By Chris Haak
I’ve reviewed a lot of vehicles over the past few years, but the experience I had when driving the Dodge Challenger SRT8 this past summer was one of the best ones I have had. Not only was it a fantastic-looking, incredible-sounding, great-handling, quick-as-hell car, but its Hemi Orange paint job gave the car just enough attention-getting material to bring a smile to nearly everyone’s face who saw the car. So, was it the same story two months later, in a car painted in a far more serene color (silver), after the rest of the world has had more time to get used to the idea of new cars that look like they popped almost intact out of a time machine from 38 years ago, in 1970? To a certain degree, yes, but reactions from others were far more muted. I blame the “no-sale silver” paint.
Paint color choice aside, why would someone buy a Challenger R/T over an SRT8? There are a few reasons; the R/T starts at $29,995 including destination, while the SRT8 is a little over $10,000 more; the SRT8 has a $1,700 gas guzzler tax and terrible 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway fuel economy rating (with the five-speed automatic), while the R/T significantly improves upon those numbers. The SRT8 also might be “too much car” for some drivers. Does every driver really need a 425-horsepower monster when 375 is usually more than adequate? My mission in testing the Challenger R/T for a week (provided by Chrysler, of course) was to answer those questions, and to also check out the new-for-2009 powertrain, since the 2008 model year featured only the SRT8 with the big V8 and five-speed automatic combination.
The Challenger R/T shares nearly all of its big brother’s looks, with a few small detail exceptions. The decklid lip spoiler on the R/T is body color, while it’s flat black on the SRT8. Standard wheels on the R/T are 18 inchers (with 20s optional); of course 20s are standard on the SRT8. Though both wheels are a five-spoke design, they are not identical between the two cars (the R/T’s wheels have flat spokes, while the SRT8′s wheels come to a point in the center of each spoke). The SRT8′s 20s are also nine inches wide, while the R/T’s 20s are eight inches wide. Finally, the SRT8 models have a carbon-fiber look black stripe package on the hood, while the R/T eschews the stripes. The bottom line: if you want to spot an SRT8 “in the wild,” look for the flat black hood stripes and the flat black decklid spoiler. Otherwise, they’re very difficult to tell apart externally. Shared between the cars are a classic shape that – in the absence of a direct comparison – looks very similar to an original 1970 Challenger. In reality, because the new Challenger shares many parts, including a high cowl and beltline, with the Charger and 300C sedans, the Challenger is actually quite a tall car. The shape looks great in an aggressive, That 70s Show tribute kind of way.
The Challenger R/T does not have the SRT8′s excellent, Alcantara-covered, well-bolstered high-back front sport seats. Instead, it offers low-back bucket seats, with cloth standard and a two tone black/grey combination on my test car. I didn’t have any comfort problems during my time with the car, but I preferred the SRT8′s more expensive, superior seats. One big gripe about the front seats is the way they have no mechanical memory function when, for example, the passenger seat is tilted forward to allow rear seat access. You pull a lever to tilt the seatback forward, and once it’s forward, the entire seat slides forward. However, once the seat is to be moved rearward, the seat stays in its far-forward, upright position. This means that each time the back seat is used, the front passenger seat has to be readjusted for both seatback angle and seat position, which is a real pain in the neck.
Otherwise, the interior of my loaded test car was nearly identical to the Challenger SRT8′s interior, with the exception of a few detail items. For example, the center of the door panels in the R/T were covered in vinyl, while they are Alcantara in the SRT8. The top of the steering wheel and the shift knob in the SRT8 have a carbon fiber look on their leather covering, but the R/T has the same “regular” leather treatment. The SRT8 model also has the performance gauges (0-60, quarter mile, max g-force, etc.) integrated into the instrument cluster, but the R/T has none of them.
My test vehicle was equipped with several expensive options which enhanced the comfort of the standard R/T model, but brought its price precariously close to that of the SRT8. These options included SIRIUS satellite radio, a 368-watt amplifier with seven Boston Acoustics speakers and a subwoofer, leather-trimmed bucket seats, Keyless Go (keyless pushbutton start), six-speed manual transmission transmission (a $995 option), HID headlamps ($695), power sunroof ($950), and 20″ chrome aluminum wheels and 3.92 rear axle ratio ($1,350). It was a comfortable enough place to spend time, but I’ve been in nicer $39,055 cars.
