“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” The fellow from the Jim Russell School at Infineon couldn’t hear me screaming through my helmet and the rolled-up windows of my blue-and-white Challenger “392”, but surely he saw me gesturing. Let me out first! In the last ten-minute session, I lapped all the other journalists at least once and some of them twice! Let me out FIRST!
Smiling and making a “calm down” motion at me, the Russell instructor waved the other 392 out, this one piloted by one of the usual potbelly-avec-cheap shoes barfly journalists. And then he ostentatiously counted off fifteen or so seconds. You see? I’m gapping you out! But it didn’t matter. Four turns later, I was attached to the back bumper of that other car, where I would remain for three laps while the journosaur in question steadfastly ignored, in order of occurrence, flashing lights, honking, a black flag from two different stations, and another Russell instructor screaming and waving his arms from the pit wall. By the time I decided to break the rules and blast past this jerkoff without a point-by, I had one lap left in which to test the car.
Are you ready for the one-lap review of the 2011 Challenger?
The conventional wisdom tells us that the current Challenger is a disappointment in racetrack or “fast road” situations. While that is true for some models, it doesn’t hold true for the SRT-8. It’s not an idiot-proof track rat along the lines of a Miata or Focus SVT, but if you are willing to manage your brake and tire heat it can be a very rapid way to get around a road course. The primary complaints I had with the 6.1-liter SRT-8 were a certain reluctance to turn into slow corners and a surprising lack of push from the HEMI in the middle of the rev range.
For 2011, Dodge has swapped out the shock absorbers, retuned the suspension bushings, and added negative camber at all four corners. The result is a car which feels considerably more eager to enter slow hairpins, such as the final turn of Infineon Raceway’s “NASCAR” configuration. I continue to believe that this is a platform which is best experienced in the longer wheelbase; the Charger R/T models on hand were easier to throw around Infineon’s massive elevation changes and deliberately unsettling Esses. Still, there’s noticeable improvement to be had in the 2011 model.
On the motivational side of things, Dodge has bumped the HEMI out to 6.4L — 392 cubic inches — and it now turns out 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. The torque peak is at 4200rpm, which is still a little high for a traditional musclecar, but the new model never feels short of breath. Most importantly, the new “392” is never in danger from the hated and feared Camaro SS in a straight line. You’ll need a new Shelby GT500 to mount a serious challenge, since both cars are capable of running low twelves in the quarter-mile. My offhand impression after driving both cars is that the Shelby is still faster but that the Mopar entry continues to bring a little more character to the table in terms of engine sound and responsiveness.
1,492 “Inaugural Edition” Challenger 392s will be made available, with both the Tremec six-speed and the Mercedes-Benz WA-class transmission. There are a few color choices and some rather unfortunate-looking interior details. The white-leather seats were literally too bright for my Android phone to photograph correctly in the Nor-Cal sun.
Drivers who choose the big HEMI have at least one more pleasant surprise in store: this year, the MDS cylinder-deactivation system is included for extra freeway fuel economy. If ever this was a V-8 which was capable of pushing a car along with half the cylinders on welfare, this is the one, but anything other than flat-road cruise control will call all the spark plugs back into action.
The rest of the car is the Challenger you know and either love or hate: tall-body retro styling, imperfect ergonomics, bathtub visibility for most drivers, a street presence exceeding that of the competition. Chrysler expected the Challenger to be a quick-selling novelty which would quickly fade in the market place — think Plymouth Prowler — but sales have risen steadily in the past two years. Don’t look for the new 6.4 liter model to reverse that trend.
The other new engine in the lineup is the well-received Pentastar V-6, previously discussed on these pages. Although there was one V-6 Challenger available at Infineon, complete with automatic transmission, our hosts somehow found themselves unable to get me any track time in that particular vehicle. It may be that my announced intention to “shove that V-6 up the bleeding ass of every lame-sauce, color-rag rolling chicane out there in the HEMI cars” gave them some reason for mild concern. Instead, I was sent out in another Charger R/T, which I proceeded to shove up the bleeding ass of every color-rag rolling chicane out there, only with a greater closing speed. I’ll have a review on that car for you tomorrow, dear readers.
I cannot justify the purchase of a Challenger 392 on any rational grounds. The Shelby GT500 is cheaper and faster, and the additional size and weight of the big Dodge don’t pay off anywhere except on the boulevard. This is no domestic M3 killer, nor is it a particularly comfortable way to travel. The revised Charger even manages to trump it a bit in the desirability stakes, with its fabulous new interior and characterful new sheetmetal.
Regardless of the above, the Inaugural Edition will still sell out in a big hurry, and the Challenger will continue to sell in record quantities. It’s a satisfying car to own, it looks good, and it’s finally fast enough to back up the promise made by those good looks. It’s that rarest of things in the modern environment: a man’s car. Testosterone-challenged fossils like my journosaur pals can’t drive it correctly and won’t do it justice, but some of you may find it absolutely irresistible. Just make sure you get in line first at the local trackday, okay?