Overview: The Dodge Challenger is Fiat Chrysler’s horse in the pony-car derby, a venerated nameplate among the Mopar faithful resurrected in 2007 after spending more than three decades in mothballs. (Let’s all agree never to speak of the late-1970s Mitsubishi-based Challengers, shall we?) This rear-wheel-drive coupe battles the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro, and of the three the Challenger is the most slavishly retro; options include 1970s-style striping, houndstooth cloth upholstery, and a Shaker hood scoop, and, well, just look at the thing. Its styling is meant to evoke that of the 1971 Challenger, but it might as well be a 5/4-scale replica.
The Challenger is based on a large-car architecture that it shares with the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans. As a result, it weighs several hundred pounds more than its primary rivals; its largeness does afford much better rear-seat accommodations, and it also offers a plethora of engine choices for buyers (although there is no turbocharged four-cylinder option as in the Mustang and Camaro). There’s a 305-hp V-6 in the SXT and SXT Plus trims, a 375-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 in most R/T trim levels, a 485-hp 6.4-liter Hemi in the R/T Scat Pack and SRT 392, and a stonking, 707-hp supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 in the bodacious Hellcat. V-8 versions are available with a six-speed manual transmission, while an eight-speed automatic is standard with the V-6 and optional with the V-8s.
Prices range from $27,990 to $65,190, and in addition, a number of trim and equipment packages allow one to spec a Challenger to look exactly as aggressive as they’d like. For this review, we drove a somewhat modestly priced SXT Plus that rang in at $35,115 with the V-6, the Blacktop appearance package, the Super Track Pak (performance tires plus upgraded brakes, steering, and suspension), and a few other minor options.
What’s New: After a major overhaul for 2015, model year 2016 saw the addition of some throwback paint colors (Go Mango orange, Plum Crazy purple) and the return of the Blacktop appearance package.
What We Like: Well, the Dodge dealer is the only place in the world you can get a 707-hp coupe (or sedan, for that matter), and the Hellcat is stupid fun. That one is all menace, performing burnouts with ease and sounding like a pack of rabid grizzly bears even at idle, and it has proven wildly popular. The current Challenger also has decent interior materials for its price, cushy ride quality in most versions, and a roomy cabin with a rear seat that actually will accommodate adults. Plus it looks bad-ass. Helping its bad-assitude are options such as the Blacktop gear, which brings 20-inch wheels and some other aesthetic baubles for a very reasonable $695 upcharge, as well as performance bargains like the $39,990 R/T Scat Pack, which nets the engine of the $51,190 SRT 392 but does without many frills, hence a steep discount. The Challenger’s Uconnect infotainment and available navigation upgrade are among the best in all of autodom for user-friendliness, even if the graphics are a bit dated. And, of course, the V-8 cars are quick and sound fantastic.
What We Don’t Like: The interior, despite all its space, is a dark cave, especially for those in the back seat. As in all pony cars, visibility isn’t great, especially to the rear. Being based on a large-sedan architecture does the Challenger no favors in terms of handling, and both the Mustang and Camaro will run circles around it on a winding road. This car is all about style and cruising—even with the ballsy Hellcat engine—so those who like to drive tight, twisting roads are better off shopping at the Ford or Chevrolet stores. That goes double for anyone who might frequent a racetrack that doesn’t have a Christmas tree at its starting line; compared to thoroughbreds such as the Mustang GT350/GT350R and the Camaro 1LE, the Challenger is a Clydesdale. We like the Challenger just fine, and it has a charm all its own, but it won’t be a true contender until it gets smaller and significantly lighter, which also would help its dismal real-world fuel economy (we regularly see mpg in the mid-teens from Challenger test cars, even V-6s).
Verdict: Third place in the pony-car sales standings, third place in our hearts.
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