March 15, 2009
"Death is easier than a wretched life; and better never to have born than to live and fare badly." — Aeschylus
The first time we slip into the leather-trimmed bucket seats of our new 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T and press the start button, we're expecting a light stumble followed by the roar and burble of its 5.7-liter Hemi V8. Someone, perhaps the lot attendant at the dealer, has left the Sirius Satellite Radio on. It's on channel 10, E-Street Radio, and with the Boss cranked to an absurd volume, our muscle car's rumbling is muted. Bruce is singing about a girl. Or a river. Or Jersey. We can't tell, and frankly it doesn't matter. He's singing about America. An America that may not exist anymore. An America that works hard, gets dirty and knows how to unwind. An America that appreciates a solid burnout.
We turn down the Boss, grab the pistol-grip shifter, pop the retro Challenger into 1st and let our new Mopar sing its own sweet song. It's not the same tune, but the scream of melting rubber and the snarl of eight frenetic cylinders projected from gaping pipes at the rear of a preposterously long body tells the same sad story, pining for simpler days.
Before the smoke clears, before our minds start thinking of replicating Kowalski's last ride, the reality of the situation sinks in. It's 2009 and under the darkest cloud Detroit has ever faced, Dodge has turned the clock back 35 years, to a time of guiltless indulgence and exuberance. For the next 12 months, Inside Line is also going to ignore the harsh reality of the world today with a little help from a 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T.
Why We Got It
Because Dodge could use the money! (Hey-ohh, that's a good one, Johnny!)
There is a distinctive ebb and flow of horsepower in the U.S. auto industry. Be it a war, gas crunch, green movement or subprime mortgage collapse, there is always a roadblock that comes into play as soon as cars get too fun. That considered, it's with a grain of salt that we say this could be the very last time we have the opportunity to buy a rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered full-size coupe with a domestic nameplate on the trunk. Well, one that isn't a Mustang, anyway.
For a muscle-car guy, it's been either a Mustang or Barrett-Jackson the last couple years. And then the new Challenger showed up at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show looking like it had just burst from a time capsule. Those intimately familiar with the 1970-'74 Challenger will notice the new car is higher and larger, and has softer, more refined curves. It's more bulbous, less sculpted. But the full-wrap grille is there. The quad headlights are there. So, too, are the rectangular exhaust tips, chrome fuel door and ducktail spoiler on the trunk lid. When the new and old cars are parked side-by-side, the new Challenger looks like the classic's fat cousin. But on its own the 2009 Challenger is a faithful remake of a beloved classic — it doesn't push any boundaries, because it's not supposed to.
The 2009 Dodge Challenger is a throwback to win back old Mopar believers. Yet the ability to tug at heartstrings won't earn this car a free pass with us for the next year and 20,000 miles. At the end of the day, the new Challenger has to be able to meet the demands of today's drivers. And that's where we come in.
Besides, we need the Challenger to be around when our long-term 2010 Chevy Camaro arrives. We'll be buying a Camaro as soon as one with the specs we want hits a dealer lot.
What We Got
Would we pay $10,000 for an extra 40-something horsepower and 20-inch wheels? No, the Dodge Challenger SRT8 isn't for us. The 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T is lighter, cheaper and in our full test, only marginally slower in a straight line. The R/T is, however, almost 4 mph slower in the slalom due to its 235/55R18 all-season tires, which don't have the grip of the SRT8's 245/45ZR20 performance tires. The R/T also has a softer suspension calibration, which leaves us cold on mountain runs but ensures this car will be a top pick whenever road trips beckon.
Apart from the R/T trim level, we only wanted two things. First, we wanted a six-speed manual transmission, and in this case it comes with a 3.73:1 axle ratio (replacing the stock, mpg-enhancing 3.06:1 ratio), as well as a limited-slip differential, and also deletes the mpg-enhancing variable cylinder management in favor of an engine rated at 376 hp and 410 pound-feet of torque. And second we wanted a normal color. No Go Mango. No Plum Crazy. No Sub Lime, Hemi Orange or (God forbid) Panther Pink. Anything else was fine. We hoped we could find one without the stupid stickers on the hood, the ones imprinted with carbon-fiber weave.
Turns out a Brilliant Black R/T with slate-gray leather interior had been sitting at a local dealer. Six-speed. No stripes. It was saddled with a few thousand dollars of options that didn't make us entirely unhappy. There's $1,260 for the Electronics Convenience Group, which offers illuminated cupholders, LED inserts in the door handles, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, keyless push-button start, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, tire-pressure monitoring display, UConnect phone, iPod interface and a garage door opener. It also had Sound Group II installed, and $185 went for a 368-watt amplifier and seven Boston Acoustics speakers and a subwoofer. Then $1,935 went for Customer Preferred package 27J, which includes automatic headlamps, body-color exterior mirrors, one-year subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio, heated leather-trimmed front seats and luxury front and rear floor mats. The six-speed manual and everything that comes with it tacked on another $995, while the navigation screen — "UConnect GPS" in Chrysler lingo — added another $1,390. Combine all this with the $725 destination charge and that's a grand total MSRP of $36,310.
But we weren't paying that. Not in this economy. Not when we have cash.
Invoice for our particular Challenger came to $33,646. Dealers need to eat just like us, so we made what we felt was a fair offer above invoice. It took some doing — and a walkout — but we bought our Challenger for our first offer: $34,600.
The Road Ahead
The 2009 Dodge Challenger's looks are spot-on. The price is spot-on and the performance is more than we expected from a 2-ton barge built on a shortened Dodge Charger platform.
But tastes have changed in the 35 years since Dodge last built the Challenger (we'll forget the rebadged Mitsubishi they pumped out in the 1980s for now). Don't believe us? Think the muscle-car segment is exempt from evolution? Check the spec sheet: iPod adapter, LED-lit door handles, illuminated cupholders. Concessions have been made to broaden the appeal of the new Challenger. But have there been enough? Were there too many? Does the old tree still bear fruit?
Over the next 12 months we'll put more than 20,000 miles on our 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T. Follow along with our long-term blogs to see if the Challenger meets our expectations or if, as some already assume, this remake falls short of the original.
Current Odometer: 1,707
Best Fuel Economy: 22.3 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 15.0 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 18.4 mpg
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.