. I can see the RT selling very well. Nice power and under thirty grand.

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