America's only AWD muscle coupe is a surprise snow demon
AWD, V6 power and a firmer suspension turns the Challenger GT into the most practical muscle car you can buy, but it's still fun!
On a snow-covered autocross course at the Club Motorsports facility in Tamworth, New Hampshire, I'm drifting, working up a sweat and grinning ear-to-ear. The level of control I'm enjoying wouldn't be a surprise in something like a Subaru WRX STI or a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution on winter tires, but I'm in big, 4,108-pound Dodge Challenger on all-season rubber.
To be specific, I'm driving the new 2017 Challenger GT, which adds all-wheel drive to its bag of tricks, enabling this impressive performance in the white stuff. With all traction electronics turned off, the GT is happy to knife around the snowy course in a most entertaining manner. For less confident drivers who prefer to have a safety net to keep from looping, the GT's Sport mode on the traction control allows for some slip angle before cutting in and straightening things out.
After wheeling around the slippery autocross at speed and circling the skidpad kicking up pretty rooster tails, it becomes clear that adding all-wheel drive to the Challenger is a pretty good idea. Dodge reps think it should be for the model's sales, too. Their data shows the take rate for the Challenger's four-door sibling, the Charger, is upwards of 50 percent all-wheel drive in northern states that experience real winters.
Why does that matter? Dodge discovered that its customers mainly cross-shop the Charger with the Challenger, and vice versa. While the two- or four-door debate is a given, many customers said the Challenger not offering all-wheel drive was a sticking point, causing them to pass on the coupe. This new GT fixes that problem.
Porting over the all-wheel-drive system from the Charger to Challenger took a little work in terms of repackaging the hardware, but the real heavy lifting came when tuning the electronics for the sportier demeanor expected of a coupe. Taking into account steering angle, vehicle speed, wheel-speed sensors and yaw sensors, the Challenger GT's all-wheel-drive system automatically shuffles torque between the front and rear axles to enable max grip.
For the times when all-wheel-drive grip and stability aren't needed, the system can decouple the front axle for better fuel economy, delivering true rear-wheel-drive dynamics in the bargain. However, below a certain temperature, all-wheel drive will always be engaged. Dodge engineers wouldn't tell me the exact temperature that the hardware engages, but below 40 degrees, the front axle is always connected.
On curvy country roads outside of Portland, Maine, the GT is remarkably surefooted, with a bit of initial body roll entering corners before taking a set and tracking through in a manner you wouldn't expect of a two-ton machine. Early Challengers would comically fall over on their sides at corner entry, but not this GT. Some of the credit is owed to the 19-inch Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires, but most should be reserved for a retuned suspension based off of what's underneath the Charger Pursuit police car.
The cop Charger's chassis tuning is the stiffest in the lineup, but the GT goes with slightly softer springs, shocks, less aggressive antiroll bars and unique steering calibration. The firm suspension is lovely to have through bends and on smooth pavement, but over less-than-pristine roads, its ride can get quite harsh and choppy.
Steering features some play on center, but provides reasonably quick turn-in, particularly in Sport mode. Heftier steering feel and more feedback through the wheel remains on my wish list, but when it comes to slowing down, the brakes are up to snuff, with strong initial bite and enough muscle for panic stops.
Speaking of muscle, Chrysler's workhorse Pentastar V6 sets up shop under the hood, dispensing 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque. Together with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the drivetrain receives an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 18 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway.
Punch from the V6 is plenty sufficient to pass slower traffic on two-lane roads and get up to speed for expressway merges, while the transmission performs snappy, well-timed gear changes. Manual gear selection can be accomplished with the center shifter or by using the tiny steering wheel paddle shifters, but letting the computer do the work remains best. While do-it-yourself upshifts are alright, downshifts can be clunky, and there's no rev-matching function.
For those looking for power closer to the 707-hp Hellcat, you're out of luck if you require AWD. Sadly, the GT will only be available with the V6. That's not to say that Dodge couldn't develop a V8 AWD monster down the road if enough customers express interest, but for now, it's six cylinders or nothing.
Exterior changes to the Challenger's retro rod exterior are minimal, consisting of bigger wheels, fog lights, a rear spoiler and quarter panel badging. Standard goodies on the inside are more extensive, including an Alpine sound system, Nappa leather upholstery covering comfy heated and cooled front seats, and a hand-searing heated wheel that's nice to grip in the dead of winter.
Standard cabin tech includes Fiat Chrysler's responsive and intuitive Uconnect infotainment system with an 8.4-inch touchscreen capable of running both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Since rear visibility continues to be suboptimal in the Challenger, rear parking sensors and a backup camera are welcome bits of standard equipment. Dodge's Performance Pages system with launch control is also included to record 0-60 and lap times, as well as measure g-forces.
For a bigger dose of tech, navigation, adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning are available. Most handy among the GT's options is a blind-spot monitor to further to aid in dealing with the Challenger's intrusively beefy C-pillars.
As the only all-wheel drive American muscle coupe on the market, the new 2017 Dodge Challenger GT isn't a bad way to go, and its already formidable four-seasons drivability would be off the charts if you tossed on a set of winter tires from December to March. Along with old-school cool looks, a backseat that's livable for adults and a massive trunk with large load opening, the Challenger GT is arguably the most practical pony car on sale today. It's also among the most stylish.
Sure, the smaller and lighter Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro still outfox this Dodge when it comes to handling dynamics, but the Challenger GT remains good fun on the open road, which is where a majority of drivers spend their time. Better still, the GT's $34,490 base price (including $1,095 for destination), seems downright reasonable for a muscle car you can easily drive year round.
Unfortunately, the Challenger GT isn't slated to reach dealers until later in the first quarter of 2017, meaning winter will be mostly be over by then. On the bright side, that gives you some time to save up for winter tires, so you can really be ready to rock next winter.