Review: 2009 Dodge Challenger SE

2009 Dodge Challenger SE – Click above for high-res image gallery

Chrysler pays the bills with big sellers like the Dodge Ram and Caravan, but when it comes to passion and excitement, the 2009 Dodge Challenger sits with the Viper atop the Pentastar throne. The new Dodge Challenger is retro done right, with the wide stance and long hood of the original mixed with the clean lines and aggressive dimensions of a modern pony car. For the 2008 model year, Chrysler introduced only the SRT version of the Challenger. The first production model sold for $400,000 at auction, and the entire stock of HEMI-packing, Mopar goodness was history faster than it takes to hit 125 mph on a barren back road.

The reality of today's high gas prices combined with strict new fuel economy standards means that, unfortunately, it's unreasonable for every Challenger to pack a fire-breathing, neck snapping 425-hp, 6.1L V8. So for 2009, Chrysler added the R/T Challenger with an extremely competitive 375-hp 5.7L Hemi and a less expensive Challenger SE with a corporate 3.5L V6 engine pumping out 250 ponies. We wanted to see if the SE model could satisfy our hunger for rear drive performance and classic muscle car looks, so we took in the entry level Challenger for a stay in the Autoblog Garage.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

Our Dark Titanium Metallic Clear Coat Challenger SE review vehicle came only with the $2,795 group G package, which includes stability control, Sirius satellite radio, anti-lock brakes, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. This gave the SE an MSRP of $25,140, which puts it in line with similarly equipped competition from the Ford Mustang.

When an automaker introduces a vehicle with sporty pretenses, there is usually a vast difference in the appearance of the base model and the snorty, rip-roaring high performance model. This isn't the case with the Challenger. While the SE didn't have 20-inch rims or stick-on stripes, its basic shape is still very much a head turner. Carried over from the $40,000 SRT model are the front chin spoiler and aggressive-looking but non-functional hood vents. Those attributes and the Challenger's classic muscle car dimensions make Chrysler's bargain basement muscle car look more expensive than it really is.

The Challenger is a big vehicle, sharing its platform and powertrain with the full-sized Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. But when you're standing next to it, the Challenger appears relatively compact. The larger than expected 18-inch rims fill the wheel wells, which gives the sheet metal around them better proportions. Having only two doors also helps, as the coupe shape allowed Chrysler designers to create a compact greenhouse with an abrupt C-Pillar. The front chin spoiler also gives the Challenger a nice ground-hugging look.

We had the Challenger SE during this year's Woodward Dream Cruise, and when we drove it down the famous four-lane avenue, we received thumbs-up from several onlookers. With the windows down, we heard one young man turn to his father and say "Hey Dad, it's the SRT Challenger". What the kid don't know won't hurt him. At one point we were taking pictures of the Challenger next to the Mustang Bullitt, and a passing spectator ogled the base Challenger while completely ignoring Ford's coolest Mustang. If anything, the reactions of others proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Challenger SE looks the part of muscle car, but how does it drive?

In a word, slow. We got the the impression we were driving a Chrysler 300 Touring instead of anything from the era of modern muscle. We expected a bass-filled growl when turning the key, but instead were treated to the whimper of a V6. After slapping the truly retro four-speed automatic into Drive, we experienced a smooth yet unsatisfying engine; long, infrequent shifts; and family sedan acceleration.

Don't get us wrong, the engine is just fine. The transmission, while only sporting four cogs, is perfectly average and acceleration is acceptable – just not for something that looks as fast as the Challenger. We noticed plenty of body roll and steering calibrated for minimal feedback when we hit the twisties. This definitely isn't the ass-kicking SRT8 Challenger we drove at Chrysler's proving grounds over the summer, but then again this model doesn't cost $40,000. The SE model, with options, falls some $15,000 short of that amount. There is no gas guzzler tax we actually averaged a respectable 24 mpg.

We certainly didn't feel like stunt drivers for a Vanishing Point sequel behind the wheel of the Challenger SE, but at least we were comfortable. Clearly the budget ran out before Chrysler designers were able to fit the Challenger with a retro interior, but the familiar layout works well just like it does in the Charger. The seats were large and comfy, the buttons well laid out and easy to reach, and the materials were of a higher quality than we've experienced in recent Chrysler products. Our only major gripe is that Chrysler insists on using an antiquated cruise control stalk instead of more modern and easier to use steering wheel button controls. The cruise stalk is unlit and in the dark we had absolutely no idea how to set speed, no matter how many times we used it.

The Dodge Challenger is our favorite vehicle in Chrysler's lineup right now. It looks terrific in any trim and you can get one that fits most any need, desire or budget. The SE model is a sheep in wolf's clothing, but if you want the muscle car look without the gas guzzling, performance and sheer driving joy of the SRT8 or R/T models, it's worth considering. And that's not a knock on the Challenger SE. As Ford has proven with its V6 Mustang, there are a lot more people who want a car that looks cool than there are those who want a fast car that's fun to drive. Just don't think you can blow away that Nissan Altima 3.5 sitting next to you at the stop light, because you'll get your ass kicked.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

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