Smart consumers know there are plenty of ways to save money on one’s chosen hobby while preserving enjoyment and/or utility. A Gibson Les Paul Studio is very nearly as good a guitar as a Les Paul Standard, and it costs half as much. The Allen-Edmonds MacNeil uses the same Horween shell cordovan as the Alden Long Wing and can often be had for up to a hundred dollars less. The Omega Speedmaster does everything a Rolex Daytona does except create the false impression that one has won an iconic American race. With that said, here’s eight thousand dollars that you would be a fool to “save”: the price gap between the Dodge Challenger R/T Classic and the Challenger SRT-8.
It’s a chalk-and-cheese situation. The SRT-8 is a take-no-prisoners street superstar that acquits itself reasonably well on a road course. The R/T Classic has even more street appeal, at a lower price. But it completely sacrifices even a smidgen of fast-road or racetrack ability. It doesn’t go, not like it should. It doesn’t turn. And it sure as hell doesn’t stop. If you don’t care about any of that stuff, feel free to buy one. If you do, read on.
I took the Challenger to Summit Point’s “Main” road course for a two-day teaching engagement. It’s common for me to use my street car to demonstrate certain aspects of racetrack driving to my students, often with three passengers in the vehicle. I’ve used many different cars for this purpose, from my brace of Volkswagen Phaetons to a borrowed Mitsubishi Evolution. But the Challenger was the first one I’ve tried where the basic dynamic package simply is not up to the task of taking people around a racetrack.
Start with the brakes—because you won’t stop with them. Two laps is one too many for the feeble binders. Blame the fantastic-looking twenty-inch Torq-Thrust-style wheels. They’re simply too big and heavy to be effectively dealt with by cheap sliding-caliper stoppers. The supplied Eagle RS-A tires are simply the worst modern tires I’ve ever driven on a racetrack. That’s astounding, given the fact that Goodyear makes some of the best max-performance street rubber money can buy.
The Dodge Challenger’s R/T Track Pack Classic’s suspension appears to combine stiff swaybars and soft springs in the classic Herb Adams style. Th result: persistent, unshakable understeer in all situations. The Challenger’s 376-horsepower HEMI quickly heat-soaks during fast laps. It’s very hard to get this car sideways; I was unable to break the rear tires loose, even when I applied considerable lateral load to the old girl’s chassis. I say this having long ago mastered the art of putting the old Mercedes W140 S-Klasse doorhandle-to-oncoming-traffic. [Ed: metaphorically speaking.]
I was so disappointed in the R/T’s track ability that I borrowed a 19911.6-liter Miata on Falken Azenis tires and staged a two-car race with a fellow NASA instructor and Time Trial competitor. Could the Challenger pass the Miata in a series of six single-lap “battles”? The Internet’s conventional wisdom: the little Mazda would handily hold off the fat, slouchy Dodge. In the real world, I murdered the Miata. I blasted by the Elan-like roadster every time in the straight between Turns Three and Four, before trail-braking and grinding the sidewalls all the way down the entrance to Four.
So don’t get it twisted. The Dodge Challenger’s R/T Track Pack Classic is still pretty quick in absolute terms. But it requires the patience of Job to steer around a road course without burning the brakes or overheating the tires. It’s work. This kind of thing is supposed to be fun. Off the track, however, the fun returns in spades.
The R/T “gets mad house on the boulevard” according to more than one spectator; it’s probably one of the easiest ways to become a local celebrity in any small town. Seated behind that long hood, with your friends lounging in the spacious interior, listening to the more-than-decent sound system, pistol-gripping the six-speed transmission through solid-sounding shifts . . . it’s a wonderful, thoroughly vintage, thoroughly American experience. On the track, the R/T is easy prey for a BMW 335i, but on Main Street the Bimmer might as well be invisible in the Challenger’s presence.
The new 2010 Ford Mustang is a better product than this big Mopar in every possible way. The new Chevrolet Camaro isn’t bad either. But neither of those smaller ponycars can match the Challenger as a boulevard cruiser. In this application, the big barge’s ungainliness isn’t a problem, the motor is responsive enough, and the wicked four-headlight face looks like a million bucks. My long trip back from Summit Point to Ohio was thoroughly relaxing. When I arrived in the early morning, the pretty girl at Tim Horton’s wanted to know all about the car. “I love it!” she squealed. “Trust me,” I replied, “you’d love the SRT-8 more.” So would you.