To many New Yorkers, tourists are organic speed bumps standing between them and the revolving door they're in a mad rush to get to. But we've discovered a way to melt the hard shells of Big Apple Type A's and -- gasp! -- even get them to crack a smile. The key?
A gleaming new Dodge Challenger.
Gauging from the double takes, drooling and thumbs-ups Dodge's 2009 Challenger triggers, dealers will face a challenge keeping enough of these retro sleds around.
The reborn Challenger is impressive, not just in its visual faithfulness to the original 1970 pony car, but because the clever cloning involving the rear-drive platform from the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. (We're thankful that this tribute car didn't get transformed into a four-door as did the Charger.)
Whether it's the base SE model with V-6, the R/T with Hemi, or the honking Hemi-on-steroids SRT8 with 425 ponies, the new Challenger comes to the party with enough nostalgia to drive car fans, well, plum crazy -- even if they're not old enough to remember the ancestral Challenger and its five-year run (1970-1974).
And hooray! There's not a trace of the "gun sight" grille the rest of the Dodge lineup is saddled with. Instead, a wide recessed grille and four round headlights (stare long enough and they could be hooded eyes) give the Challenger a slightly sinister countenance.
Another tie to past Challengers and its platform mate, the Plymouth Barracuda, is the 2009's character line, which kicks up just ahead of the rear wheel well to give the car a ready-to-pounce attitude. The Challenger's chromed and hinged "FUEL" filler cap is pure "Happy Days." Out back, the taillights stretch the full width of the car just like the original Challenger.
The Challenger again is offered in three flavors. Under the hood of the entry-level SE is a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter "high output" SOHC V6 and four-speed automatic. The R/T (Road/Track) has the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with either 5-speed automatic or the 6-speed manual that's derived from the 600-horse Viper SRT10. The street fighter is the SRT8 with 425-hp 6.1-liter Hemi.
The SE ($21,995 including destination), with the fewest pieces of gingerbread, is a clean slate for enthusiasts who plan to accessorize their rides as time and budget permit. Standard running gear consists of 215/65R17 T-rated Goodyear Integrity all-seasons on 17x7 machine cast aluminum wheels. Estimated fuel economy is 17/25 mpg.
But don't worry about the 17s if you want modern technology like electronic stability and traction control and anti-lock 4-wheel-disc brakes, because on the Challenger they're optional. The only way to get those three safety features, which are standard on practically every other car from Suzuki's $14,339 SX4 on up, is to get option package "G." The price then jumps to just under $25K, but you'll also get 225/60R18 Continental ProContact all-season touring tires on 18x7.5-inch cast aluminum rims, fog lamps, alarm, SIRIUS satellite radio, sun visors with lighted vanity mirrors and leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. (Final gear is 3.64)
If you want go to match the show, your ticket is the $29,995 Hemi Challenger, officially known as the R/T (road/track). With the standard five-speed automatic, the 5.7-liter V8 generates 372 horses and 401 lb-ft. of torque. Want to do your shifting? The Tremec TR-6060 6-speed is an extra grand. The good news: horsepower is bumped to 376 and torque goes to 410 lb-ft. With the manual, the Challenger gets hill start assist, a 3.91 rear (the automatic's is 3.06), a Getrag limited-slip diff and performance steering with variable displacement power steering pump that is said to reduce fluid temps and cut parasitic losses good for a slight (.2 mpg) gain in fuel economy.
Note that the Hemi in the R/T has been updated; the compression is bumped to 10.5:1 vs. the previous 9.6:1 and valve timing is now variable. Chrysler's fuel-saving multiple displacement system (MDS) gets partial credit for the automatic's EPA estimated city/highway numbers: 16/23 for the 5-speed automatic. The old-school street Hemi was notorious for going through spark plugs. Be thankful for modern fuel management, as the modern Hemi in the R/T has two plugs per cylinder. Our friendly local Mopar parts counterman informed us that the Champion plugs are $9.85 a pop. That's $157.60 for a total replacement, but look at the bright side: Chrysler says the dual spark plugs benefit power, emissions, idle quality and fuel economy.
Challengers equipped with the Tremec, which features triple-cone synchronizers in first and second, are rated at 15/23 mpg. Not only does the manual have the deeper rear gear, it's a full-time V8. No MDS. R/Ts and SRT8s have dual exhaust with bright rectangular tips. Standard tires are V-rated 235/55R18 Michelin MXM4s on cast aluminum 18x7.5 wheels all around. For $1,350, you can slap on 245/45R20 Goodyear Eagle RSAs on 20x8s.
Dodge officials say the R/T should accelerate from 0-60 mph in around 5.6 seconds and under 14 seconds in the quarter mile.
The 2009 Challenger SRT8 is $41,695. Opt for the 6-speed Tremec (Dodge officials say it's the same as the one in the R/T) and the price is $42,390. In addition to the larger Hemi (no MDS), SRT8s have four-piston Brembo calipers and 360mm slotted rotors good for 60-0 mph stopping disatances of about 110 feet, according to the manufacturer. Standard tires and wheels are the 245/45R20 Goodyear Eagle RSAs on 20x8s optional on R/Ts. An upgrade to Goodyear F1 Supercar tires, with rears going up to 255/45R20, is $100. SRT8s have basically the same five-link independent rear suspension as the rest of the Challengers except that shocks are gas-charged Bilstein monotubes. SRT8s come with unique front diffuser and rear spoiler.
(With a curb weight of 3,720 pounds, the SE is the only Challenger under two tons.)
The interior is comfortable enough but falls short aesthetically. There's lots of hard plastic. We don't quite get how a $22,000 Volkswagen Jetta can have a cool cabin and Dodge's hipster is stuck with a cabin that's got all the appeal of a five-year old N.Y. taxi. The designers must have come up against a time or budget wall. One glaring issue that needs to be addressed as a running change is the driver's seat. There's no way to tilt the seatback forward to gain access to the back seat.
The V6 has plenty of power for commuting, but cries out for a modern 5-speed manumatic or a 6-speed manual option. The latter would make a versatile driver for commutes or long weekend drives.
We think the temperature gauge in the R/T cluster -- which echoes the 70s' four-hole layout -- needs numerals. Only after driving the SRT8, which does have the actual temps indicated, did we see that the middle hash mark corresponded to 215 degrees.
Those kinds of improvements are just part of the fun ahead. Dodge reps said a central hood scoop, side stripes and other goodies similar to those on the 1970 Challenger T/A -- the street version of the Trans Am cars Dodge campaigned -- will be options.
But this initial product already has admirers. Park it anywhere and it's a magnet for car lovers.
"This is a great!" gushed Hiro Fujiki, 46, who operates a Brooklyn touring company serving Japanese visitors. "This shows American car companies can bring back style. For $22,000, it's a great deal."
Stephen Duncan, a 24-year-old college student from Harlem, said, "I'm a huge fan of the muscle car era. When I saw it at the auto show, I loved it. It's like a fusion of old school and new school.
"I would have to know how much gas it consumes, but I could see myself driving this in the city. And it looks like a good car for the highway. You need to appeal to all socioeconomic groups and races. They'll definitely want to buy these."
For details, see dodge.com/en/2009/challenger/
Designers talk about their labor of love:
The Challenger at speed: