Big power under a big hood, big seats and a bigger-than-life personality, that's the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8. Then again, that was the 2010 Challenger SRT8. Apart from this year's different engine badges and different paint/graphics schemes, they look the same, too. But they don't drive the same.
There's more power this year, but more important, there's more usable power at lower rpm. So you'll notice a stronger pull from the engine room in everyday driving, not just let-'er-rip blasts to the tachometer's redline. Likewise, the revised suspension and steering don't just make themselves known while dancing around little orange cones at a track event, because you can feel the difference just tooling along your favorite stretch of two-lane blacktop.
Compared to its chief rivals — the Chevrolet Camaro SS, Ford Mustang GT and Ford Shelby GT500 — the muscle-bound Challenger R/T and SRT8 have been fast in a straight line but somewhat lazy when thrown a curve. To be fair, the Challenger is a larger car than either the Mustang or Camaro. But a revised steering and suspension setup combine to make the 2011 Dodge Challenger feel far more composed and far more agile, so the new car actually drives more like a midsizer than a full-sizer.
Of course, all the past perks of the Challenger package remain, which include a higher-quality, more driver-friendly interior than the Camaro and a much more accommodating backseat than either the Chevy or the Mustang. And now that the Dodge boys have given the 2011 Challenger SRT8 some middleweight agility along with an even greater heavyweight punch, we're just knocked out.
The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 carries a larger-displacement engine, a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 that replaces the 6.1-liter version. But check those badges — rather than "6.4-liter Hemi," they say "392 Hemi." Dodge has gone all nostalgic, choosing to express this larger-displacement engine in terms of cubic inches. This works out to 392 (well, using Dodge's math anyway), the precise displacement of the hallowed 392 Hemi V8 of the 1950s. (What a coincidence!)
Although the former 6.1-liter Hemi didn't exactly lack muscle, laying into the new 6.4-liter version V8 reveals an even more robust character, as we're shoved back in our seats with greater force than we recall. This engine makes 470 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 470 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. That's an increase of 90 lb-ft of torque at 2,900 rpm, and it's accompanied by a deliciously rumbling, bellowing exhaust that sounds so good you'll leave the radio off and roll down the windows. (We did.)
Our car had the optional automatic transmission which provides crisp, fairly quick gearchanges if left to its own devices. In manual mode the transmission still shifts up on its own if the engine hits redline. And it doesn't have a rev-matching programming for downshifts, a feature that delivers quicker, smoother shift action.
At the test track the Challenger lays down some impressive numbers. The 0-60-mph sprint comes in 4.5 seconds from a standstill, while the quarter-mile passes in 12.6 seconds at 112.1 mph. That's scary quick by any measure. Notably, the engine is smooth and refined even when pressed hard, giving it an easygoing no-sweat sort of personality that's easy to like.
The SRT8's powerful Brembo brakes are fully up to the task of reining in the 4,257-pound Challenger. The firm, linear pedal action provides a reassuring feel, and the binders can bring the Dodge to a stop from 60 mph in just 114 feet, a number that would do a German sport coupe proud.
Yet the most notable difference between the previous Challenger SRT8 and the 2011 version is the way the new car feels when you're turning the steering wheel, not just spinning the rear wheels. A quicker steering ratio and a new wheel alignment deliver a more eager move into the apex of a corner and make the new, smaller-diameter steering wheel feel alive. Coupled with a retuned, buttoned-down suspension calibration and Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar ultra-performance tires, all this helps this 2-ton behemoth feel more like a coupe and less like a two-door sedan. And when it's time to face those little cones in the Edmunds slalom test, the Challenger weaves through at 67 mph, a pretty respectable showing for a car this size.
With a fairly wide range of adjustment from the steering wheel and driver seat, the 2011 Dodge Challenger accommodates drivers both small and large with equal ease. As before, the front seats offer both comfort for long trips and ample lateral support for aggressive driving. The Skechers-like blue-and-white upholstery of this car comes as part of the 392 Inaugural Edition, an option package that includes other eye candy such as the exterior stripes, quad exhaust tips and polished wheels.
Even with this year's performance-minded suspension tweaks, the Challenger retains its relatively plush big-car ride. Combine the latter with the Challenger's effortless cruising ability and fairly low levels of road and wind noise and you can understand this car's excellent reputation for long-distance travel. If your road trip companions include some big boys, no worries, because a pair of broad 6-footers will fit in the backseat.
Unlike the Camaro and Mustang pony cars, the Challenger's cabin doesn't deliver the intimate feel of a cockpit. Indeed it feels more like sitting in your Uncle's Chrysler 300 (not a surprise, given that their platforms are much the same). But the upside is the way this more expansive front seat has not only plenty of room for you but also handy cubbies for your wallet, garage cards and cell phone. The instruments are large and easy to read, as are the knobs for the automatic climate control. The audio system uses both hard buttons and a touchscreen, but it's fairly intuitive to use (and has steering wheel controls), as is the navigation system.
Unlike the Camaro and Mustang, the Challenger boasts a generous trunk, and at 16.2 cubic feet it's about equal to that of a roomy family sedan. It swallows a set of golf clubs along with a large rolling suitcase with room to spare, though its lift-over is rather high. Should you need more space, you can always make use of the 60/40-split folding feature of the rear seat.
Design/Fit and Finish
Though it incorporates the aggressive design cues of the 1970 Challenger, such as the kicked-up character lines, round quad headlights and a hood with dual scoops, the new Challenger still manages to not look like a rolling anachronism. The shape of the dash and instruments likewise pay homage to the original, yet function just fine in a modern context.
The Challenger's cabin uses a fair amount of high-quality, soft-touch materials that provide (literally) a luxurious touch. The available blue-and-white upholstery makes for a rather shocking contrast to the otherwise somber cabin. This treatment tends to polarize opinions, but as only 1,492 of the "392 Inaugural Edition" Challengers will be made for North America, this car will be a rare sight anyway. Overall, the build quality is very good, with tight panel gaps all around inside and out.
Who should consider this vehicle
With its classic styling, strong performance and relatively generous passenger/cargo-carrying ability, the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 has appeal that goes beyond single 40-something guys with stacks of old Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines in the garage. A docile commuter during the daily grind, roomy and comfortable enough to carry four adults and a hoot when the road opens up, this dynamite Dodge offers a lot for more practical car enthusiasts.
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