Once you press the start button and crank the big V8, the Hemi burbles to life and settles into a smooth, yet obvious idle. A stab of the throttle makes the tach needle swing quickly upward, accompanied with a bark from the exhaust. This formula (large car with a big V8 underhood) may be going out of fashion in some quarters, but it still gives me goosebumps. The pistol grip gearshift lever falls easily to hand; I found over the course of a week with the car that the pistol grip shifter is more comfortable to use when shifting quickly/harshly (with my hand wrapped around it), and more or less feels like any other gearshift (with my hand on top of it) when tooling around town in traffic. Considering the transmission’s beefy internals (it’s shared with the 600-horsepower Viper) and the fact that we’re talking about a two-ton car, the Challenger was a very easy car to shift and to actuate the clutch on. Clutch takeup occurs exactly where you’d naturally expect it to, with no learning curve needed (at least for an experienced three-pedal driver) to avoid bogging the engine/stalling or riding the clutch.
Once underway, the large, fairly-thin steering wheel (which I wasn’t a fan of) was slightly annoying, and steering didn’t feel as precise or direct as I remember the SRT8′s feeling. Further, ride motions were somewhat softer and less controlled in the R/T than they were in the SRT8. In spite of the wonderful sounds emanating from the dual exhaust pipes (particularly during the 1-2 and 2-3 upshifts), the R/T handled about as I’d expect a two ton car to handle, rather than feeling surprisingly light on its feet as the SRT8 did. On paper, I really expected the R/T six-speed to be 90% of the SRT8 for 75% of the price, and never expected to miss the extra 50 horsepower (375 instead of 425), but the R/T just didn’t have the breakneck pull in each gear like the SRT8 did.
Not helping things were the Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires, which are all-season rubber that, in spite of being the same diameter as the SRT8′s Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer rubber, just didn’t have the grip of the latter. The reduced grip (thanks to a harder compound and being eight inches wide in the R/T and nine inches wide in the SRT8) manifested itself in every aspect of vehicle dynamics; wheelspin was easier to induce upon acceleration, in spite of being down on power and torque versus the SRT8, the tires squealed during brisk driving on curvy roads in the R/T but not the SRT8, and ABS was more likely to engage earlier when slamming on the brakes of the R/T rather than the SRT8′s higher grip threshold. Speaking of the brakes, I’m not a brand snob when it comes to braking hardware, but the SRT8′s Brembos had a much firmer pedal than the fairly spongy one that the R/T had.
So, the Challenger R/T 6-speed wasn’t quite the hot package that I thought it might be, but I think the problem was more with the way it was equipped than any fundamental flaw with the car. Believe me, I love the comfort features such as sunroof, leather seats, navigation, and HID headlamps, but if the prices were similar and the SRT8 was as readily available as the R/T, would people buy the R/T for any reason other than its better fuel economy? (Incidentally, thanks to the 80/20 highway/city mix in driving the SRT8, versus the 20/80 highway/city mix in driving the R/T, I saw a basically identical 17 mpg combined from both vehicles.) Personally, if I was trying to decide between a loaded Challenger R/T and a base SRT8 (which is already fairly loaded, except for the sunroof and navigation system), I’d pick the SRT8 in a heartbeat. In addition to all of the comfort and convenience features, you get better handling, better brakes, better seats, more exclusivity, and 50 more horsepower. If I wanted a fairly inexpensive, great-looking, large coupe, I’d settle for the Challenger R/T but be conservative in checking option boxes. What is a pretty good value at $30,000 becomes less of one at $39,000, considering the SRT8 with a six-speed and 20 inch wheels can be had for as low as $32,340, while an SRT8 with a six-speed is going for $42,390. What is a heck fo a $30,000 car becomes a $40,000 that makes you wish you had just stepped up to the ultimate Challenger. The bottom line: get an R/T with few options if you want 90% of the performance for 75% of the price of the SRT8, but skip the R/T if you plan on getting a loaded one and move up to the SRT8. I guarantee you’ll be happier with the top dog.
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