WILLOW SPRINGS, Calif. -- What's it like to unleash the power of 470 horses on a race course in the Mojave Desert billed as the fastest track in the West?
In the new second-generation Dodge 2012 Challenger SRT8 sports coupe, a pedal-to-the-floor hot lap on the 2.5-mile closed-loop road course at Willow Springs International Raceway becomes a high-speed ride on the wild side with hair tingling, helmet pinned to the headrest and heart pulsing to lickety-split.
This new rendition of the SRT8 Challenger carries the formidable credentials of a street-legal racer: A lowered chassis with taut suspension tweaked for performance, massive 20-inch rear wheels wrapped in 255/45ZR20 Goodyear Eagle RSA speed-rated performance tires, big four-piston Brembo-brand brake calipers and a humongous 6.4-liter V8 engine that's a high-tech rendition of Chrysler's fabled HEMI plant with hemispheric combustion chambers.
Stomping the go-pedal from a starting line in Hot Pit Lane at Willow, we lurch forward as that big-block HEMI sends massive torque to peel rubber to pavement. The car zips from zero to 60 in less than five seconds, but by the Rabbit's Ear, Willow's sweeping Turn Two, the speedo needle climbs to triple-digit territory with Challenger's rigid chassis riding low against asphalt in a rock-solid stance.
Then, in swift sidestep sequence through a three-turn hill climb with tires squawking, our Challenger SRT8 executes a nimble cha-cha-cha maneuver with the poise of a Formula racer.
Whip, clip, zip -- it charges around the chicane.
And on the mile-long Straight at Willow with pedal on the floor, the SRT10 becomes a blur of Redline Red paint passing Hot Pit Lane at 135 mph before we brake for a tight left at Turn One.
We're talking too quick: The 2012 Challenger SRT8 posts a top speed in excess of 180 mph.
The story of a modern muscle car begins when Dodge resurrected the nameplate of its iconic 1970s pony car and applied it to the 2009 Challenger riding on a rigid platform also used for Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. It had 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.
Then some gearhead gurus at the Street and Racing Technology (SRT) division of Chrysler requisitioned the 2009 Challenger and began to beef it up with a retinue of kick-butt car tricks.
For the 2009 Challenger SRT8, 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.
The 2012 Challenger SRT8 marks Generation 2.0 of the top-dog Dodge muscle car.
It totes a larger and more powerful yet more fuel-efficient HEMI engine, a dual-mode adaptive damping suspension system with selectable suspension tuning for world-class ride and handling, a new SRT-badged heated steering wheel with paddle shifters for hands-on-the-wheel shifting, plus the option of a 900-watt Harman Kardon audio kit with 18 speakers.
The SRT8 treatment for Challenger 2012 starts with that expanded big-block engine -- a 6.4-liter HEMI V8 which kicks out 470 hp at 5000 rpm plus 470 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
Torque is channeled to the rear wheels through six forward gears of a heavy-duty Tremec TR6060 manual transmission, or an optional electronic automatic five-speed transmission (W5A580) teamed with the AutoStick manual shift controller.
When combined with the automatic, the HEMI V8 comes with standard Fuel Saver Technology (FST) technology which can switch seamlessly and transparently to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all of that horsepower is not needed for romping.
Premium 91-octane fuel is recommended for the SRT Challenger and the fuel economy figures rise to 14 mpg for city driving and 23 mpg on the highway with the manual shifter, or 22 mpg with the automatic.
SRT engineers worked on the Challenger SRT8 suspension.
They lowered it by half an inch and tuned it tightly for performance with tailored spring rates and bushings, big anti-sway bars in place plus anti-skid controls via an electronic stability control (ESC) device.
For the new adaptive damping suspension a driver can select a setting -- such as Auto or Sport -- to quickly change shock damping and harshness traits.
To rein so many horses, the 20-inch wheels on Challenger SRT8 carry big disc brakes. Up front, the 14.2-inch rotors team with Brembo four-piston calipers painted red. Rear ones with 13.8-inch rotors also get Brembo four-piston calipers. All four discs are linked and controlled through an anti-lock brake system (ABS) plus traction control system (TCS).
Special body modifications on the 2012 Challenger SRT8 are designed to enhance pavement performance. For instance, special ducts cut into the front fascia pull fresh air in to cool the front brakes, while a low aerodynamic air dam on the chin reduces front lift at high speed and the rear decklid spoiler provides stable high-speed aerodynamics.
Dodge builds a more powerful and more sophisticated 2012 Challenger SRT8 with price points starting at $43,995 for the six-speed manual transmission.