Dodge is tired of getting its ass kicked. It's tired of being smoked by the Mustang and Camaro on anything but an arrow-straight drag strip and it's tired of its beloved Challenger being roasted by auto scribes as slow steering, slow responding and underdamped. The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 is expected to fix all that.
Sure, with a new 6.4-liter version of its pushrod V8 cranking out 470 horsepower, it can still leave a lengthy pair of black stripes. But Dodge says steering and suspension changes to its modern-day muscle car make it capable on both kinds of roads: straight and curvy.
Our test car was a preproduction version of the Challenger SRT8 392 Inaugural Edition (IE), of which 1,492 will be built: 1,100 for us 'Mericans and 392 for those in the great white north. Besides exclusivity, the extra $1,995 on top of the Challenger SRT8 392's not-inexpensive $44,680 base price (including destination and gas-guzzler tax) gets you a choice of blue with white stripes (as on our test car) or white with blue stripes. There's also a Mopar quad-tip exhaust, forged-alloy 20-inch wheels and a few interior bits including questionable white seats and a numbered dash plaque.
That Thing Got a 392?
One of the biggest changes for 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 models is the new 6.4-liter Hemi V8, an evolution of the previous 6.1-liter. Dodge doesn't exactly mind that the engine's 392-cubic-inch dimension carries some mystique — the original 392 Hemi from 1957-'58 served many a drag racer well.
Not only does the new 392 have a 0.9mm increased bore and 3.7mm increased stroke over the 6.1, but Dodge engineers updated the engine with variable cam timing, an active intake manifold, new high-flow cylinder heads, larger-diameter exhaust and intake valves and new cold-air induction. Also new for 2011 is the engine's ability to switch from eight- to four-cylinder operation (automatic models only).
It's a fairly seamless affair, switching quickly back to eight cylinders when your right foot calls the engine room for more power. Fuel efficiency has improved, but don't expect hybridlike miserliness. The EPA rates the 392 auto at 14/22 (up from last year's 13/19); we averaged 14.5 mpg.
More Power Is Always Good
All the aforementioned changes add up to considerably more power versus the old 6.1-liter mill. The 392 cranks out 470 hp at 6,000 rpm and 470 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm, compared with 425 hp at 6,200 and 420 lb-ft at 4,800 from the old engine. Notable here is the 200-rpm-lower power peak and 600-rpm-lower torque peak.
One of the few knocks against the 6.1 was weak-sauce power down low. Dodge says the new engine has an extra 90 lb-ft of torque at 2,900 rpm versus the 6.1. Luckily, the 392 still likes to rev, and the higher the tach rises, the more the Challenger belches out a thrilling blend of ripping and snorting V8 music from its retuned exhaust.
Still Slappin' da Five-Speed
A six-speed manual comes standard on 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T and SRT8 models. The old five-speed automatic remains, now as a $995 option. This fact won't be lost on muscle car fans, as both the Camaro SS and Mustang GT utilize six-speed autos for those who don't like to shift for themselves.
Our test car was fitted with the auto, and despite wide ratios and tall 3.06:1 gearing, the extra torque meant it would spin the rear tires easily from a stop, even with traction control on. A clean launch requires you to feather the throttle off the line until the rear tires gain enough traction to make full use of all that twist.
The result was a stellar sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds (4.2 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip), which is a good half-second quicker than any previous automatic-equipped Challenger SRT8. That's also quicker than any production Mustang GT or Camaro SS we've tested. The Challenger 392's prodigious power made its presence felt in the quarter-mile, too, clocking a 12.6-second run at 112.1 mph.
A new transmission calibration gives the Challenger quick, abrupt shifts in Manual mode and almost equally abrupt shifts in Auto mode. Drive it more gently and it shifts more gently. The left/right slap-shifting via the console lever lets you change gears yourself, although there's no throttle blipping, so downshifts are slow and jerky.
Even more annoying for those who love the occasional block-long burnout is that the tranny won't hold gears in Manual mode. You need to keep track of those revs or it will shift to 2nd gear on its own, right in the middle of your smoke show. A new Shift Lock feature holds gears during high-g turns, though.
Twisty Roads No Longer so "Challenging"
Bend the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 hard into a turn and — surprise! Replacing the previous Challenger SRT8's slow, overboosted steering and wallowy turn-in is a muscle coupe that corners willingly with ample control. The suspension hunkers down and takes a set, while the steering is decidedly quicker and has some actual feel to it. This is definitely not the old Challenger.
What's different? Some thoughtful retuning and a few new parts, including new front control arms and bushings, a new tensioner link and a front cradle with conical hydraulic engine mounts. Dodge also added an extra degree of negative camber to the front wheels, along with an increase in shock damping — up 8.5 percent at the front and 11 percent at the rear (the antiroll bars remain the same — 30mm front, 16mm rear). Another huge aid to the Challenger's new and improved feel is its recalibrated steering with a quicker ratio: 14.4:1 versus last year's 16.1:1.
The changes helped the 392 circle the skid pad at 0.88g. It also acquitted itself nicely through the slalom with a 67-mph run. This despite the fact that the 4,257-pound Challenger 392 Inaugural Edition is between 100 and 200 pounds heavier than any previous Challenger SRT8 we've tested.
The increased damping gives a barely harsher ride than before — still plenty comfy, as the 2008-'10 Challenger was like a four-wheeled sofa. More critical is that the Challenger's handling is improved to the point that now you might actually search out a twisty road rather than avoid it.
Vintage, or Hideous?
One of the most welcome updates to the 2011 Dodge Challenger's minimally reworked interior is what Dodge is calling a smaller, "right-size" three-spoke steering wheel. The previous Challenger SRT8's wheel always seemed overly large, and compounded the car's slow-reacting steering.
But what about those blue and white seats? Universally, everyone on staff hated the look (my wife liked them, but questioned how long they would stay white). Luckily the color combo is part of the IE package and won't be standard fare. The seats themselves are excellent, with plenty of long-haul cushioning and just the right amount of lateral support.
The Way It Should've Been
Despite the 2008-'10 Challenger's lack of handling precision, it was hard to dislike Dodge's muscle car. After all, it looks mean, especially in SRT8 form — never mind the fact that, designwise, it's little more than a carbon copy of a 1970 model.
Things are different with the 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392, though. Yes, it's still good for smoky burnouts, and still looks hot. But now you don't have to hit those excellent Brembo brakes when you see a turn. Instead, get on the gas and point it toward the apex with confidence, as the quicker steering and improved suspension react with you, instead of protesting mightily. It's a better machine in every way.
What we have here is a modern-day muscle car that, when it hits showrooms early next year, should finally be able to walk tall with the Camaro and Mustang...any time, on any road.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation, which originally appeared on insideline.com.
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