The Merriam-Webster dictionary deﬁnes muscle cars as “any group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.” Wikipedia goes further, and says that “a large engine is ﬁtted in a 2-door, rear wheel drive, family-style mid-size of full-size car designed for 4 or more passengers. Sold at an affordable price, muscle cars are intended mainly for street use and occasional drag racing, and are distinct from two-seat sports cars.”
I am here to report that my 2014 Dodge Challenger R/T hits those deﬁnitions very squarely on the head.
In fact, you could forget the words and just insert a photo of the Challenger. While other modern pony cars start with the intention of being a sports car and then throw in varying dashes of retro muscle car to ensure Boomer appeal, the Challenger starts out as a muscle car and throws in a heaping handful of American-style GT coupe. Those qualities are precisely why I chose to buy this car, and why I’ve enjoyed it so much in my 3 months and 3000+ miles of ownership to date.
Let’s start with what I bought: Here we have a 2014 Challenger R/T equipped with the 5.7 liter HEMI V8, Tremec TR-6060 6 speed manual transmission, and the 100th Anniversary Edition package. This package was developed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Dodge brand, and includes unique exterior colors and trim, special 20 inch wheels, “cloud print” Napa leather seating, a couple small special edition badges, and a number of other trim pieces and accessories. My car is also equipped with a power sunroof and the Super Track Pack, which for only $595 includes Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer tires, a variable displacement power steering pump, heavier-duty brakes, and a “track tuned” suspension with Bilstein shocks.
It doesn’t matter where you go; this car simply cannot be ignored. It has grabbed the attention of countless small children, a gang of giggling Catholic high school girls, large groups of Harley guys, even larger groups of bikers (there is a difference), Sweaty Betty-clad young mothers running behind strollers, South Dakota farm boys, spiky-haired hipster girls, construction workers, elderly people, Cope-spitting cowboys, and every cop I’ve ever encountered. The car-crazy teenager down the block stares jealously as I roll through the alley. It has a presence.
The ﬁrst factor in that presence is its styling, which to my eyes is as good as or better than the Mustang at presenting a modern car with throwback appeal. It straight up murders GM’s offering in this space, making the hokey, overdone, Camaro look like a cartoon. If you prefer the heritage look, you can get your R/T with more variations of racing and hockey stripes than you can handle. But my car, ﬁnished in the unique “High Octane Red Pearl” color with no stripes, sitting on big polished wheels comes across as clean, muscular, and decidedly grounded in 2014.
The more I’ve looked at my car, the more I love the little details. I didn’t always feel this way about the Challenger, and further consideration leads me to conclude that the car’s lines look best in darker colors. The domed hood with two “nostrils” calls back to the original 440 Magnum cars. The aggressive tumblehome recalls the full-sized “Fuselage” Chryslers of yore, and the distinctive swooping cutline is pure retro Challenger. The frameless front windows are big and provide an almost hardtop-like feel when rolled down. The B pillar is well disguised visually and the rooﬂine somehow both ﬂows into the trunk and adds a muscular squareness to the greenhouse. There’s no fussy chrome detailing to distract the eyes, and there are precisely two badges that identify it as a Challenger R/T, both small and applied stealthily on the grill.
The second factor in the Challenger’s presence is its size. As Derek pointed out in his capsule review, this is not a small car. It looks big and it IS big. It dwarfs my wife’s Volvo S80 visually and dimensionally, and makes my beloved 1994 Camaro Z28 look (and feel) like a toy. The cowl is high, and the front bumper is waaaaay out there past the long hood. Care must be taken when navigating tight garages and parking lots, and the rear proximity sensors are essential when parallel parking. If you’re considering a lower-spec V6 car make sure you get them.
Thankfully, that big exterior does not hide a cramped, compromised cabin. I have many happy memories riding in big, two door American cars growing up and the Challenger’s roominess and interior comfort was one of it’s key selling points for me. This car is wide and airy inside with all-day comfortable seats, and the fact that they are not heavily bolstered suits my 50L frame just ﬁne. There’s a wide range of adjustment offered by the seat and tilting/telescoping wheel and I immediately found an ideal position for my long-legged, short-armed size. The windshield is broad and the though the sills are high you’ll feel none of the bathtub-like claustrophobia that you ﬁnd in a Camaro. The back seats are perfectly comfortable for even generously proportioned adults, and though their leg room may be a bit tight they won’t be kinking their necks or bumping their heads due to the high rooﬂine. While lift over height is high, the trunk is absolutely huge and the back seats fold down for extra space if needed.
