Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
We're all quite familiar with the Challenger SRT8. Introduced in 2008, it exists as 4,140 pounds of old-fashioned American muscle. Styled after the hot-rod E-body Dodge coupe from the Seventies, the Dodge Challenger is arguably the most accurate retro-styled representation in its class, followed close by the Chevrolet Camaro
and redesigned Ford Mustang
The top-of-the-line variant parked in our driveway is the SRT8 model – differentiated by its big engine, big brakes, big wheels, sport suspension tuning, racy interior and a host of other improvements. Best of all, and unavailable in the 2008 model year, our 2009 SRT8 is fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox connected to a pistol-styled shifter.
Seemingly fished dripping wet from a vat of bright red paint (Dodge calls it "TorRed"), more than a year after its introduction, the SRT8 still managed to generate an outlandish amount of attention on public roads – easily the most this author has experienced in a vehicle costing less than $100,000. Like a plus-sized red seductress, the unique Challenger drew stares and smiles at gas stations, mall parking lots, soccer fields and trundling along on the highway. Little kids begged to sit behind the wheel and dream (while their fathers simply asked for joy-rides, which we happily obliged). One afternoon after a thorough washing, there was a knock on our front door. Two strangers had been driving by in their pickup and the Challenger had caught their eye. Mesmerized, they came by to ask for a closer look.
In all its masterfully-styled manifestation, those retro-lines do become an obstacle from the driver's seat. The view from the big-man's chair is of an expansive hood, reminiscent of those "infinity pools" that disappear somewhere over the horizon. It is absolutely impossible to tell were the faux carbon fiber-striped sheet metal ends, or where the front wheels are. With its ocean liner turning radius, you get used to backing up – a lot. As expected, the view rearward isn't any better through the small back window or small side mirrors (the SRT8 is a great candidate for a standard back-up camera, but it's still better than the pony car from Chevrolet). Rounding out the poor visibility Triple Crown, the C-pillars are thick enough to support the roof over the South Portico at the White House. Sight-limited, and much to the admonishment of driving instructors everywhere, defensive driving is replaced by offensive "point-and-shoot" maneuvering. It becomes second nature.
However, the Challenger is as much about horsepower as it is about styling.
Under the hood of this range-topping SRT8 is a 6.1-liter V8 rated at 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. With a two-ton curb weight, the big coupe isn't exactly a lightweight, but the powerplant will send it past 60 mph in less than five seconds. And the six-speed manual makes all the difference.
Bolted to the rear end of the supersized HEMI is a Tremec TR-6060 gearbox. Manufactured by Transmission Technologies Corporation, the main case, extension housing and clutch housing are all constructed of aluminum alloy. The six-speed features triple cone synchronizers in first and second gears and dual cone synchronizers for third through sixth gears. The clutch is a twin-disc design manufactured by ZF-Sachs. Developed for low pedal effort and long service life, it's fitted with solenoids for a fuel-saving (and frustrating) one-to-four skip-shift and reverse inhibit features. The transmission is rated to handle up to 600 lb-ft of torque, which is more than enough for the stock 6.1-liter V8. A sturdy transmission with short solid throws, the Tremec TR-6060 is also used in the Dodge Viper. Interestingly enough, it is the same basic gearbox of choice for the Chevrolet Camaro SS and Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 – although each packs a unique set of gear ratios.
The manual transmission also comes with Hill Start Assist (HSA) as standard equipment. Working electronically, the system mechanically holds the brake for three seconds if the vehicle is on a hill so the driver doesn't have to play footsie with the pedals to keep the Challenger from rolling backwards. It's completely unobtrusive and works very well. Additionally, the six-speed manual variant is also fitted with a unique exhaust utilizing two low-restriction bottle resonators instead of the single under floor muffler – the sound coming out the back is NASCAR perfection.
We've driven the slushbox-equipped SRT8 on both the street and track. While that variant delivers most of what it promises, the manual gearbox completely transforms this bear from Teddy to Grizzly. Stick-shift junkies will tell you they like manual control – the ability to downshift and engine brake when most automatics simply coast. They like the ability to run the engine to redline, and hold it there, when most automatics simply shift up. As manual transmissions are slowly replaced by quicker (and more efficient) automatics, we welcome Dodge's generosity to still allow us manual addicts the ability to control a whopping 6.1-liters of gasoline-fed HEMI explosion with the grip of our right hand.
