Dodge Challenger revives nameplate of iconic 1970 muscle car

2009, Dodge, Challenger Coupe

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. -- On a strip of asphalt at Raceway Park in New Jersey, a super-powered SRT8 edition of Dodge's new sports coupe rips down the track's front straightaway at triple-digit speed.

This modern muscle car -- flashing a menacing face with bulging hood scoops and the sleek profile of a too-cool sports coupe -- runs so fast it becomes a blur of orange body paint in a shade labeled HEMI Orange.

It carries the credentials of a street-legal racer: A taut suspension tweaked for performance, 20-inch 245/45ZR performance tires, Brembo brake calipers and a massive V8 engine that's a high-tech rendition of Chrysler's fabled HEMI plant with hemispheric combustion chambers.

It even bears the badge of a vintage American muscle car: Dodge, resurrecting the nameplate of its iconic 1970s pony car, calls this one the Challenger.

Body styling appears retro-cool and duplicates the recessed grille with round headlamps of the original Challenger muscle car.

The 1970 Challenger, stuffing a 426-cubic-inch HEMI V8 (425 hp) behind that blunt front end, ranks among the swiftest of street-legal cars for the era.

Driveline choices for various engines included Chrysler's TorqueFlite automatic transmission and a three-speed or four-speed manual which could be outfitted with a Hurst pistol-grip shifter.

Challenger #77 with Sam Posey behind the wheel competed as a Trans-Am racer in 1970, while Challenger drag racers like Dick Landy and Ted Spehar virtually ruled the Pro Stock class in 1970 and 1971.

The modern Challenger for 2009 is a slick two-door coupe riding on a rigid platform also used for Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. It has a long wheelbase for big-car scale with the engine mounted up front and all torque sent to the tires in back to forge a classic rear-wheel-drive arrangement.

Dodge builds the new Challenger with three different engines and three trims tagged as Challenger SE, the HEMI-powered Challenger R/T and super-powered Challenger SRT8.

Challenger SE is the entry issue rigged with a high-output V6 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission.

The single-cam 3.5-liter six-pack runs up to 250 hp at 6400 rpm with 250 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm.

With the V6, mid-grade fuel (89 octane) is recommended and the fuel economy figures rise to 18 mpg for city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.

Challenger R/T totes a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 which produces 372 hp at 5200 rpm and 401 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm through an electronic automatic five-speed transmission teamed with Chryslre's AutoStick manual shift controller.

The 5.7-liter V8 also works through six forward gears of a Tremec TR6060 manual transmission, which produces a slight boost in power and torque numbers -- 376 hp at 5150 rpm and torque to 410 lb-ft at 4300 rpm.

And when teamed the automatic transmission, this HEMI V8 comes with Chrysler's MDS (multi-displacement system) technology which can switch seamlessly and transparently to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all of that horsepower is not needed for romping.

The fuel scores tally to 16/23 mpg (city/highway).

But Challenger SRT8 is the all-powerful fast-cat for this new muscle car.

It starts with an exclusive big-block engine -- a 6.1-liter HEMI V8 which kicks out 425 hp at 6200 rpm plus 420 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm.

That's 69.8 hp/liter -- the highest specific output for a naturally aspirated V8 ever offered by Chrysler.

Shifter choices are the electronic five-speed automatic with AutoStick or the Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual.

Timed runs on the track by Dodge reveal that the Challenger SRT8 can zip from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and reach the quarter-mile post in 13.3 seconds. It tops out at 170 mph.

The initials of SRT -- signifying "Street and Racing Technology" -- mark high-octane performance cars for the Dodge line developed by Chrysler's in-house performance engineering organization.

For Challenger SRT8, the engineering goals encompassed five pillars for every SRT vehicle -- a bold and racy exterior package, a driver-oriented cockpit, world-class ride and handling traits, over-the-top performance and powerful brakes to counter a big engine.

Challenger's blunt-nosed hood with scoops stretches long and the body's beltline on flanks seems tall, with a roofline tapering down toward the rear and shaping window glass to trapezoidal proportions.

Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the big wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and swift performance. Despite that low-slung posture, Challenger provides a passenger compartment of sizable scale.

Layout of the cabin consists of two big sport buckets in front and a back bench split 60/40 that's broad enough for three but with indented sections for two.

Up front, the driver fits in a bolstered sport bucket seat, which adjusts in multiple directions. For SRT8 the leather-clad buckets show red accent stripes.

Instruments in the dashboard cluster include four-bomb gauges with bright white faces and chrome rims.

And in a vertically-flush stack at the center of the dash are controls for climate and audio equipment plus the screen for an optional navigation system.

A floor-mounted center console contains the transmission's lever in a shifter gate ringed with chrome. The Tremec manual version has a pistol-grip shifter that's reminiscent of the original Challenger stick.

Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with upper and lower anchors to mount two child seats, smart multi-stage air bags up front plus side curtain-style air bags for all outboard seats front and rear.

And Challenger contains active safety systems to avoid accidents, including big disc brakes at all wheels (with red-painted Brembo calipers on SRT8) plus an anti-lock brake system (ABS), all-speed traction control (ASTC), emergency brake assist (EBA) and electronic stability control (ESP).

Dodge sets the MSRP for Challenger SE at $21,995, with Challenger R/T starting at $29,995 and the SRT8 at $39,995.

By Bob Plunkett

More Dodge car reviews?

Images of the 2009, Dodge Challenger Coupe

2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe front view
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe front view
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe interior shot
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe interior shot
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe navigation unit
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe navigation unit
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe rear shot
2009 Dodge Challenger Coupe rear shot