Review: 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

2009 Dodge Challenger R/T – Click above for high-res image gallery

For all the problems it faces, Chrysler has to be happy with this: the Dodge Challenger rollout has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. Everyone wanted this car to happen from the moment it appeared as a concept back in 2006. Back then, the S197 Mustang was still new and demonstrating that retro done right can be a very good thing. Flash forward to today and following a brief, SRT8-only 2008 model year run, the Dodge Challenger is now available in three distinct trim levels. We've already reviewed the stylish and value-priced, six-cylinder SE model, and we'll soon give you our take on the top-tier knuckle-dragger, the SRT8. That leaves the mainstream muscle – the R/T. We recently welcomed a silver example equipped with the hotly-anticipated six-speed manual gearbox into the Autoblog Garage. But is it something you'll want to welcome into your garage?

Photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger is a terrific-looking muscle coupe, so it's no surprise that Chrysler's design team used that as the benchmark when coming up with the 21st century version. Built on a modified LX platform, the Challenger is big and beautiful, and when we say big – we mean it. Look at the new Challenger by itself, and you'll think it looks like a '70. Compared to the original car, however, it's significantly bulked up. It's still obviously a Challenger, but the curves of the original now have additional layers of muscle packed on top. The 21st-century take looks like a '70 Challenger that should be providing grand jury testimony in the BALCO investigation.

My wife was standing in the living room when the car was delivered, so she saw it drive up our street and turn into the driveway.

"That's the car you're getting this week?" she asked.
"Yeah," I replied, eyeballing the Dodge and silently thanking God for this whole Autoblog thing.
"That's ridiculous," she said, shaking her head.
"What?!?" I asked, incredulous, snapping out of it.
"No, no," she explained. "I mean that in a good way. That's awesome."

She's right. The Challenger is fantastic-looking – better in a sense than the much-ballyhooed concept. Gone, for example, is the show car's crosshair grille, a silly concession to "brand identity." In its place is a more historically appropriate piece with a single thin metallic trim ring. You don't need a crosshair to know this is a Dodge; you just need a sense of history. The only Challenger nameplate on our tester was to be found on the left side of the grille. The R/T emblem bookends it on the right.

We had the optional 20-inchers filling out the wheel wells, and because the car's proportions are so substantial, they have a just-right look. The muscular rear haunches almost pulsate with power, and when you walk around back, you see a rear fascia that's a nice production translation of the concept. Unlike the V6-powered SE, the HEMI-driven R/T sports a pair of squared-off exhaust tips below the rear bumper. And the little details? Love 'em – the old-school fuel-filler lid, the matte chin spoiler, the HEMI badges on the hood's power bulge, the four round headlamps – it's all good. The Challenger is an all-you-can-eat buffet of visual comfort food.

Inside? Nothing dazzling, but it gets the job done. The Challenger's cockpit is simple and user-friendly, taking a basic approach instead of carrying the neo-retro thing outside-in as the Mustang does and the Camaro will when it hits showrooms next year. Parts bin? Yes. Plenty. None of which is a problem, really, except for the terrible-looking steering wheel. A model-specific piece would have been a nice touch – Ford does it with the Mustang, GM is doing it with the Camaro, and more to the point, Dodge does it with the new Ram. Alas, Challenger drivers grip the same wheel you'll encounter in the other LX cars. It looks dowdy here, but at least its secondary controls are very easy to use.

The white-faced gauges are eminently readable, and the tester's upgraded audio system with navigation sounds good and has a very intuitive interface (if it had a dial for radio tuning, it would be perfect). Another indication that Chrysler was looking to make the most of what it had to work with is that there's no shortage of soft touch surfaces. The gauge hood and dashboard, for example, all have "give" when you touch them. This goes for key touch points, too, such as where your elbow hits the door armrest. The lack of a handbrake on the console is a little disappointing. The Challenger uses a not-particularly-sporty pedal and pull-release like the LX sedans. Bottom line: Challenger's interior is comfortable and usable, with a good quality feel to it.

