Pros: Glorious V8 engines; satisfying pistol-grip stick shift; luxurious highway ride; sedan-like backseat; huge trunk; unique looks
Cons: Feels as big as it looks; outdated automatic transmission; no convertible model; dull interior; hard to see behind you
What's New: R/T Blacktop package; SRT-8 launch control system
Take one glance at the mean-looking 2013 Dodge Challenger and you might assume that it's rough, impractical and generally uncouth. But in truth, it is basically a full-size sedan with a reverently retro body, and while it projects tons of attitude, it's surprisingly docile behind the wheel.
Launched for 2008 on the same solid platform it shared with the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger, today's Challenger has proven to be a superb highway cruiser and remains the only coupe on the market with room for five passengers, thanks to its wide, 3-person rear seat. Indeed, unless you find the epic rumble of a Hemi V8 uncouth, your lasting memory of the Challenger will likely involve its all-around civility.
All said, we like the Challenger a lot. There are a few things to be cautious about, however. First, while some other reborn muscle cars have become quite adept at cornering, the heavy Challenger is best in a straight line unless you spring for the pricey but fantastic SRT-8 model. Second, the 5-speed automatic is behind the times in many ways (fortunately, a terrific 6-speed stick is available with V8 models). And finally, the Challenger also has a relatively unimaginative interior, limited vision through the side and rear windows and it's the only modern muscle car not offered as a convertible.
Nothing on that list dampens our enthusiasm, however, because our overall feeling about the Challenger is that Dodge has essentially built a powerful luxury coupe in the form of a muscle car. What's not to love about that?
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Dodge Challenger comes in three main varieties (or more accurately, potencies): the SXT range is powered by Chrysler's excellent 3.6-liter V-6, the R/T has a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and the SRT-8 rocks a 6.4-liter Hemi V8. The base SXT ($27,295) includes 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry/ignition, a tilt-telescopic steering column with a leather-wrapped wheel, power front seats, automatic climate control and a 6-speaker audio system with an auxiliary audio jack (but no USB port). For a mere $500 more, the SXT Plus ($27,795) adds niceties like Nappa leather upholstery, heated front seats, rear parking sensors, Boston Acoustics speakers with enhanced power and USB and Bluetooth connectivity. A cool Rallye Redline model ($29,695) based on the SXT Plus brings a red center stripe, black chrome-clad wheels, performance tires, steering, brakes and suspension, the latter with an electronically controlled sport mode.
The R/T ($31,090) and R/T Plus ($33,090) trims add a sport-tuned suspension, a limited-slip differential, and fog lamps, but otherwise essentially mirror the SXT/Plus model equipment list (though USB/Bluetooth are standard on all R/Ts). For $1995 more, the new R/T Blacktop package adds matte graphite racing stripes, gloss black 20-in wheels with matching grille surround and fuel door treatments, as well as the Super Track Pak (sic) contents -- a $595 upgrade on other Challenger R/T models -- that brings a higher-performance steering gear and upgraded brake linings, shocks and tires. The R/T Classic ($33,995) tacks on 20-in wheels, xenon headlamps, a functional hood scoop and body stripes. Many of the fancier models' features can be specified on lesser models as options.
At the top of the Challenger hierarchy is the SRT-8 ($44,775), which comes standard with most of the lower trims' luxury bits plus exclusive 20-in forged aluminum wheels, performance-tuned power steering, a 3-mode electronically adjustable suspension, sport front seats, SRT flat-bottom steering wheel and a 6.5-in touchscreen interface with available hard drive storage for music.
The touchscreen can be added to any Challenger, by the way, and SXT Plus and higher trims offer it with or without a navigation system. There's also a variety of other factory and dealer upgrades for both appearance and performance, as well as an optional premium Harman/Kardon audio system with a fairly incredible number of speakers, 18.
Like many Dodge front seats, the Challenger's are on the squishy side. That's fine, though, because we've never noticed any aches or pains after a long Challenger drive. The SRT-8's special sport seats add some welcome side-hugging bolsters, which are largely absent in lesser models.
Alas, the Challenger's cockpit is otherwise as dull as the exterior is delightful. Visually linked to the awful dashboard in the previous-generation Charger sedan, the Challenger's dashboard looks simplistic and outdated compared to the new Charger's stylized dash. Materials have improved over the years, but here again the new Charger does it better.
