Click the Challenger for a high res gallery
During the recent What's New event at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Ground, we had the opportunity to sample the new Dodge Challenger SRT-8. For the 2008 model year, Chrysler is only building SRT-8 versions of the Challenger with a combination of the 6.1L HEMI V8 and a five-speed automatic transmission. We first saw the production version of the Challenger earlier this year at the Chicago Auto Show and while we thought the styling was great with perfect muscle car proportions, it is undoubtedly a big car. The Challenger is built on Chrysler's LX platform shared with the 300 and Charger. Compared to the Mustang it looks huge and it hardly seems like it would actually feel sporty.

Fortunately, the dynamic behavior of large cars has made huge strides since the original Challenger went away in the mid-seventies. We first tried out the Challenger on the road at Chelsea before taking it for a hot lap around the evaluation track. The circuit was built back in the early '90s when a certain gentleman named Lutz was still occupying an office on the top floor of Chrysler's headquarters. It's basically a lovely little natural terrain road course, not quite as elaborate as the new road course that Maximum Bob built at the GM Proving Ground, but it's a good way to get a dynamic feel for a car. After lunch we had another opportunity to thrash the Challenger on the autocross course that Chrysler set up on the vehicle dynamics pad. Find out how the Challenger did after the jump, along with some video of our time behind the wheel.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

As previously observed, the Challenger is a massive hunk of steel. It's a mere two inches shorter than its sedan siblings and stretches over 10 inches longer than its closest competitor, the Ford Mustang. It's also hauling around nearly 800 pounds of additional mass. While the Mustang is no flyweight, this thing is positively huge.

It does have some advantages over the Ford. Sharing a platform with the sedans means that it also shares the independent rear suspension inherited from the Mercedes E-Class. The Challenger also has a bit more rear head and shoulder room, although leg room is about the same. Not that it matters because the front cabin is the place to be.

Chrysler only made the 2008 SRT-8s available to drive, with the 09 R/T and V6 models sitting on a static display, begging for our attention. Interestingly, the front seats on the "lesser" Challengers were the same heavily bolstered buckets found in other SRT models. A good thing, considering that the thrones are both comfortable and snug.

The combination of the cozy interior and naturally aspirated 6.1L HEMI V8 helps the girth of the Challenger melt away when you get moving. Peering out over the long hood, the Challenger is by no means light footed or nimble, but it doesn't feel ponderous either.

On the Chelsea ride road, the suspension does a surprisingly good job of moving the 245/45R20 tires and wheels across an accurate reproduction of typical Michigan roads. Even cornering over rough pavement, the Challenger stays well planted and doesn't loose its composure. On the handling evaluation track, the big V8 moves the coupe smartly from one corner to the next, while the stability control does a good job of taming the understeer that is almost inevitable in a big front engine car like this.

Dodge Challenger SRT8 runs the cones at Chrysler m

On our first run around the autocross course, we kept the stability control enabled while learning where to zig and where to zag. With the ESC on it's almost impossible to get the back end of the Challenger to swing wide even with all of the 420 lb-ft of torque summoned by your right foot. At that point we turned it off and quickly discovered the limits of the tires. Needless to say, the grip of the rear rubber was no match for the available torque and the rear easily swung wide.

Overall in just a few minutes of driving, the Challenger proved to be surprisingly capable and fun to drive. It's a muscle car in the classic sense, but with all of the most modern capabilities and conveniences we've come to expect. Look for our full evaluation soon.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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