American cars are not a common sight in California. Unlike the Midwest, the preferred automotive transportation device is from Asian origin. Luxury and performance vehicles are mainly from Europe or Japan. The Dodge Challenger seems like a fish out of the water on the road in Southern California. And that is too bad because it has a lot to offer at a price point of an average family sedan.
My brief experience with American muscle cars dates back almost 20 years ago when I owned a 1987 Ford Mustang for about a year. It had the familiar 5.0 liter V8 paired to a manual transmission. While reasonably fun to drive on dry roads in summer, it was a lot of car to handle in the wet and slippery conditions in the cold and dark Michigan winter. Drop the clutch, hit the accelerator and you probably would end up sideways. The clutch was heavy to operate and not much fun in a daily commute in traffic. The interior materials were typically cheap American from that era.
Fast forward 20 years and these large 2-door American coupes evolved into very capable but still affordable driving machines. I never really paid much attention to the latest retro offerings from the big three and hardly know anything about the originals from the 60s. This brief affair with the Dodge Challenger was not planned as I walked into the Enterprise rental office at the San Diego airport location. There were no Premium cars (think Nissan Maxima) available. Looking through the offerings on the lot, I pointed to a couple of white Challengers. After convincing the rental agent this really was an acceptable alternative to a premium car, I was on my way shortly after.
Engine and performance
Sales numbers for the Challenger in 2012: Base 24,197, R/T 15,158 and SRT8 7,210. The Base model is clearly the most popular and it is equipped with a 3.6 liter V6 engine. This engine has 24 valves with dual-overhead camshafts and was introduced for the 2011 model year. Older models had to do with a 3.5 liter SOHC V6. The Pentastar V6 in this Challenger gives you the power of 305 horses (227 kW) at 6350 rpm and 268 lb·ft (363 N·m) in torque. All V6 engines are mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. If you want a 6-speed manual, an upgrade to the V8 engine is required.
The performance of the V6 engine is quite good, even though you probably won’t be making donuts on the pavement. It feels like a modern engine and has enough power to move this large car sufficiently. It is a quiet engine for cruising in the city and on the highway. When you push the accelerator to the floor, there is a nice growl from under the hood. Nothing that will rattle windows and make people turn their head but enough to let you know there is some power there.
The transmission was a different story and didn’t seem too eager to play along with the engine. There often is a lag of a second or so when you want full acceleration. It also sometimes doesn’t seem to know which gear it should be in and shifting was a bit rough at times. Not sure if it was just the mechanicals or more of a software issue. Either way, it definitely has some room for improvement. There is a manual mode that is engaged by sliding the gear stick left for upshifts and right for downshifts. This works pretty good and nice to have available for when you want to select the gears yourself. It would be very nice to have an automatic Sport mode that will make the car a bit livelier. For average driving, the automatic gearbox worked just fine.
Interior and equipment
The first thing you notice when you get in the car is the limited visibility because of the small windows. This seems to be the common trend with cars these days, even though the retro American muscle cars take this design to a new level. You do get used to it after a few days but still feels a bit confined with limited view to the outside world. The C-pillar blocks most of the view to the rear right, something that makes merging to a right lane on the highway a bit of a gamble at times. There is no use looking over your right shoulder, only the right mirror provides limited view.
The base model is nicely equipped. Air conditioning with automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows and driver seat with power lumbar adjust are items you often won’t find in the least expensive model. It was easy to find a comfortable seating position in the bucket seats. The cloth material was a bit hard and cheap looking. The softer and better looking cloth material you often find in Japanese cars would be a nice improvement for the Challenger. As mentioned, the seats are very comfortable and provide good support for daylong driving. There is decent side support, enough for the cornering capabilities of the car and you won’t be sliding around.
