Dodge has spent many years building a reputation for being outrageous. The bigger, the badder, the bolder, the better. One car in the current Dodge line-up that easily meets all those criteria is the Challenger. The reborn Challenger has proved immensely popular since it’s debut in 2007, and Dodge now offers no fewer than 11 different models of it, from the entry-level SXT to the fire-breathing Hellcat. Dodge recently invited us to spend some time with what they refer to as the SXT Plus. One step up from the entry level, it had a lot of the features that we wished our last 300L AWD had, like a sport suspension and sport-tuned 3.6L V6. We were curious to see how much performance these items added and were eager to experience driving a Challenger firsthand.
The car we received was an arresting, eye-catching red with the “Blacktop Package” which deleted the standard chrome accents and replaced them with shiny black ones, 20” black wheels, black trunk spoiler, and a black segmented racing strip that ran from the edge of the hood to the tail of the trunk. Subtle it was not. We got lots of compliments on the car. It’s classic throwback styling was appreciated by everyone and it seemed that everyone either had or knew someone who had a Challenger back in the day. Everywhere we drove it, people’s heads swiveled and watched us go by, which was fun until we passed a police car, who also watched us. Quite closely, in fact. Apparently there can be a downside to getting so much attention. But overall, we enjoyed being the center of attention everywhere we went.
Part of the reason it gets so much attention is that it’s such a BIG car. It’s long, it’s very wide, and it’s tall. It’s so massive it intimidates other drivers on the road. People get out of your way when you come up behind them. Despite that size, it’s also surprisingly nimble. The turning radius is quite small, much smaller than you’d expect. It maneuvers into parking spots with relative ease. The hardest part is deciding if you’ll fit between the Dodge Ram pickup and the run down heap on the other side. And whether you’ll avoid their doors knocking into yours. We found ourselves parking further out, away from the majority of other drivers.
The interior came in three colors: black, black, and blacker. The doors were black leather with brushed aluminum pulls. The carpet was black. The dash was black. The well-bolstered heated and ventilated seats were black. But it was still very handsome and inviting. The leather seats were well-bolstered and kept us in position as we tested the suspension. At one point, we were pulling almost an indicated lateral 1g and the seats kept us from flopping around the car or having to brace ourselves with our arms and legs. And they were comfortable on long trips too.
On cool mornings, the heating ability kept us warm. On hot afternoons, the ventilation in them kept us cool. And the curves of the bolsters just had a classic feel to them that matched the classic design of the rest of the car. The front passengers are treated to a very roomy environment. The rear seats however seemed to be an afterthought. Even with the front seats moved forward a reasonable distance, backseat leg room was non-existent. If you only intend to put a child’s car seat, packages, or dogs in the backseat it should work fine, but that’s about it. It was not designed to carry adults or teens.
The gauges are a pleasing blend of digital and analog. Well, digital analog anyway. The speedometer and tachometer flanked a digital display that offered readouts for everything from radio controls to a full suite of performance measurement programs. The meters measure 0-60 mph, 0-100 mph, 1/8-mile time and speed, 1/-4-mile time and speed, braking measurements, g-force meters, top speed, and include a built-in lap timer. On the center console, tucked in among the radio controls, are a few more performance buttons. SPORT engages “sport mode” which disables the capable traction control, tells the eight-speed automatic transmission to hold gears longer rather than seek optimum fuel economy, and firms up the steering. SUPER TRACK PACK engages the launch control feature.
The eight-speed automatic transmission tries hard to conserve fuel but it also has a manual-mode that allows you to use the paddle-shifters behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The left paddle is for downshifts and the right one is for upshifts. It’s fairly responsive and fun to control the gear selection but with eight gears to work through, leaving it in automatic mode is actually a little more enjoyable.
Being a base-level model, the SXT comes with a 3.6L V6 instead of a Hemi V8. With it’s classic American looks, it seems a shame that anything less than an American V8 should power it. For another $2,000 you can step up and get the R/T model with a Hemi V8 and if you can afford it, you should. It just seems….right. However, if price is an issue, and you can’t afford to stretch to the R/T, the 24-valve 3.6L V6 is a great consolation prize. It’s a strong torquey engine that makes 305 hp and 264 lb-ft of torque. And it likes to rev.
