In 2021, Dodge sold 54,315 competitors. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a huge number, just a little more than the number of trucks the Ram sells each month. In terms of American pony cars, the Challenger is king, outperforming both the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro. How this happened, I’m not entirely sure.
The namesake Challenger returned in 2008, followed by an almost imperceptible facelift in 2015. With quad headlights and a distinctive taillight bar, it maintains its old-fashioned appeal. There’s also an insane difference between the entry-level car in terms of price and power, with nearly $60,000 and 500 hp separating the base SXT and the 807 hp SRT Super Stock. It’s the Porsche 911’s way of doing business.
Awesome, it’s a rear-wheel drive muscle car in the great American tradition, a machine with a stunning hood that delivers exhaustion on demand. The challenger has an undeniable attitude. She’ll post her own ad for sale on Craigslist if you utter the word “sustainability” while driving in it.
These characteristics made the Challenger a popular car. I just don’t get it. The thing is huge. I recently drove a Challenger 392 Scat Pack with a Hemi Orange option and immediately felt like I was driving a truck. I definitely got into the Challenger after jumping in from the new Nissan Z, which is a smaller, more compact and lower-profile car no matter how you look at it. But Challenger I still felt like I was driving from a high barber chair, a huge body fluttering around me.
Most cars tend to shrink the more you get used to them, but the Challenger won’t. It’s like an SUV on the body. It feels huge from the first moment you step into it, and it won’t get any smaller than ever.
I have no problem with the engine. The 6.4L Hemi engine is one of the great, with the perfect American V-8 rumble. You can even pair this engine with a six-speed manual, which is a great choice we should all celebrate. Except this test car has a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, a gearbox that’s great in every application. Here, it’s still gorgeous, with obvious transformations when you knock on it. The problem is when it goes slow. It seems to be programmed to get every possible mpg, so the transmission slips lazily into gears much earlier than you’d like to shift. This causes the Challenger’s transmission to feel awkward, making it feel like dozens of shifts across town. It bothers me a lot more than it should.
Then there is the perception of the car itself. These are the only cars where owners seem to leave a little packing material on them –The yellow traitor guards cough and cough is important– To look great. You tend to see racers behind you on the highway or flying in the right lane by grandmas in traffic. In every quiet American neighborhood, Challenger owners will reliably accelerate like aggressive rear sticks, so you’ll hear the V-8, caring about your work on the pavement. If it’s a Hellcat, expect the same melee with the supercharger’s whine on top.
I all enjoy your car, and many of the perception issues for these cars are exactly the same as for a Camaro or a Mustang. People view them as loud and antisocial, because they are. Whatever the reason, the challenger appears to be the most antisocial. Probably because Dodge sells a lot. The Challenger is an old boat with a massive V-8 engine that seems to have trouble turning off the power without making enough noise to wake the dead.
Maybe just me. My favorite cars are small. They emphasize handling over horsepower. This is why I own a Miata. This is one of those times when stereotypes play out in the automotive world, because a person who drives a Challenger would not understand how someone could drive a powerless mini Miata. On the contrary, the Miata driver does not see the allure of the Giant Challenger. There’s also a whiff of the old about the Challenger. It feels old and not in a charming way. It’s a reminder of the days when Dodge was under the Mercedes umbrella. The switchgear is still from Mercedes in the late 2000s, and the platform has roots there, too. There is only so much you can update before it needs replacing.
Sure, Dodge will have a new straight-six to roll back soon, but this will be just another patchwork overhaul for an old bone car that hasn’t gotten any younger. Variants like the Super Stock and Hellcat are a straight-line blast, and the T/A is probably fun on a very open track like the Willow, but on the road, other versions of the Challenger are showing their age. If Dodge decided to make one with a new platform and a 6.4-inch V-8 hole, it would be hell. Just please make it a little smaller.