The base audio system is nothing special but provides decent sound with reasonable bass. Aux connectivity is standard which makes it easy to hook up a music player. The dashboard layout is more business-like than flashy retro like you find in the Mustang and Camaro. It does look nice though and will age well. One major gripe is the readability of the speedometer and other gauges. The font that is used makes it difficult to see what speed you are going.
The white-faced gauges are nice looking but do not help readability during the day and night. Black gauges with white numbers are always easier to read. There is a large chrome surround around the shifter. When the sun hits it at the right angle, it will easily blind the driver. But these are really the only negatives about the interior. Some may find it a bit too bland and out of place in a retro muscle car but I liked it.
The only interior color available on the base model is black/grey which makes it a dark place inside. The headliner is all black and this enhances the dark feel inside, together with the small size of the windows. Even in the bright California sunshine, it’s a bit of a depressing place to be. I imagine a sunroof will be nice to bring some extra light in.
The trunk is pretty big and it is easy to fit several suitcases, groceries for the family for a week or other larger items. The bumper sits quite high though which makes it difficult to load heavy things. It is pretty similar to the height you find in an SUV.
This is really what the Challenger and other muscle cars are all about. I was never a big Dodge fan and always like the Mustang much better. But opinions often change when you actually live with a car for a week. It is a fantastic design with all the right proportions. There are some crazier colors available like orange or purple but white is a great color for this car. It brings out the window shapes, wheels and front grille and tail lights much better than a dark exterior color.
It’s one of those cars that makes you look back after you park it and walk away. The 5-spoke 18” wheels look great on this base model and probably provide a nicer, more comfortable ride than the optional larger wheels.
On the road
This is a car made for cruising the highways and byways of America. While it isn’t a true sports car, it can hold its own on twisty mountain roads. It may be a big car but it doesn’t feel that big behind the wheel. It is nicely balanced and it doesn’t complain when you push it hard through the corners. On dry pavement, the car is predictable and never showed any signs of over or understeer. The 235/55-18 Firestone FR710 tires are quiet and comfortable All Season tires. They held their grip well under hard cornering so nothing to complain about.
The Challenger is a very comfortable car to drive. Suspension and wheel/tire choice is good for the often rough roads in Southern California. Large and small bumps are absorbed nicely but you still have a good connection to the road and feel what the tires are doing. A stiffer suspension, larger wheels and low-profile tires will improve the handling but at what cost for everyday driving? If you’re like me and 90% of your driving is like everybody else and 10% is pushing the car to its limits, the comfortable ride always wins for me. The interior is very solid and there was never a rattle, squeak or other sounds. This car had 10K miles on the odometer but it feels like it should hold up nicely thought the years and miles.
Fuel economy was pretty good for such a large car and engine. It used 70.17 gallons of regular gasoline in 1681 miles of spirited driving on back roads and cruising on highways and regular roads and some traffic congestion in Los Angeles. This is about 24 miles per gallon or 10.2 km per liter. Official numbers from Dodge are 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
The base Challenger SXT starts at $27,290 including destination. Even without any options, it is a well-equipped car and no one should feel ashamed to drive this. For an additional $2,000, the SXT Plus version will give you fog lamps, premium nappa leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats, bluetooth, satellite radio, Boston Accoustics sound system and rear park assist. There are also a few more packages to choose from.
If you do not need a 4-door car or SUV to haul your family around, the Challenger is a great alternative to the usual mid-size family sedan or boring SUV / Crossover. Style, decent performance and a car you do not see everywhere makes the Challenger a great choice at a great price. As I mentioned before, I am not a big Dodge and muscle car enthusiast but this Challenger has won me over. The R/T version with the V8 and manual transmission would probably be my choice but there is no shame in liking this base model with the V6 and automatic transmission.
After 8 days and almost 1,700 miles, the memories of this brief love affair will linger on for a while. It is also good to go home again and find your trusty mate in the airport parking lot waiting for you. The shock going back from sunny California to the cold and dark Northern Michigan winter in January will take a bit longer to get used to. More information: http://www.dodge.com/en/challenger/