The 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T wants to come home almost as badly as we do.
We're cranking along I-80 West on our way from suburban New York to Detroit — to Woodward Avenue, in fact. We're hauling up on the dudes in Hyundais and swerving around RSXs. These people are looking at us like we've got lobsters crawling out of our eye sockets. This isn't the Challenger's bag, man.
This modern-day muscle/pony car might be constructed in a plant near Toronto, but it will always be "from Detroit." And no location in Detroit will ever be quite as friendly to the Challenger as Woodward Avenue — particularly during the traditional Dream Cruise in mid-August. This unwieldy, non-organized, traffic-snarled, oldies-blaring orgy of angry exhaust and gasoline stench is the Challenger's turf. Here, fart-can-exhaust Civic owners meet flat-black retro-rod rockabilly dudes, who meet hyperaggressive Camaro-driving burnouts, who meet fat old men with their poodle-skirt-wearing wives, who meet non-automotive-related standard-issue freak shows in aluminum foil hats and carrying half-full trash bags. It's a mess.
But everyone seems to dig the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T.
Is That a 'Cuda?
One transsexual stopped us in our new Dodge as we were pulling onto the Avenue. "Is that a 'Cuda?" she asked.
"What? Oh, the car. Right. No, it's a Challenger." Did she think our R/T was some sort of old Chip Foose-modified Barracuda? Or did she realize it was a new car and didn't know Plymouth was dead? Or was she simply, er, confused? Whatever, she was interested.
In fact, the only people who did not seem to care for our '09 TorRed Challenger R/T were the pair in the triple-white New Beetle convertible stuck behind us when we unloaded a monster, ozone-wrecking, particle-flinging burnout. No sir, they did not like that one bit.
Neither did the cop in the Tahoe who we only noticed coming up behind us on the shoulder once the smoke dissipated a little. So we got three nasty glares (two in the Beetle and one from the cop) but no tickets.
And we were flooded with well wishes, thumbs-up and the appreciation of the two dudes in the blown 5.0-liter Mustang who were the first to request the burnout by saying, "Light 'em, man!" When they caught up with us after the smoky launch they were smiling big and bopping their heads around in the car like a couple of excited monkeys.
The Benefits of Nostalgia
Even more than the retro-inflected Mustang and the upcoming retro-modern Camaro, the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T traffics in nostalgia. The R/T is slightly more faithful to the original 1970 Challenger than the SRT8, with its "carbon fiber" stripes and fancy Italian brakes. The R/T's got the period-correct rectangular exhaust tips, chrome fuel filler door with "FUEL" helpfully printed on it and the same inset full-width grille and quad headlamps.
What we have here is the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger platform, the chassis derived from old Mercedes E-Class bits. Chop out 4 inches of that fat boy's wheelbase and you have, well, a still-massive thing. With 116 inches between the center caps of the front and rear wheels, you end up with a car that's not totally outside the realm of being a Mustang/Camaro fighter.
But we couldn't help but feel that the lenses in our eyeballs had been replaced with wide-angle panoramic units as stretching those familiar 1970 proportions over such broad dimensions has made the Challenger a Matchbox car in a Penny Racers world.
The Challenger SRT8 remains the standard bearer of the Challenger line, but now for '09 Dodge has to convert all the attention the limited-production SRT8 has garnered and sell a bunch of less-powerful V8 R/Ts and much-less-powerful V6 SE models to make some money on the whole proposition. We have serious doubts about the viability/desirability of the SE model, especially since this V6-powered car will make up more than 50 percent of Challenger sales. But the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T, now this is an intriguing combination of parts.
Check the specs: 376 horsepower from Dodge's reworked 5.7-liter Hemi V8, now with variable valve timing. Further, it cranks out a pants-twisting 410 pound-feet of torque. These numbers apply only to the particular R/Ts equipped with the optional ($995) six-speed manual transmission. These 5.7s get a unique free-flowing exhaust and a thirst for premium fuel to bump power. When mated with the five-speed automatic, the 5.7-liter R/T motor makes a paltry 372 hp and 401 lb-ft. It will be quieter and likes to run on 89 octane fuel.
An R/T with the manual will return 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway according to the EPA. We got just over 20 mpg on a couple of tanks of expressway driving with a few burnouts and other assorted idiotic full-throttle applications thrown in.
Combine this with the Dodge's estimated curb weight of 4,041 pounds and you get our 0-60-mph run of 5.9 seconds (5.5 seconds using a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip). The quarter-mile is dispatched in 14.1 seconds at 100.8 mph. We tested the R/T (as well as the V6-powered SE and the SRT8 with its newly available manual tranny) at the well-known Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.
If these numbers seem pretty close to those you might expect from an SRT8, give yourself a cookie. The 425-hp, 6.1-liter SRT8 fitted with the new Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual transmission cranks out a 0-60-mph run of 5.5 seconds (or 5.2 seconds using a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip). The higher-revving but heavier SRT8 will get through the quarter in 13.8 seconds at 103 mph. Good numbers, but not much better than the R/T. And as our test driver noted, the SRT8 could break 60 mph at the top of 2nd gear thanks to the Hemi's 6,400-rpm redline. The R/T's 5.7-liter Hemi V8 redlines at 5,800 rpm and had to be shifted into 3rd instead, and the time spent on the gearchange accounts for almost all of the time difference to 60 mph between the two cars.
