2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

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2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8

Oshawa, Ontario – Even though we’re a multi-car family, it’s not too often that we have two of the same model sitting in the driveway, much less the same colour and equally optioned. But that’s what happened when I brought home a 2008 Dodge Challenger test car. Full disclosure: we also own one of these, bought at a local dealership (at full list price, but without the premium that some unscrupulous dealers were gouging buyers).

Now, to be accurate, the Challenger actually belongs to my husband, a gearhead in his own right, who decided that there simply had to be one in our garage. He was obsessed since the moment the concept was shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2006, when I heard that familiar “gotta have it” intake of breath beside me, and realized it was time to start saving the pennies.

2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

(Why take out a test version of something we own, you may ask? Well, my husband can’t leave anything alone, and he’s already changed the wheels, done some bodywork and modified the suspension, which wouldn’t make it fair to readers who would be looking at the out-of-the-box model only.)

My tester was a Challenger 500 (as is our personal car), one of the initial limited run of cars for the 2008 model year, all of them 6.1-litre Hemi SRT8 models and sold fully loaded, with only a tire package as the available option. (The 500 badge on the grille, by the way, commemorates the number of cars allotted and identifies Canadian cars for 2008; in the U.S., where several thousand were available, the front badge simply reads SRT.) For 2009, the range has expanded, and now also includes versions with a 3.5-litre V6 and 5.7-litre Hemi. The five-speed automatic transmission that was the only choice for 2008 is also the default V8 gearbox for 2009 (the V6 uses a four-speed), but both of the bigger engines can now also be ordered with an optional six-speed manual transmission that includes the classic “pistol-grip” shifter knob. For the 2008 model, the base price is $44,995; on the 2009 models, you’re looking at a starting price of $24,995 for the V6 SE, $26,995 for the SXT, $34,995 for the 5.7-litre R/T, and $45,995 for the SRT8.

Built exclusively in Brampton, Ontario, the Challenger rides on a shortened version of the LX platform that also underpins the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, and the discontinued Dodge Magnum station wagon. These latest versions of the Hemi are proving to be pretty much bulletproof, including the 6.1-litre, which was developed by Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology (SRT) group in 2005. In the Challenger it produces a neck-snapping 425 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque (the 5.7-litre makes 372 horsepower and 401 lb-ft with the automatic), but there’s a catch: the multi-displacement system, or MDS, that seamlessly shuts off half the 5.7-litre’s cylinders under light load isn’t adaptable to the 6.1-litre’s valvetrain, and so you’re running all eight, all the time. The upcoming Chevrolet Camaro’s 6.2-litre V8 has the system, which that automaker will undoubtedly note in its advertising. The 6.1-litre runs on regular fuel, but performs far better when fed the premium stuff. You don’t buy a muscle car for its fuel-sipping habits, and the 6.1-litre Challenger is proof of that, returning a published 16.5 L/100 km in the city and 10.9 on the highway; in combined driving with a heavy foot, I averaged 14.1.

2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

The problem, of course, is that the long pedal is also the “fun” pedal. The Challenger is immensely fun to drive, and even more fun to drive hard, with power available at practically every position on the throttle, and with a correspondingly delightful roar when you put the hammer down; Chrysler says zero to 100 km/h takes less than five seconds. Unlike some high-horsepower units, though, it’s docile at the lower end of the speedometer, and isn’t much different than a regular midsize sedan when tackling an everyday commute. It may look like a straight-line-only model, but it’s surprisingly agile on hard turns, taking them with almost no body roll and smooth turn-in. Its styling may pay homage to its 1970-1974 predecessor, but its greasy bits don’t; that said, the steering feel through the four-spoke wheel is numb, reminding the driver that the system did originate with the luxury Chrysler 300 model. Its dexterity is also offset by the fact that this car could use some serious time at Weight Watchers. It tips the scale at a massive 1,878 kg (4,140 lb); by comparison, the upcoming 6.2-litre Camaro SS with autobox is expected to weigh in at 1,779 kg (3,913 lbs), while the similarly-transmissioned 2009 Mustang GT is a salad-snacking supermodel at a mere 1,602 kg (3,532 lbs).