Unlike the 3.6L we experienced in the Chrysler 300L recently, this engine never seems to run out of breath. While it lacks big power down low, it revs easily and makes solid power at mid- and high-revs, allowing you to crack off shifts that put you right back in the power band of the next gear for another run at redline. It moves the heavy car with surprising ease, making it feel much lighter than it really is. It’s a great engine that deserves more praise but in the Challenger I’m afraid it will always be overshadowed by the available Hemi V8.
The car gets up to speed quickly and the massive cast-iron ventilated anti-lock disc brakes stop it even quicker. Despite it’s size and weight, you’ll never be caught out in a panic stop situation. Dodge recognized that it’s a heavy car, capable of impressive speed, and they gave it brakes that are up to the task. The front discs are massively thick and ventilated.
The suspension is listed as “Sport Suspension” and it certainly feels it. We really pushed the suspension on this car. We drove it fast on curvy, hilly backroads, threw it into sweeping curves on the freeway, swung it through roundabouts at faster than posted speeds but the suspension was unflappable. Unlike the base suspension in the 300L we recently drove, this setup provided good composure in nearly every situation we tested. This suspension gives the big car some moves and it’s a very good setup. Its one flaw is how much weight you feel in corners.
Between the firm suspension and the wide sticky tires, it holds the road pretty well but you really feel the car’s weight and it doesn’t inspire confidence. It gives good everyday livability and street performance though. As for ride quality, we threw some very bad sections of road at it – frost-heaved, crumbled, and poorly patched sections of asphalt – and the suspension did a great job of soaking up the roughness and keeping the ride smooth and composed. We heard the bad road more than we felt it as the big tires slapped against whatever imperfections they encountered.
The original Challengers were essentially muscle cars – great in a straight line, and fast. Great for drag racing. Dodge recognized this and added a launch control feature to the platform that allows anyone to launch it like a pro. It allows you to set the launch rpms, then you hold the brake pedal down and floor the accelerator. The engine stops revving at the set rpms and you simply release the brake. The tires squeal a bit and the car lunges ahead in a perfectly straight line leaving two black tire streaks on the hot asphalt. It’s ridiculously simple and delightfully fun.
Outward visibility was the only real issue we encountered in the car. The greenhouse of the car is very low. The side windows are very short and the doors are very tall. The back window is just as short, if not shorter, and there isn’t much to see when using the rearview mirror. The side mirrors and the backup camera help, but seeing out the back window isn’t the easiest. It makes the design work though, so I wouldn’t want them to change it.
If we at GTSpirit were going to buy a Challenger, we’d just pick a Hellcat in the wildest color available and be done with it. But Hellcats start at almost $65,000 USD. This SXT Plus starts at a more accessible $29,900 USD, which is an incredible value considering it’s capable performance, it’s raft of features, it’s decent fuel economy, and it’s striking good looks. It’s a lot of fun for the money. If we were optioning this model, we’d definitely spring for the Blacktop Package because it really makes the car look striking and gives it even more presence – if that were possible. We’d also opt for the Super Track Pack as well, because we loved the strong brakes, the electronic performance meters, and the sport suspension. The rest of it (stereo upgrade, driver’s convenience package, and satellite-linking accessories) was nice to have, but certainly not necessary from a performance perspective.
After spending several days with the car we were won over. The classic design and outrageous proportions made us grin every time we saw it. The 24-valve V6 did a great job propelling the car, never getting tired and eagerly lunging to redline. The sport suspension and the massive brakes kept everything composed and controlled. For an entry-level car, it has a lot to offer. But what it delivers most is fun. In this day of sterile, unadventurously styled cars that deliver incredible performance at the edge but are dull to drive in normal, everyday conditions, the Challenger, even the base model, stands out and makes driving fun through it’s capable performance and sheer presence. We expect to be driving an even higher-performance version soon and we’ll share the experience with you.