No Drum Brakes Like 1970
The R/T with optional all-season 245/45ZR20 Goodyear RS-A tires stops from 60 mph in 126 feet. The SRT8 with its optional summer performance Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires does it in 119 feet. The SRT8 also brings to the party slightly larger front rotors and 1.2-inch-larger rear rotors than the R/T. Plus the SRT8 carries four-piston Brembo calipers front and rear to the R/T's dual-piston front and single-piston rear.
In terms of braking distance, we are inclined to attribute most of the SRT8's advantage to the performance edge the SRT8's summer tires have over the R/T's squawking all-season jobs. The SRT8's brakes also showed no sign of fade after six full-ABS stops; this is the bonus that comes with the big-brake package. The R/T's brakes were starting to stink by the end of several stops and the stopping distance had grown by about 6 feet. As ever, 2 tons remains a lot of car.
It's partly the fault of its all-season tires that the R/T isn't as fast through our slalom as the SRT8. The R/T gets through reasonably well for such a large car at 62.4 mph, yet the SRT8 cranks through at 66 mph. One other contributing factor is the inability to totally disable the R/T's stability control system. Dodge now says that future R/T models will get the same two-stage system as the SRT models — a quick push of the button turns off traction control, then hold the button for 5 seconds and all safety nets are removed.
Because Dodge isn't trying to make a road racer out of the R/T, its suspension setup is more compliant than that of the SRT8. There's little-to-no impact harshness and the ride is generally very quiet. It seems to us that this is a good compromise for the mission of this car.
Don't get us wrong. We're not saying the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T is a pig. It will actually stick pretty well. But, you know, it ain't a Lotus. In fact, after a long drive, it sometimes sits in the driveway for hours picking Loti out of its grille. There is simply no forgetting its weight — ever. And its huge steering wheel with its lightweight action isn't the stuff of road racing fantasies.
The interior? Sucks. It's a dour black bog. And why wouldn't the driver's chair have a seatback release to allow rear passengers into the almost livable three-passenger rear? On the upside, the pistol-grip shifter fit our hand so nicely that it felt as if we'd created it by squeezing a big blob of Play-Doh.
With a huge gap in base prices, the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T stacks up pretty well against the SRT8. If you look just at base prices, the $29,995 price tag for the R/T is a full $10,000 less than the SRT8.
But our R/T came with $9,060 worth of optional equipment — much of which is standard on the SRT8. This all adds up pretty quickly, so the difference between the R/T and the SRT8 is not as great as it first appears. Then once you add in the SRT8 equipment that is not available for any amount of money on the R/T such as the bigger brakes, summer tires, stiffer suspension tune, heavily bolstered seats — and, oh yeah, the 6.1-liter 425-hp motor that shotguns premium at the rate of 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway — then the SRT8 has enough differentiation to keep it from being eaten alive by its little brother.
Good thing, because the R/T is but one small mistake away from smoking the SRT8 from a stoplight. It's the choice among Challengers.
How it'll fare against the new Mustang is another question entirely, as the revised 2010 car is coming soon with significant upgrades. And with somewhere around 422 hp and an estimated sub-5.0-second 0-60-mph sprint, the upcoming Chevy Camaro SS might be the big, swinging muscle car of this generation.
But did we mention that when we leave the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T idling in our driveway, it sets our aluminum rear storm door into violent vibrations? Also we have yet to find a better new car in which to listen to early Black Sabbath. So there's that.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
It didn't take long behind the wheel of three different 2009 Dodge Challengers to realize that the R/T is the budget-friendly performance secret in the Challenger arsenal. Opting for the R/T's Quick Order 27F package plus 20-inch wheels gets you 98 percent of the performance of a similarly equipped Challenger SRT8 for $8,350 less.
Compared to the SRT8 (which features the very same Tremec TR-6060 six-speed manual transmission plus the Getrag axle with mechanical limited-slip differential), the R/T launches just as hard, matches the SRT8's pace to 45 mph and only begins to fall behind slightly as 60 mph approaches.
Because the R/T's 376-hp 5.7-liter Hemi revs to 5,800 rpm (instead of the 425-hp 6.1-liter Hemi's 6,400 rpm), it requires throwing that pistol-grip shifter from 2nd to 3rd just before 60 mph. The SRT8 doesn't have to make the shift until just over 60 mph and there's your 0.4-second difference right there. At the end of the quarter-mile, the recorded differences were just 0.3 second and 2.2 mph in the SRT8's favor. Touch the rev limiter for a nanosecond or botch a shift and it's a draw.
So what's wrong with the R/T? In the slalom, its all-season Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires give up before the chassis does. While the Screaming Eagles are decent all-season tires, swapping them out for summer tires would narrow the handling deficit. There's one caveat, though, because the ESP switch in the SRT8 fully defeats stability control while it only makes the system more lenient in the R/T. Driven smoothly, this wouldn't matter anyway.
And guess what else? The 5.7-liter Hemi will prove more fuel-efficient, too. Now the only decision would be to wait for "B5 Blue" or go stealthy black right now?
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