The SRT8 also includes Brembo brakes, and they’re awesome, grabbing the oversized rotors and bringing the car down from speed quickly and with little fuss. They do wear rapidly, though – the nature of the beast – and keeping the SRT-specific wheels free of brake dust is an ongoing task. The other difficulty is finding a winter wheel that’ll clear them and allow you to swap out the alloys and performance tires for the salt-ready variety.

Chrysler’s designers had a relatively easy job when it came to sketching out the preliminaries, especially when compared to the car’s two most logical rivals: they worked off the styling of a single-generation car (I am not going to acknowledge the Mitsubishi that Dodge sold under the Challenger name in 1978), as opposed to the those who’ve had to rework the Mustang, a car that’s never gone away, or the Camaro, where designers had to come up with a retro look for a car that had passed through four generations.

2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

The production model is closer to the concept than most, with muscular haunches, menacing front face, and “carbon fibre” stripes along the hood that can be deleted for 2009 (and it actually looks better without them, as my husband discovered when he removed the ones that came with his car). Visibility is fine out the front, despite the “chopped” roofline effect, but the coupe styling and thick C-pillar make the over-the-shoulder check tricky.

What amazes me most about the design is the attention the car receives. My tester’s screaming-loud “Hemi Orange” paint didn’t hurt, but while my husband warned me that I’d be the equivalent of a rock star out on the asphalt, I was surprised to see just how right he was. At almost every stoplight, someone pointed, or snapped a photo on a camera phone, or just stopped to gawk. I’ve driven Bentleys, Porsches, and even a Lamborghini that didn’t garner this type of response. I’ve only ever piloted one other car that attracted more interest, and that was a Smart, prior to its introduction to Canada and, at that time, the only one ever seen on the streets of Toronto. Of course the fuss will die down as more Challengers hit the streets (and when the Camaro debuts to the same treatment), but it’s still fun to get even more stares in a brand-new car than I do in my 1949 hot rod.

2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Click image to enlarge

But as great as the outside looks, the interior could definitely be more spectacular, especially considering the car’s price-tag. It’s pretty much lifted straight from the Charger, with great expanses of plain, hard plastic, and it exhibits the odd rattle and squeak over bumps. The original 2008 models come with Challenger 500-specific instrument panel – from what I can figure, the only difference is in a “500” badge over the glovebox – along with the front grille badge and a “certificate of authenticity” (a surprisingly tacky item, delivered later by courier, consisting of a framed piece of paper with two plastic emblems glued to it; be sure the seller throws it in if you buy one of these used down the road) for an additional $2,000, and it couldn’t be deleted from the order. Yeah, that’s about the same look I had on my face when I saw it on the invoice, too.

But if the dash is ordinary, the SRT-specific seats certainly aren’t. Heavily-bolstered and with sueded inserts, they keep you firmly in the middle during hard cornering, but are supportive enough that a straight-through, five-hour road trip left nary a dent on our behinds or a kink in our spines. The front seats offer an incredible amount of room, but unless those chairs are as far forward as they can go, you’re best off considering the rear seat to be a 2+2, as legroom is very limited.

The final verdict? For everything that’s wrong with it, there’s twice as much that’s dead-nuts right about it, providing you’re the type that appreciates muscle cars in all their raw, rough glory. Even in these days, among the darkest the industry has faced, there’s just something right about the trinity of Challenger, Mustang and Camaro back on the street. We bought a Challenger. For a jaded auto scribe, that’s a pretty good indication that the company got it right.

Pricing: 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8

Base price: $44,995
Options: $4,175 (MyGig multimedia system with navigation, $1,100; power sunroof, $1,075; Challenger 500 Group of 500 I/P, grille badge and certificate of authenticity, $2,000)

A/C tax: $100
Federal green levy: $1,000
Freight: $1,300
Price as tested: $51,570
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Dodge Challenger

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