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2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 review:

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8

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Cheap cabin materials are the Challenger SRT8's biggest flaw. Sure there are nice touches, such as the heated leather SRT seats, leather trimmed door panels with contrast stitching, and a thick leather wrapped steering wheel, but the plastics that make up the bulk of the vehicle's cabin surfaces--the dash, the center console, and those vibrating door panels--feel like an afterthought in a vehicle with a base price of just below $40,000.

Under the hood
There's really only one reason a person would seek to drive a Challenger SRT8: power. With 6.1 liters of HEMI V-8, the Dodge delivers to the tune of 425 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 420 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800rpm. On the road, those numbers translate into speed that, if you're not careful, will find you relieved of your driving privileges. As amazing as the power is, the exhaust note is even better. The low rumble sounds like a freight train passing in the distance and can be felt almost as well as it's heard. We found ourselves downshifting at every stop just to hear the engine bark as we blipped the throttle.

The HEMI V-8's sculpted intake manifold is a piece of modern art hiding under the hood.

Flooring the throttle, with that much power on tap, is a scary thing. The V-8 roars. The tires squeal. The SRT seats press into your back and, before you know it, you find yourself down the street. There's almost no time to think about shifting or, more importantly, watching for the authorities.

Power is transmitted from the engine through a six-speed manual transmission. We really like the shifter's trick pistol grip. We also enjoyed the way the shifter notches into place, providing positive feedback of a successful gear change. The shifter's gates could use a bit more definition, as a vague first-to-second shift had us ending up in fourth gear more often than we'd have liked. The weighty clutch pedal modulates easily in stop-and-go traffic, with a well defined point of engagement.

After passing through the transmission, power is first divided between the rear wheels by an anti-spin limited slip differential and, finally, transmitted to the ground through 9-inch-wide, 20-inch wheels wrapped in Z-rated all season performance rubber. Traction and stability control ensure that you're not spinning tires all over the road or backing out of turns, but we're inclined to believe that the majority of the Challenger SRT8's road holding ability is because of the wide sticky tires and the superbly tuned suspension.

While straight line power is all but expected out of a muscle car, excellent handling and suspension tuning are typically afterthoughts. Out back, the Challenger has been built with a modern, independent multilink suspension. At all four corners, you'll find premium coilover suspension dampers. While the Dodge's firm suspension tuning transmits some of the harshness of larger bumps and potholes, the ride is generally smooth. Press the Challenger into a corner and the body stays remarkably flat for a big American car. Twisty canyon roads are handled with ease by the Dodge, though its vehicle dynamics are still overshadowed by the European and Japanese competition.

The SRT8's Brembo brakes will shave off speed nearly as quickly as the engine can add it. With bright red aluminum calipers at both ends, the Challenger features rotors that, at 14.1 inches up front and 13.8 inches in the rear, are nearly as big as many vehicles' wheels! In practice, this makes for consistently fade-resistant stops, even after hours of mountain road abuse.

The Challenger's hill assist feature holds the brakes for a second when the vehicle detects that it's stopped on an incline. It's supposed to immediately release when the gas pedal is depressed, but it seemed to take about a second longer than other systems we've used, causing a few near stalls as we slipped the clutch. While we can see how the system can be useful for drivers in hilly areas, experienced drivers could probably handle the transition smoother than the computer. We chose to deactivate the system during our testing.

It's a good thing the Challenger's fuel cap is so beautiful, because you'll be seeing a lot of it.

The EPA rates the Challenger SRT8 at 14 city mpg and 22 highway mpg. However during our leadfooted testing, we only managed 13.7 mpg over a mixed city and highway cycle. Couple that with the HEMI V-8's requirement of premium fuel and it's easy to see that SRT8 owners will be paying for their fun at the pump. Cylinder deactivation technology, which allows the HEMI to run on as few as four cylinders under light loads, may help boost fuel economy with more highway driving in the mix.

In sum
Earlier, we compared the Challenger with the Mercedes C63 AMG. Although the German muscle car would most likely beat the Dodge on the racetrack, trumping the American in both the horsepower and handling departments, we had more fun with the Dodge around town, with muscle car performance and a more approachable air. Priced at $55,975, the Mercedes also carries a hefty premium over the Challenger's tested price of $43,730, which includes $695 for the six-speed manual transmission, $100 upgrade to high performance tires, and $1,240 for the UConnect GPS system. If we were to chance comparing the Challenger with the $64,825 BMW M3 in coupe configuration, the price difference gets even better.

While many of the Challenger SRT8's prospective buyers will probably overlook the low quality interior and lack of a speech button in favor of the absolutely thrilling ride, we had to dock a few points for cabin comfort. Fortunately, the Challenger's UConnect system and its broad array of well-executed cabin- tech helps to boost the score right back up. The high performance score is a no brainer, as is the high design score. Though frequent visits to the pump may be cause for concern, low fuel economy is to be expected from a vehicle with three times more displacement than a Honda Civic. The bottom line is that the Challenger SRT8 is a vehicle that's as much fun to sit in as it is to drive. For that reason, among others, we feel that it's worthy of our Editors' Choice award.

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