The Challenger's cabin redeems itself in back, where rear occupants will be treated to perhaps the most spacious backseat in any mass-market coupe. There's sedan-like room back there, plain and simple. Other sporty coupes just can't touch it. The trunk is enormous, too, at 16.2 cu ft -- another sedan-grade achievement.
We know a lot of Challenger buyers are nostalgic types, but this is still the New Millennium and we would like to see standard USB and Bluetooth connectivity come standard. The base SXT doesn't have it, though the other Challengers do. In any case, the centerpiece of the Challenger's technology suite is the available 6.5-in touchscreen interface, which features a hard drive with ample digital-music storage and an optional navigation system if you want to pay extra. This familiar system isn't completely obsolete, but it has aged rapidly in recent years, particularly with the release of Chrysler's new 8.4-in interface, which appears in the Charger and other models. The Challenger's interface is both less attractive and less intuitive, though it's functional enough that we wouldn't discourage you from opting in.
All Challengers also come with a vehicle information screen in the instrument cluster that conveys trip, fuel economy, fluid temperature and radio information. Optional is a more complete system that adds tire pressure and ambient temperature displays and a compass. All Challengers also feature an ECO driving lamp indicator.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Challenger SXT is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 that generates 305 horsepower and 268 lb-ft of torque. A 5-speed automatic is the only available transmission. Acceleration is reasonably strong with the V6, but the automatic is a bit of a killjoy. Soon, we hope Chrysler sees to it that the Challenger's V6 gets paired with the company's excellent 8-speed automatic found in nearly all of its other product lines, but as this generation of Challenger may be nearing the end of its model run, we're not holding our collective breath.
The fun really starts with the R/T, which sports a 5.7-liter V8 that makes 375 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque with the unique pistol-grip 6-speed manual shifter. It's a lovely combo, the refined and robust V8 with its melodious exhaust note and the shifter with its precise movements through the gates. A 5-speed automatic is optional, but be advised that it drops output to 372 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque.
As for the SRT-8, its 6.4-liter V8 churns out 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque with either the 6-speed manual or the 5-speed automatic. We don't feel any need for more speed after driving the R/T, but if you do, the SRT-8's truly epic sound and fury should hit the spot. The SRT-8 also rides on a lowered 3-mode adaptive suspension and features extremely powerful brakes with red painted Brembo calipers.
Fuel economy for the SXT is 18 miles per gallon city/27 mpg highway, dropping to 16 mpg city/25 mpg hwy for the automatic R/T (with fuel-saving cylinder deactivation technology), 15 mpg city/23 mpg hwy for the manual R/T (without cylinder deactivation) and 14 mpg city/23 mpg hwy for the SRT-8, regardless of transmission.
The 2013 Challenger comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags.
The Challenger may look mean, but from behind the wheel, it's generally a pussycat. Steering effort is light, ride quality is luxury-car smooth and road noise is quite subdued by performance car standards. However, there's no getting around the Challenger's considerable mass, which imparts a commanding feel on the highway but becomes quite evident on tight roads. Although sportier Challengers are quite capable by the numbers, they feel big and heavy when driven like sports cars.
The exception to that is the SRT-8, which is a rocket that not only pins your head to the seat at full tilt, but can turn with precision and stop with ungodly force. The new launch control facilitates near-perfect acceleration runs that can bring a smile to the driver's face time after time.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Camaro: The Chevy Camaro ($23,345) has serious style. Outward visibility is tough, but overall it drives much like the Challenger. Its base V-6 has 323 hp, and the upgrade SS model brings 426 ponies.
Ford Mustang: Recently rejuvenated by two new engines, the lightweight, nimble Ford Mustang ($22,200) is the sportiest muscle car these days. And the GT's 5.0-liter V8 is one of the finest V8s you'll come across.
Dodge Charger: Basically the same car as the Challenger underneath, the Charger ($25,995) adds two more doors and a healthy dollop of space, and is equally bargain-priced. Just as nice for V6 customers is the Charger's offering of Chrysler's 8-speed automatic that isn't offered on the Challenger.
The SXT Plus is the screaming deal of the 2013 Dodge Challenger line, adding tons of bonus content for just $500 more than the base SXT. If you simply gotta have a V8, however, we like the R/T's combination of performance and value, especially in new Blacktop edition guise with the 6-speed manual transmission.
What do you think about the new Challenger? Let us know in the comments below.