You'd think that Texas in December would be a better place to stage the very first drive of the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 than in Chrysler's home state of Michigan, right?
Yeah, we thought so, too.
But when we arrived at Texas Motorsport Ranch near Fort Worth, the track was shiny wet and the humidity was so high that fish could breathe it. Worse, the low cloud cover suggested the situation wasn't going to improve.
Perfect conditions for the 425-horsepower 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, you think?
It lends another dimension of meaning to this car's name when you find yourself attempting to pilot a 425-hp, rear-drive coupe around a wet track you've only seen before in a video. Adding to the drama is the fact that TMR's full-length 3.1-mile track links new pavement with a well-polished racing surface that when wet has a coefficient of friction somewhere between that of frog slime and raw egg whites.
"Don't even think about switching off the ESP," advises Challenger Chief Engineer Herb Helbig as we change into our racing gear and helmet. Hey, we don't even know where the stability control switch is, and there certainly isn't time to look around much when you're desperately trying to remember where you should swap from a traditional racing line on the grippy new surface to a wet-style driving line for the slick stuff.
Besides, with 420 pound-feet of torque available from the 6.1-liter Hemi V8 that powers this 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, the ESP proved invaluable. Even squeezing the throttle as gently as possible off the turns would snap the Challenger's tail out before the electronic gremlins could chop the power delivery and start applying the brakes. But since the new pavement section turned out to be in pretty good shape, this bold new coupe could strut its stuff to much better effect on that half of the circuit.
Good Power, Needs More Transmission
Once there was some traction available, you could appreciate the V8's broad plateau of torque, the immediate and emphatic throttle response and the swelling rumble of an engine breathing through big-bore plumbing. Where there's grip, the Challenger lunges off the corners and swallows the straights, its sustained thrust complemented by long riffs of resonant mechanical music.
We would brake as delicately into corners as we could on the glistening surface, forced to use the same polished line on corner entry as everyone that had ever lapped the track, and then we'd tap the shifter for a downshift when it seemed safe to do so. Unfortunately we were rewarded by the scraping sound of rear wheels rotating a lot slower on the pavement than the fronts as the tranny dropped a lower ratio on them.
In dry conditions, there'd be no problem, but we'd still like to hear a throttle blip at every manually triggered downshift, both to quicken the shift itself and also to keep the rear wheels from dragging. It's not nice when the rear tires try to lead (rather than follow) you through a corner.
Based as it is on the LX platform of the Dodge Charger, the Challenger's dynamic performance isn't altogether unexpected. As in the high-powered SRT8 version of the Charger, the Challenger benefits from the big Hemi, the W5A580 five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick manual override and the same suspension system. So it's a good and strong package, and we expect acceleration times similar to the Charger SRT8.
Think zero to 60 mph in the low 5-second range and a standing quarter in the mid-13s. A better measure of performance, according to chief engineer Helbig, is the 0-100-0-mph test, in which he predicts the Challenger SRT8 will run high 16s. Not bad for a 4,200-pound car.
While the suspension bushings are essentially carried over from the Charger, the specific tuning of the Challenger's chassis is softer. This is partly to accommodate the Challenger's 112-inch wheelbase, which is 4 inches shorter than the Charger. But it also has to do with the fact that Chrysler's product planners feel this car is likely to be bought by nostalgic baby boomers whose days of jowl-jiggling hot-rod rides are over.
Softer the ride may be, but uncontrolled it is not. There are monotube Bilstein shocks all around, and the antiroll bars have enough meat on them to quell any incipient floundering from the body. Actually, the slightly softer ride proves better for the wet driving conditions we experienced, giving you a pretty good idea of how much grip is available at the contact patches of these beefy 45-series Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-season tires on 20-inch wheels.
The Brembo brake setup also is familiar from the Dodge Charger, but all Chrysler's Brembo systems have now been improved by utilizing an ABS-controlled wet-weather function that keeps the pads close to the rotor surfaces whenever the car corners at greater than 0.60g. Prior to this latest fix, all SRT8 models using similar brake components suffered from pad knock-back during hard cornering, resulting in long pedal travel just when you wanted it the least.
With the track surface as wet and slick as it is, good brake pedal feel and more than adequate braking power is all we can honestly report, but we fully expect that the Challenger's 14.2-inch front rotors and 13.9-inch rear rotors with four-piston calipers all around can get the job done, no questions asked. Though the Challenger has a retro look, its stopping and steering capabilities are right up to the minute.
Retro Looks, Modern Execution
So, in a way, is the look of the car. While its silhouette might hark back to the fondly remembered 1970-'74 Challenger, the execution is completely up to date. The body panels show a subtle fluency that stamping mills of the past couldn't manage. The incorporation of this car's bumpers into the body surface, suggesting competition practice from the SCCA Trans-Am in the bad old days of 1970, brings a postmodern tidiness to the look. You can also expect modern standards of structural stiffness from this reborn muscle car.
You can also expect contemporary aerodynamics. The Challenger wears a deftly tweaked front splitter and a tail-wing assembly designed to provide real aero effects. Check out the dive planes on the front fenders, designed to generate vortices down the side of the car that aid air extraction through the wheels, reducing flow separation and turbulence. It's evidence that the Dodge engineers spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel, and that the SRT guys also like to perform 150-mph lane-change tests. The result is a nostalgic design with leading-edge aero additions.
Muscle (Car) Memory
The 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 resonates on many familiar neural pathways. Its shape and proportions are right on the money. The big driver door offers easy ingress (unless, like us, you're driving a development mule with a full roll cage). The seat height is at a respectable altitude, precluding that sideways limbo you have to use to get into many modern coupes; and the high beltline and cowl shared by all the LX-platform cars is entirely appropriate to the era being celebrated here.
Then there's the baritone grumble of the big V8 as it lights off. This sound speaks directly to those of us with the Y chromosome. There must be some genetic component that is passed unaltered from father to son that explains the identical emotional response in all of us to the inimitable sound of an awakening Hemi.
So Worth the Money
Dodge dealers have been taking orders for the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 since December, asking $37,995 per copy. There will be 6,400 made before the car is joined by other models in the Challenger range a year later. These will probably include variants all the way down to a 2.7-liter V6 version, with maybe even an all-wheel-drive model.
It is a complete reversal of procedure for Dodge to release the SRT version of the Challenger before friendlier versions that have a wider appeal, but for this skillful interpretation of an automotive icon, we can happily set protocol aside.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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