Among the TTAC staff, the consensus is clear: the Ford Mustang is the top choice in the pony car segment. For cheap thrills, the Mustang V6 with the Performance Package is the most comprehensive “performance per dollar” option on the market. The 5.0, Boss 302 and Shelby GT500 represent increasing levels of performance that rival the best of the sports car world, at prices accessible to the common (or, slightly better off) consumer. The Camaro is not as highly regarded, but of course, what would this site be without a dissenting voice.
So what about the Dodge Challenger?
Within days of picking up the model you see above (a Challenger R/T “Shaker”, a special edition with some extra Mopar goodies, the “Shaker” hood, a 5.7L Hemi and a 6-speed manual transmission), TTAC was invited to test out the heavily revised 2015 Challenger, including the highly anticipated Hellcat model. The Shaker fell under my jurisdiction, but with the Hellcat being introduced at a race track, those duties were assigned to our EIC pro tem. Frankly, that opportunity would be wasted on anybody else.
So what of the soon-to-be-obsolete 2014 Challenger? My only experience has been with an SRT8 model, equipped with the venerable 5-speed automatic. The 2015 model will get, among other upgrades, the wonderful new ZF 8-speed, as well as chassi tweaks and an all-new UConnect system. Chrysler PR cautioned not to get my hopes up for the Shaker, suggested it was less “track-focused” than the SRT model. I held out hope that it would be, at the very least, a loud, obnoxious, attention-getting special edition.
I was in for a disappointment. The “Competition Orange” (not Dodge’s name for the color, but one that’s been ingrained due to repeated viewings of Boogie Nights) Challenger is visually loud, with its orange paint, black hood scoop and alloy wheels. But the 5.7L Hemi could emit little more than a muted bellow. Having heard countless uncorked 5.7L engines in all manner of Rams, 300c’s and Charger R/Ts, I know that the standard Chrysler V8 has aural merit, even if it’s not as glorious as the big 6.1L and 6.4L SRT V8s. If you opt for one of these, make sure you get a Mopar exhaust system baked into the financing deal. It deserves no less.
On the other hand, the Tremec 6-speed was a pleasant surprise, with tight gates, short throws and a crisp action. The clutch was easy to modulate, and the V8′s torque made it nearly impossible to stall, even with the laziest applications of both clutch and throttle. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that the transmission is not the ideal choice for the Challenger.
No doubt, this is heresy for most readers, but hear me out. The Challenger is a big car. So are the Mustang and the Camaro, but the Mustang manages to disguise its bulk with a modern, high hood and a tall beltline, while the Camaro lets you forget it because you are too busy cursing how dreadful the overall package is.
The Challenger is a different beast. The hood is low and long, the beltline is low, the doors are large and forward visibility is excellent. You feel like you’re sitting in a car from a different era, a sensation that is congruent with the car’s styling, which is utterly faithful to the 1970′s version. When piloting something with such immense stature, I tend to prefer a more relaxed driving experience. The 6-speed manual, as nice as it is, feels out of place in a car like this. Rowing gears and pushing clutch pedals doesn’t quite fit with the “one hand on the wheel, one hand resting on the door sill” nature of this car, but that’s just me. Plenty of people have bought large cars with manual gearboxes, otherwise BMW wouldn’t have offered the E38 740iL with a manual, right?
The generous proportions carry over to the interior too. The cabin feels large and airy, with lots of room for two up front to lean back, stretch their legs and enjoy the effortless torque of the V8. The long wheelbase and long travel suspension allow for serene highway cruising while the Hemi spins at less than 2,000 RPM in 6th gear, even at 75 mph. Handling is not its strongest suit. You can take corners in aggressive manner, but the Challenger R/T is clearly happier in a straight line, letting you enjoy the view out front, while epoch appropriate music belts out of the stereo (Live at Filmore East is absolutely glorious on this stereo).
The 2015 model will get the updated UConnect system with the 8.4 inch touch screen, but even the “old” system is pretty damn good, even if the UI is a bit dated. The trunk is enormous for a two door car .A weekend roadtrip for two allowed for one full-size suitcase and one overnight bag with plenty of room to spare. Small wonder that they are so popular with rental fleets.
Aesthetically, the Challenger isn’t a pastiche of retro cues like the other two cars. But it’s not a pony car like the old Challenger. With a 116 inch wheelbase, it’s a full six inches longer than the original Challenger, and nearly 10 inches longer than the Mustang. Even though it looks like a very faithful modern iteration of an old pony car, I’d argue that it’s more of a modern version of the personal luxury coupe.
Rather than emphasize outright performance, the Challenger emphasizes style, comfort and cross-country pace rather than road course times or skipad numbers like the hotter Mustangs and Camaros do in their marketing messages. Even the Hellcat’s press photos show emphasize drag strip runs and smoky burnouts over images of Laguna Seca and the Nurburgring.
And for me, that’s just fine. Not every American car needs to bring the fight to the Europeans. Globalization and changing tastes are forcing American cars to become globalized to the point where body-on-frame trucks are the last truly American vehicles. It’s very likely that the next Camaro will follow the Mustang in adapting for European tastes. Chrysler took the other route, using old Mercedes bones to create something truly American: a big, no-excuses coupe with big V6 and V8 powertrains and the kind of styling that has no hope of meeting European safety and fuel economy standards.
Bring on the Hellcat.