Riding around in a bright red Dodge Challenger SRT8 is not the best way to go unnoticed. With its wide and low design and deep HEMI V-8 growl, all eyes were on us as we cruised the streets of San Francisco. But the kind of attention attracted in the Challenger was unlike most high-powered sports cars in which we've found ourselves behind the wheel. Everywhere we went, people--almost exclusively male--were giving us the thumbs up, approving nods, fist pumps, and, on one occasion, a full-on round of applause. Yeah, that last one surprised even us.
The attention didn't stop when the car was parked for the night, either. As it rested in the CNET garage, people asked to sit in it and took pictures next to it. These are the same people, mind you, who just a few weeks ago walked right past the Mercedes C63 AMG without a second glance. How's that for cachet?
Test the tech: Gauging the performance
The Challenger SRT8 has a neat trick up its sleeve, hidden in the instrument cluster. An LCD below the speedometer displays menus for monitoring vehicle diagnostics, setting driver presets, and echoing navigation instructions. However, the most fun functions are beneath the Performance Features menu options. There drivers can record 0 to 60, 1/8-, and 1/4-mile times, along with a two-axis G-forces and a braking distance, all very important metrics in a high-performance vehicle. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to feel what 425 horsepower felt like at wide open throttle, we decided to see how well the SRT8 performed in a straight line.
We lined up at a stop sign at the bottom of an off ramp that merged onto a highway. We typically use this intersection to gauge how well vehicles get up to speed when merging with freeway traffic, but today the straight shot and 65 mph speed limit meant that we could test the Challenger's 0 to 60 time without losing our license. With a clear view both ahead and behind, we revved the engine to about 4,000rpm, dumped the clutch, and held on for dear life. The sensation was terrific, as was the noise as the tachometer needle swept toward the red line. Shifting into second gear at 6,000rpm, we were once again kicked in the back by acceleration. Sixty miles per hour arrived just as the engine hit the electronic rev-limiter of second gear. Choosing a cruising gear and composing ourselves, we checked the meter and saw that we'd achieved a respectable 6.24-second 0 to 60 time, which is significantly slower than Dodge's claimed sub-5-second 0 to 60 time because of a little wheel spin off the line.
Our best 0 to 60 time was good, but still slightly off Dodge's sub-5-second claim.
A few more attempts at a better time resulted in equal thrills and a few smoky burnouts, but no improvement on the clock. Eventually, we decided that we'd reached the limits of our abilities as a driver long before we'd reached the limits of the Challenger's performance. Not wanting to press our luck, we called it a night.
In the cabin
Even though the main event is under the hood, the Challenger's cabin tech is no sideshow. The heart of the cabin experience is the UConnect touch-screen system, the functions of which Dodge has divided into three sections: UConnect GPS, UConnect studios, and UConnect phone.
The entire system features voice recognition to control the major functions. When the speech button is pressed, the screen shows a list of commands relevant to the mode the system is in. For example, if you're listening to a CD, the system will show commands such as "next track." If you're viewing the map, the system shows functions such as "choose destination." Unfortunately, Dodge placed the speech button on the bezel of the touch screen and didn't include a steering wheel button. This means that using speech functionality requires the driver to reach past the touch screen to hit the button. This all but defeats the purpose of voice activation.
GPS navigation with traffic? Digital audio integration done well? Is this a muscle car or a high-tech ride?
GPS navigation is easy to use with dead-simple destination entry and point-of-interest search. The map graphics are gorgeous, and text is crisp and easy to read while in motion. The system takes advantage of Sirius satellite integration to offer Sirius Traffic Link, which overlays traffic data onto the map or displays a list traffic alerts in a menu. Map data is stored on the UConnect's 30GB internal hard disk, making routing of trips lightning quick.
Bluetooth hands-free is also easy to setup, provided you do it while the vehicle is stopped. Setup is completely voice commanded and guided by voice and onscreen prompts. The system is able to import up to 1,000 contacts from a supported phone, but for some reason it was unable to pull them from our test phone, a T-Mobile Shadow. However, once contacts are imported, one should be able to dial out by voice navigating the phonebook or searching by touch-screen. Our sole issue with hands-free calling is the same as with the rest of the voice-command system: the button to accept/end calls is also located on the far end of the touch screen's bezel, which meant we had to take our eyes off of the road to accept an incoming call.
Audio sources of the UConnect system include Sirius satellite radio, a single-CD player with MP3/WMA capability, and a one-eighth-inch auxiliary input, along with standard AM/FM radio. Music can be ripped to the internal hard-drive from CDs or from USB drives via the USB port hidden beneath a false button on the touch screen's bezel. Our model was also equipped with a 30-pin iPod dock connector hidden in the center console. Whether digital audio is played back from the iPod or the hard drive, the UConnect system allows for speedy browsing of songs by artist, genre, playlist, and other criteria.
Music is played back through an eight-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo backed up by 368 watts of power. The system includes an 8-inch subwoofer in the trunk, and it sounded great when playing rock music, with clear vocals and thumping bass kicks. However, when we tried a little hip-hop or electronic, the booming bass caused the plastic door panels to vibrate, unpleasantly distorting the sound.
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.
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.