One of the strangest phenomena of the revived retro muscle car wars is the renewed emphasis on V6 performance. Once derided as “Secretary Specials,” the V6 versions of the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro now make upwards of 300 horsepower, while earning EPA highway ratings that surpass the 30 MPG mark. But if these latter-day pony cars herald a new era of performance and practicality, the V6-powered Dodge Challenger is as retro as its 1970-again styling.
The Challenger has always been the third wheel in the pony car wars: a little too heavy, a little too big, and a little too late to the game. Sure, the maddest of the mad versions were fire-breathing beasts, but the Challenger never wormed its way into the American psyche the way the lither, more sporty Camaro and Mustang did. And with all three nameplates back in showrooms, the old relationship remains the same: the 6.1 liter SRT-8 Challenger may give up nothing to its perennial rivals, but the volume SE version comes up well short of the competition.
Of course, what the modern Challenger might lack in emotional capital, it more than makes up for in sheer retro, street-level appeal. Even without Hemi badges, the Challenger looks big, mean and slick, by far the most retro of the modern pony car designs, and to this reviewer’s eyes, the most clean and pleasing as well. And it doesn’t just look good, it looks right. It’s a long car, but it’s got a vertical heft to it that balances the design. And with its classic lines and proportions executed in thick modern body panels, the Challenger looks as much like an expensive toy model grown to street size as anything else.
From outside the Challenger’s deceptively large cabin, it seems like nothing could break the spell cast by the car’s sheer presence. At least until the driver sticks the Challenger’s plastic key fob into the appropriate receptacle and turns it, kicking the old 3.5 liter SOHC V6 to life with all the drama of a Grand Caravan. At this point, the observer of this unremarkable process is likely to come down with a bad case of cognitive dissonance: the eyes tell you to expect the lumpy loping of big V8, but all the ears hear are, well, almost nothing. With a stab of the throttle, the muted tickover rises to a tremulous drone. With enough motivation, the engine eventually manages to sound blustery, but it’s never in danger of making a sound that’s in the least bit purposeful.
Nor, given the performance numbers, should it. With a mere 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque on tap, it’s a good 50 ponies and about 25 lb-ft short of its V6 adversaries. And with 3,720 lbs of retro coupe to carry around, the old V6 has its work cut out for it. Luckily, the five-speed automatic is well-calibrated for the task, flattering the Challenger’s weak on-paper numbers with easy-to-use real-world performance. First gear is short enough to give the Challenger just enough pop from the traffic lights to keep it from being a complete embarrassment, but it’s also long enough to keep things from becoming a thrash-fest. Just don’t expect those rear tires to emit even the softest chirrup, unless you’re turning from a stop on a horrendously-paved road. While treating the gas pedal like it’s a particularly resilient cockroach.
In fact, if you’re even remotely interested in performance or fun, look elsewhere. Though the steering is only slightly overboosted, the Challenger’s weight makes it a clumsy dancer, and without the brute force needed to manhandle its softly-sprung chassis, you quickly settle into cruising mode. On suburban side streets, it glides sedately and uses its power well. On the freeway, it accelerates acceptably before running out of useable puff at relatively low (although still illegal) speeds. A sideways bump on the transmission’s autostick drops the Mopar back into its powerband more rapidly than pedalwork alone, but there’s still a palpable pause as your order makes its way to the engine room. Long, sweeping turns at higher speeds are as close as the Challenger gets to a driving thrill, but with so much weight, and so little steering feel, it’s got one of the fastest boredom-to-fear times in the business.
What we have then, in the Challenger SE, is a big, retro cruiser. It’s quiet and refined at freeway speeds, and it’s got enough power to keep up with the rest of the commuters. And shockingly for a Chrysler product, the interior is even a fairly inoffensive place to spend time. Though it lacks the retro flair promised by its exterior and competitors alike, its a clean design with simple functionality and relatively high-quality components… for a Chrysler. We could nitpick a few plastics choices, the lack of mirrors on the sun visors and more, but as stripped, sub-$25k Chrysler Group products go, it’s a revelation. Only the large, cheap and nasty steering wheel is truly offensive.
Unlike the more musclebound V6 pony car competition, the Challenger offers real-world rear seating. Wedge five people (including three six-footers) into a Camaro or Mustang, and after 45 minutes at least three of them will need either a chiropractor, a relationship counselor, or both. Thanks to the Challenger’s lengthy LX underpinnings, the same five people will make the same trip in relative luxury. In fact, the only professional assistance a passenger might need is seasonal affective disorder therapy: spacious though it may be, the rear seat is still a lightless bunker, with little visibility anywhere.
And though poor visibility as a result of bold styling is a nearly universal problem affecting nearly every car on the market, in this case it creates a special disadvantage. After all, this particular Challenger was a rental, and the SE’s lack of performance credentials vis-a-vis its rivals seems to doom this model to heavy rental-fleet service. The problem is that, having arrived at one’s destination and made the questionable decision to splash out for a “fancy” rental, the last thing one wants to find out is that famous landmarks are only barely visible out of the Challenger’s gun-slit windows. Want to see more than the bottom third of the Washington monument as you drive by? Be prepared to hang half your body out the window. Want the kids to enjoy a memorable back-seat tour of their nation’s capitol? Rent the Mustang convertible instead.
So, if this Challenger fails as a performance car, a musclebound cruiser and a rental, what is it good for? How about a better-looking Solara or Accord Coupe? From the cabin it’s not that hard to forget that it’s rear-drive, or related to anything with a Hemi, but from the outside it’s pure retro confection. You just won’t be getting the efficiency or reliability of the Japanese snooze-coupes. But when Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” V6 comes out, it should offer close enough to 300 horsepower to make it feel a little less like an afterthought to the Camaro and Mustang… at least on paper. In the meantime, unless you can’t live without its looks but can’t afford a Hemi, look elsewhere.