Sitting behind the wheel with the V8 gurgling in a smooth idle, the clutch under our left foot is nicely weighed. The gearbox, complete with short-throw shifter, is pleasantly mechanical in action. Some call it a bit clunky. We think "substantial" is a better adjective. Nevertheless, short of that maddening one-to-four skip-shift, we never missed a shift.
Launching the SRT8 is easy – preventing wheelspin is not. Imitating a dedicated drift series race car, the Challenger delightfully lights up its rear tires with very little provocation. Keep the standard traction control engaged and you'll enjoy much improved tire life – and happier neighbors. The overall gearing is taller than we would prefer. In fact, both fifth and six gears are only useful for squeezing miles out of the tank as the acceleration from normal speeds in those gears is embarrassingly slow. Our long-distance trip in the SRT8 was canceled, so we were stuck hand-calculating two tanks of premium fuel based on mostly city driving (13.64 and 14.06 mpg). We obviously had some fun behind the wheel.
Peeking through the 20-inch forged wheels (wearing 245/45R20 rubber) are upsized bright-red Brembo multi-piston brakes. The mechanical aspects of the system are exemplary, but the pedal feel isn't what we expected. We have a lot of experience with race-bred Brembo systems – they're typically firm underfoot and easy to modulate. These were soft under initial application, and then grabbed harder with more pedal travel. After a few days, we were completely used to it, but the uninitiated should be warned.
When compared to the Challenger's natural enemies from Chevy and Ford, the Dodge often finishes last in performance competitions. In this niche, the others are shorter, lighter and have smaller wheelbases giving both a distinct advantage on a road circuit. Tossing the SRT8 around, the body roll and limited outward visibility spell D-I-S-C-O-N-N-E-C-T to the driver. Dancing is not the Challenger's talent. However, finishing last among a trio of well-honed athletes is nothing to snicker at. The way we see it, the typical SRT8 buyer wouldn't pick the Ford or GM product anyway. Remember, this is a childhood dream, a weekend toy, a reward for success. It's an ego car above all else.
Driving around town, the red SRT8 is big, loud, pompous and ostentatious, and decidedly more fun during the day when others are watching. Cruise around at part throttle in second gear around 3,000 rpm... and then unsuspectingly stab your right foot to the floor. The HEMI jumps to life as the two polished bazookas under the back bumper let out a howl while you uncontrollably grunt like Tim Allen performing a power-tool demonstration. Everyone within earshot cranes their necks to pinpoint the drumfire as you screech away in a blur. Mission accomplished.
Of course, the Dodge Challenger SRT-8 is far from perfect. The driver seat's inability to fold forward made a week of family-transporting a teeth-gritting experience – everyone had to go in/out on the passenger side (and we had a child seat back there). Once squeezed in, the rear seats are small and uncomfortable considering the overall size of the vehicle (yet the trunk is huge). The interior lighting is dismal, the upgraded audio system is merely average and the manual climate control is simply unexpected on a vehicle in this price bracket.
The Dodge Challenger SRT8 is hardly a smart financial purchase (in all honesty, the Challenger R/T
offers the best performance for the dollar). It's far from the optimal commuter car, its fuel efficiency borders on embarrassing and it's a literal pain in the neck to maneuver in parking lots.
So, why do we like it so much?
Because the Challenger SRT8 secretes masculinity. From its big and brawny stature to its angry exhaust note, there isn't a molecule of femininity to be found in this testosterone-dripping Dodge. Spend time in the driver's seat and you'll have to double-up on antiperspirant, shave both morning and night, and find yourself wearing dirt-laden baseball caps to dinner. Unlike those all-too-common wannabe muscle cars with slushbox transmissions, the engaging six-speed SRT8 is a man's car.
And, like us, the guy who craves this involving Dodge in his well-swept garage really doesn't care about passenger space. He doesn't care if he has to twist his wrist to change the fan speed, how much gas it consumes, or what's outside the rear window when he backs up.
This bright red beast has nothing to do with rational thought – it screams insanity. Recalling Dukes of Hazzard glory, this thing is fast, loud and positively garish. It tickles childhood memories of taping bottle rockets to the top of Hot Wheels cars just to watch them zoom down the street and blow up with a bang. As practical family transportation, the Dodge Challenger SRT8 six-speed is entirely wrong. But as a vial of kick-ass adrenalin, it remains unequaled.