When you’re a 24 Hours of LeMons judge, it’s expected that you’ll roll up to the track in a righteous Judgemobile. Perhaps it’s a fenderless, three-wheeled Amazon, or maybe it’s a woodie Roadmaster… Sometimes, though, you need to call up a car manufacturer’s PR flack and get something new and shiny, then
stand by helplessly as it gets T-boned by some LeMons racer’s runaway Winnebago see how the budget-challenged racer crowd responds to its presence. The ’11 Cadillac Escalade Platinum Hybrid Judgemobile was sort of terrible (though it did have great presence) so this time I decided I’d spend the race weekend with a manly, tire-smokin’ V8-powered vehicle that ought to make heartland American car freaks— for example, the sort we get at the Showroom-Schlock Shootout LeMons in Illinois— start chanting teary-eyed Pledges of Allegiance to a fiery sky full of imaginary F-111s. That would be the Challenger SRT8, of course, in Vanishing Point white.
So, I called up the Chrysler flack: “Hey, Giuseppe,” I didn’t say, “Remember all the nice stuff I wrote about your cutesy little Euro-eco-socialist commuter car? You owe me, paisan’! Now gimme something worthy of a real American, and make sure there’s a goddamn Hemi under the hood. Capisce?”
So, next thing I know there’s a couple of heavies with wafer-thin watches and suspicious suit bulges handing over this baby at Midway Airport. Of course, the whole Italian schtick fell apart for me the moment it occurred to me that the Challenger’s chassis ancestry goes all the way back to the Renault 25 (via an illustrious Eagle Premier/LH platform/LX platform lineage), with a bunch of Mercedes-Benz W210 and W220 suspension bits thrown into the mix. Chrysler, AMC, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Fiat, maybe even a bit of hidden Mitsubishi genetic material here and there— I’m liking the Challenger already!
It’s a good-looking machine, though I could rant for endless paragraphs about the psychological-voodoo/no-doubt-focus-grouped-to-death reasoning behind the choice of the E-Body Challenger as the inspiration for this car’s appearance.
Chrysler never really had a true head-to-head competitor with the original Mustang and Camaro, great as the original A-body-based Barracuda was. It doesn’t matter, because Plymouth’s demise meant the Barracuda nameplate was off the table, so the current Mustang/Camaro rival would have to grab its retro-ized look from the fatter, sales-failure E-body. The ace in the hole was the hagiographic Vanishing Point, which managed to cast the Challenger in a role symbolizing the individual’s victory over The Man’s oppression, breaking the downward-spiral sense of Vietnam-War-fueled American diminished expectations that led to the Malaise Era… or something like that. Freedom.
Personally, I think Vanishing Point‘s brush strokes are far too broad to really capture that early-70s proto-Malaise sense (though the chase scenes are pretty damn cool); Two-Lane Blacktop, also released in 1971, does a much better job. OK, meandering historio-cinematic digression over— let’s talk about now.
I suppose I’m a member of the target demographic for this thing; I got my first driver’s license in 1982, which was the Golden Age for cheap Detroit muscle in California, and the car stuff from Dazed and Confused might as well have been a documentary about the street-race-obsessed car culture at my high school. Battered-but-fast 10-to-15-year-old big-block Chevelles and Satellites and Fairlanes could be had for not much more than a grand. Back then, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to buy a new Cutlass 442 or Super Bee… and now Detroit can sell me the much faster, much better-built 21st-century version.
Right. So, what does this car do best? Burnouts! In all of my many years blowing the treads off junkyard bias-plies and rental-car rubber, I never experienced any vehicle that makes perfect, totally controlled burnouts anywhere near as easy as this car does. I’m willing to bet cash money that Chrysler’s engineers made this feature a design priority, and they deserve a healthy bonus for succeeding so admirably. This car had the automatic transmission, which made burnouts easier, but I have a feeling that the manual-trans car has no problem in that department. I also tried some hard drag-style launches and the car hooked up quite well; it wouldn’t be much of a trick to knock out some good dragstrip passes in this machine.
Seriously, you can create elaborate burnout novels with the Challenger SRT8… character development, climax, resolution, the works. The folks at Autobahn Country Club were kind enough to let me use their skidpad for a tire-smokin’ photograph session, and the clouds of tire smoke completely obscured the entire paddock, a quarter-mile downwind. I heard later that the smogged-out LeMons racers were cheering the car’s amazing burnout performance, and several were heard to state that they’d be visiting their nearest Dodge dealership and shopping for Challengers as soon as the race was over.