While the room inside is great, the materials and styling in my 2014 are showing their age and their origins back in the bad, old penny-crushing days of Cerberus-owned Chrysler. The blocky styling, gauges, and monochrome LCD displays are far behind current Chrysler Group standards. Though plastics were upgraded by Fiat to soft-touch materials over the years, there are still some cheap touches here and there that could only have been driven by cost. My car has the older touchscreen UConnect system that includes satellite radio but not navigation, but it sounds great and pairs ﬂawlessly with my MotoX.
In truth I’m picking at details, and aside from the gauges you’re left with an impression of quality and design that is similar to that of the outgoing Mustang. Everything in my car is nicely ﬁnished and works well, and overall it’s a very comfortable place to spend time. I knew what I was getting into and I am happy, but the upgrades for 2015 will make the experience even better. My only complaint so far is a recurring rattle somewhere in the driver’s seat. It seems to be a common problem for many Challenger owners, and may be related to the headrest, seat frame, or hinge. I plan on having it addressed by my dealer at the ﬁrst (4000 mile) service.
The Hemi V8 in my Challenger puts out 375 hp according to Dodge, and it does so with a quality that is all its own. It doesn’t have the classic small block feel of an LS engine, nor does it have the frenetic, electric feeling of the Mustang’s Coyote Five-Point-Oh. It pushes the car around effortlessly with a nicely balanced chorus of hushed mechanical noises, induction sound, and exhaust bass. It’s more than fast enough for me, and it springs away from a stop with an authoritative shove of torque. Tire-shredding burnouts are hilariously easy – just switch off the traction control, dump the clutch, and watch the smoke roll. The clutch is light and easy to modulate, and the shifter has short throws with a smooth, satisfying mechanical engagement in each gear. Subjectively, I think my car has loosened up a bit; it seems both stronger and quicker to rev towards redline than when new. The only potential complaint here is the exhaust note. It’s very subdued, almost too much so. I have not done anything with my car, but if you want the total muscle car experience you’ll want to spring for a Mopar or Magnaﬂow system to freak out all your neighborhood squares.
Before I get into the driving experience, let’s go back to the deﬁned intent of a muscle car – “muscle cars are intended mainly for street use and occasional drag racing, and are distinct from two-seat sports cars”. I’d tweak that a bit – my Challenger is a car for the road. I’ve owned a number of alleged “road cars” over the years, but this car eats up mileage like nothing I’ve ever driven. It’s comfortable and quiet, and with Chrysler’s excellent automatic climate control and the wide selection of music available on satellite radio you can drive all day, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. In cruise mode you can even stretch those breaks out, as it’s possible to average 25-27 mpg in 6th gear at reasonable highway speeds.
The GT part of the equation becomes evident when you exit the Interstate and ﬁnd yourself on a curvy two lane road. When hustled down the excellent selection of such routes in Eastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, the car seems to shrink around you and drive smaller than it actually is. It likes being driven hard, and controls its size and weight very nicely. For a big girl this car can really move with ﬂat, neutral cornering at illegal (but reasonable) road speeds, huge waves of torque available anywhere on the tach to carry you through the straight sections, and conﬁdent braking when a roller or Sunday driver appears. Push harder and you’ll induce gentle understeer; harder still and the stability control (which I have no desire to try to totally defeat) will step in and keep things sane. I’ve never gone further than six or seven tenths on the road, but I’m looking forward to making some progress towards the ultimate limits during an October track day at Brainerd International Raceway. I’ll post an update after that experience.
Compared to the immediate competition, I believe the Challenger provides a unique proposition. It feels like a more complete and less compromised car than the Camaro, with more room for passengers and cargo and styling that is both more cohesive and more mature. It’s more of a GT than the Mustang, which feels like a harder-edged sports car in every way. When it came down to it, the decision was easy for me and I would make it again in a heartbeat. The Challenger was the right car at the right time for me, and my only real regret is that I waited so long to add a modern muscle car to my garage. If you don’t drive one you really don’t know what you’re missing, and we are lucky to live in an era where each of the Detroit 3 offers a unique and compelling choice.
So what’s next? More miles, more experiences, and more fun. For the ﬁrst time I have a “fun car” that my wife has absolutely no objections to riding and road-ripping in. And though I will freely admit that I’m still in the honeymoon period, my Challenger can make even my short drive to work feel fun and special. No matter how you define the phrase, this particular muscle car has found a very happy place in my life.