Big power and a stick shift make for a brutal combination, but where the Challenger really needs help is with its cabin tech.
Piloting the 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 Special Edition in heavy traffic on a damp road, I began to list all the other cars I would rather be driving at that moment. The Challenger looks good and justifies its retro-muscle-car status with a massive engine, but wouldn't be my first choice for making a quick trip out to the grocery store.
The 392 badges on the fenders make a historical reference to an earlier version of Dodge's Hemi engine and recall a time when we used cubic inches instead of metric liters to measure engine displacement. However, those badges are accurate for the Challenger, as its 6.4-liter V-8 equals 392 cubic inches in the cylinders.
The Challenger is also a bit retro in its cabin electronics, but not in a good way. Equipped with navigation, a hands-free phone system, and digital audio sources, the head unit's quirks don't have the nostalgic connotations of the Challenger's 1970s profile.
Among the retro muscle cars, I've always preferred the design of the Challenger over the Camaro and the Mustang. The Camaro design looks like a parody of itself, and Mustangs are as common as Camrys. In SRT8 392 form, the Challenger gets the aforementioned badges on the front fenders and wide racing stripes down the middle. Standard 20-inch wheels with red Brembo brakes peeking through the spokes complete the look.
The high rear haunches and beltline destroy rear visibility, and instead of a rearview camera, the Challenger comes with only sonar parking sensors. Parking-lot maneuvers involve a lot of guesswork.
Make some noise
The star of the 392 edition of the Challenger is the engine, a large-displacement V-8 with pushrods for valve control. Given its lack of efficiency technologies, such as variable valve timing or cylinder deactivation, I would not have been surprised to see a carburetor perched between the cylinder banks.
For the enjoyment of passengers, this engine palpably rumbles at idle and roars under acceleration, turning the rear wheels with 470 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Although that's big output for the Challenger, owners will have to contend with Ford-loving friends boasting of the Shelby's 662 horsepower, and Chevy aficionados citing the Camaro ZL1's 580 horsepower, the only defense being, "Well, yeah, cheating with forced induction."
Controlling all that power with the standard six-speed manual transmission took a bit of care. Every stop sign and traffic light required careful modulation of the gas pedal, lest too much throttle put the Challenger into a spin or too little result in an embarrassing stall. The pistol grip shifter, with its stiff gate, also gave my right arm a workout. In traffic, this was not fun.
The throttle tuning made me very aware of the Challenger's power output, as the slightest touch of the gas pedal caused an immediate reaction. It was an interesting contrast to the 420-horsepower Audi S7 I drove the previous week, which was much less touchy.
With no tech put toward efficiency, the Challenger SRT8 392 gets saddled with a gas-guzzler tax, its EPA ratings at a dismal 14 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. I managed to pull 17.3 mpg out of it, with a bias toward freeway miles.
On an open road, driving becomes easier. During freeway driving, the wide power band made it easy to cover many miles with little shifting. In sixth gear, the tachometer needle settled in around 1,500rpm at 65 mph.
Driving down a twisty mountain track, I got a sense of the Challenger's handling. Despite the low-tech engine, Dodge fits the car with an adaptive suspension, which can be put in Sport or Race modes at the touch of a button. I did not feel a huge difference between Sport and the normal suspension setting, except for being bounced around a bit more when the road got a little rough.
Unfortunately, the adaptive suspension did not save the car from understeer. Through turn after turn, the Challenger showed a tendency to want to go straight as I turned the wheel. The hydraulic power-steering system also felt a little vague heading into the turns.
A standard limited-slip differential saved the Challenger's handling but required careful power management. When I let it run through a turn on momentum, the understeer was prominent, but maintaining power at the rear wheels let the differential help the back end come around nicely.
The Challenger rewarded good driving technique but had little forgiveness for mistakes.
As part of a package with the in-dash navigation system, this Challenger came equipped with a potent, 900-watt Harman Kardon audio system. I had been hoping for the Beats audio system available in the Dodge Charger, but it is not currently available for the Challenger.
However, the Harman Kardon system delivered good sound reproduction. Where it really shone was in bass, appropriate for this showy Challenger. Two 10-inch subs gave music a bass line I could often feel more than hear. This tuning made me want to dig out the most bass-heavy songs just to hear how the system would handle them.
I could also tell that pedestrians were being treated to a well-controlled thump-thump emanating from the Challenger, as if it needed anything more to draw attention to itself.
While I enjoyed the audio system, I found the cabin electronics laughable. First I noticed the two voice-command buttons, one on the steering wheel's left spoke and one on the far right side of the head unit. I chose the most convenient one, and voice prompts helped me enter a destination into navigation, a tedious process requiring separate entries for each address component.
Getting more adventurous, I reached across the cabin to the other voice-command button, which resulted in prompts for using the hands-free phone system.
Voice command for music would have been nice, but I don't think I could have handled a third button.
The Challenger has a place to plug in an iOS device or USB drive, but unfortunately it's on the faceplate of the stereo, easy to reach but obtrusive. Another old-school nod is how the navigation unit screen motors out of the way to reveal a DVD slot. As a modern touch, the stereo also plays music from Bluetooth audio streaming. There is no HD Radio.
There is a hard drive behind the scenes as well, and the system let me import music from a USB drive onto it.
The interface on the small touch screen is goofy-looking, featuring big, unrefined buttons. With an iOS device plugged in, it showed me a music library divided into artist, album, and genre categories, but with a USB drive it showed only a folder and file structure. A little annoying was the way the stereo required me to reselect whatever digital music source I had playing when I last left the car.
The phone system uses a voice-command interface, with no touch-screen access. However, it integrated with my phone's contact list, letting me place calls by saying a contact name.
The navigation system ran quickly and gave me good routing, even recalculating to avoid traffic jams. But the maps have the same primitive look as the rest of the interface. And on the small screen, the map view quickly became cluttered.
Buried among the menus I found Sirius Travel Link, which provides lists of local gas prices, weather, sports scores, and movie times, all delivered through a satellite radio data channel. These information sources are integrated with the navigation system, so I could, for instance, choose a gas station with a good price for the premium fuel the Challenger takes, and have the address programmed in as a destination at the touch of a button.
The 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 is really a show car, something to roll out of the garage on a nice summer day and take around to a barbecue to impress all your friends. Its level of fuel economy and general drivability make it unsuitable to use as your daily wheels, unless you are a wealthy masochist. To really enjoy its performance character, you will need to bring it to a track day, and spend a lot of time learning how to modulate its power.
The cabin electronics are functional, and I really like the bass from the audio system. But the interface is terrible, separating the voice-command buttons and using a small touch screen. There are two solutions for the bad cabin electronics. One would be just to not option them and install something much better from the aftermarket. A second option would be to wait for the next generation of the Challenger, which will get a significant update to Dodge's current, very good cabin electronics.
|Model||2013 Dodge Challenger|
|Power train||6.4-liter V-8, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||14 mpg city/23 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard drive-based navigation with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, iOS device, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 900-watt 18-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Sonar parking sensors|
|Price as tested||$48,705|