Unfortunately, the Challenger-as-Judgemobile got upstaged by a far superior Showroom-Schlock Shootout Judgemobile. Let’s face it: when a LeMons judge gets the choice between a 2012 Challenger SRT8 and a Reliant Super Robin for leading the penalty parade, there is no choice but to take the Reliant.
We did put both of them on the track as co-pace cars, which I feel certain is the first time a Robin and a Challenger have served together in that role.
Judge Sam agreed with me that the Challenger SRT8 was far nicer for real-world driving duties (i.e., driving between the hotel and the race track) than the Escalade Platinum had been. So, burnouts aside, how is it to drive?
The front seats are very comfortable and the quality of materials in the interior is quantum leaps ahead of the “unfit for human consumption” interiors that so horrified Sergio Marchionne. The suspension did a fine, Renault/Mercedes-Benz-style job of smoothing out the Stalingradian pothole-O-rama road surfaces in Chicago and Joliet. I’m sure I could take one of these things on an exurban-edge-city commute for hours every day and feel pretty good about the ride and comfort.
Granted, it’s something of an ergonomic disaster. You can’t see diddly-squat behind you, with the vast C pillars creating maddeningly huge blind spots. Your hands obscure the turn-signal indicators when they’re on the steering wheel. The back seat is all but useless; maybe it could hold a couple of small adults, but you won’t be able to get them into the seats in the first place (I gave up even on putting my LeMons Supreme Court bribe booze in the back seat, opting instead for the trunk). The lid for the center-console storage compartment can’t be operated by human hands.
The controls for the navigation/audio features are frustratingly unintuitive, with the lengthy response time for input that seems to be the norm for automotive computer interfaces. Why a $90 cellphone made by Malaysian sweatshop inmates can produce instant results from four memory-hog applications simultaneously while a simple choice of song title brings a $48,000 car’s computer to its knees is beyond me.
But who gives a shit about nickel/dime irritants like that? Not me! More burnouts!
In fact, I should be reviewing this automobile for the pages of Gnarly Burnout Magazine. Wooooooooooo!
Detroit has really lost its way in some areas over the last few decades, but not when it comes to V8 engines. GM and Chrysler are making some miraculously good pushrod V8s these days, and this 392-cubic-inch/470-horsepower powerplant isn’t even a member of the same species as the rough-idling, non-cold-starting, clattery, single-digit-MPG relics of the so-called Muscle Car Golden Age. This engine starts up instantly, idles in most civilized fashion, manages highway fuel mileage well into the 20s… and manages to drag a two-ton-plus car down the quarter-mile in under 13 seconds.
Speaking of tons, the big-block ’70 Challenger scaled in at nearly 3,800 pounds, so we can’t be too hard on the ’12 SRT8 version for weighing more than 4,200 pounds. Still, I can’t help but think of the two ways in which Chrysler might have built The Greatest Mopar Of All Freakin’ Time instead of a flawed-but-lovable burnout-king commuter car. The first way would have been to put this engine in a car weighing 2,900 pounds. We can all think of a dozen reasons why this could never happen, but just imagine it.
The other way would have been to use the 1971 Plymouth Satellite instead of the ’70 Challenger as retro-inspiration, bringing the Plymouth marque out of retirement if necessary. I’d buy one right now.
Image source: Old Car Brochures
As for handling and brakes and all that stuff them decadent Yurpeans seem to care about so much, I didn’t get a chance to take the Challenger out on the Autobahn CC road course, nor did I pound it at 11/10ths on the mean streets of Joliet. It seemed perfectly competent at my usual 3/10ths pace. Anyway, you don’t buy this car for going around corners, commie (though Baruth managed to do pretty well with the ’11 at Infineon).
The LeMons Supreme Court decided that there was one way in which the Challenger made a superior Judgemobile: as the centerpiece of the Hair Of The Dog Air Guitar Penalty. Miscreant drivers were required to air-guitar their way through the entirety of Nazarath’s Challenger-centric Hair of the Dog, while waving a large American flag.
Look upon our works, wannabe superpowers, and despair.
Nazareth, a Hemi, and “AMERICAN MADE” tattooed on your back. Chrysler should hire this guy as their spokesman.
As for the quality of the little bits and pieces in out-of-the-way places, all the connectors and fasteners that I could find looked to be several notches above the quality of the parts I’ve seen in Chrysler products of a few years back. It appears that the days of the sub-low-bidder vendors may be over.
There were a few mildly flaky touches, such as this Neon-style weatherstrip seam, but nothing that felt like it was about to snap off in one’s hand.
The verdict: On the one-dimensional side, well-built, engine absolutely top notch. Would make a good real-world daily driver. King of the Smoky Burnouts.