The best element in our Challenger's cabin was found between the two front seats. There, the center console was graced with the pistol-grip, Tremec six-speed manual shifter, which is notchy and direct. It feels appropriate in this car and adds another grand or so to the sticker, but if you're physically able to use a standard gearbox and you don't order it, you probably need to go see a psychiatrist. If it's a money thing, leave off something else like the sunroof. The manual is immeasurably more gratifying to drive than the automatic, which is perfectly good but also perfectly unexciting.

Our car had the optional convenience package that includes "Keyless Go." Hence, there's a start button you use to get things going. This in itself is fine, but the fob execution is kind of dumb because "Keyless Go" does not include keyless entry, so you have to take the key out of your pocket to unlock the car anyway. At that rate, why bother with the keyless start system at all? Anyway, push the start button and a subdued yet muscular tone starts bubbling out of the twin exhaust tips. It's nice-sounding but civilized – maybe too much so. This is an extroverted car that begs for a louder, more raucous, exhaust. The aftermarket will happily provide this, and it's something we'd seriously look into if we were buying.

The R/T's 5.7L Hemi is good for 375 horsepower and over 400 lb-ft of torque when paired with the manual gearbox. With the 5-speed auto, the stock rear axle ratio is 3.06. Add the manual, and you get 3.73. Add the 20-inch wheels, as we had, and you get a 3.91 rear. There's plenty of low-end grunt, and the rear wheel wells are perfectly capable of turning into on-demand tire crematoriums. Conversely, if you granny the car around, you may discover the first-to-fourth skip-shift feature the Tremec has. Judicious application of the throttle in first keeps it at bay, however, and we only experienced the forced 1-4 shift a few times – all in low-speed urban driving scenarios.

Two things immediately strike you from behind the wheel: the Challenger is comfortable and it's big. Two-tone leather buckets up front offer ample support and the back seat is actually serviceable for adults. It's far more comfortable than a Mustang in the second row of seats. One maddening element: with the power driver's seat, only the passenger seatback flips forward for easy backseat passenger ingress and egress. On the driver's side, you have to move the seat all the way forward with the power controls to create enough space to climb back there. This is time-consuming and annoying – essentially a non-starter. If you have back seat riders, they need to get in on the passenger side. If you have a pair of child seats back there, this could get old in a hurry. The back seats fold down, too, further expanding the car's pretty sizable trunk capacity that matches the Charger sedan's.

Once you're situated, the Challenger demonstrates why it's a nice place in which to spend time. It's roomy up front and the ride quality is excellent. Steering effort is pretty low and the suspension absorbs everything your local municipality's road crews can throw at it – even with the more aggressive 20-inch wheel/tire package fitted. Over a week of normal, everyday mixed driving, the brakes did everything asked of them: no shocking revelations, no disappointments. They're well-matched to the car.

Head for a curvier route and the Challenger doesn't offer any unpleasant surprises. You are always aware of the car's size, however. After all, it's dimensionally very close to the Charger – itself a big car – giving up only a few inches in overall length, and the expansive hood that sprawls ahead of you feels right out of the 1970s. Still, despite its proportions, the Challenger never feels cumbersome. You get accustomed to it quickly and start having fun in no time. Get out on the highway and you'll want to go all day. It's quiet inside, the stereo rocks, there's always power on tap and the ride conveys sedan-like smoothness.

So, how does the Challenger R/T measure up when compared to its chief competitor, the Ford Mustang GT? I own the latter (an '06), and can honestly say that the Mustang feels quicker than the Challenger; it's smaller and lighter, and the power differences on paper pretty much become a wash as a result. Our Challenger R/T tester, as optioned, came in at $39,055 – a number that will also buy you a lot of Mustang at the Ford store. That said, the Challenger is easily the more comfortable car, and while it doesn't feel as seat-of-the-pants quick, it's got muscle to spare. Add in the optional six-speed stick and it's downright fun.

The Dodge Challenger is a big, beautiful and brawny muscle coupe. Chrysler has done a good job here, a view shared by most of the complete strangers who took time to come over and comment on it. "Man, that thing's cool," was a common refrain. You know what? It really is. Next up for us is the SRT8 version, which should be even more so.

Click here to view the 2009 Dodge Challenger's tech specs at AOL Autos.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

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