2012 Dodge Challenger SRT-8
According to the Mayans, today the world will end. And being the practical sort – I haven’t bothered to charge the cell phone or return the mayonnaise from today’s lunch to the refrigerator.
But should the sun not rise tomorrow – there are a few important things I want to check off the list. My handsome, svelte years are well behind me, and the hairline is marching backwards faster than the Grenadian army. So any vision quests involving me, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, Wild Turkey and the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf Astoria are unlikely to matriculate.
But there are a few vehicular fantasies as yet unrequited, and I’m not willing to let go of them just yet.
One involves reenacting the chase scene from “Diamonds are Forever.” This time, not in a 1971 Mach 1, but a Boss 429 Mustang. I rang up my buddy Dave – owner of a pristine Grabber blue ‘70 Boss Nine - but he was concerned about the long-term damaging effects of road salt just laid down by the DPW. I tried convincing him that at this point, the notion of long-term anything didn’t really matter, but without success. Dave instead suggested that I look him up in the spring, and maybe, just maybe he’d take me out for an ice cream in the Boss. I'm not sure he has really internalized the whole apocalypse concept.
Entry #2 on the list is a ferocious, Kowalski-esque drive in a Hemi Mopar E-body. Over the past decades I’ve come close to the fantasy in a variety of vintage E-bodies. Close, but still no Hemi.
So tonight, Nate and I drove to Contemporary Chrysler in Milford, NH. We arrived near closing, but the spotless showroom was briskly busy. I explained my sad predicament to Mark Cheever in the sales department, who agreed to a test of their 2012 Challenger SRT-8 392 “Yellow Jacket” with one stipulation – that I not return the Challenger in the same condition as Barry Newman’s `70 from the movie “Vanishing Point.” Deal.
Walking around the bright yellow SRT8, you appreciate the great lengths to which Mopar designers went to replicate the essence of the original Challenger. They did a very good job on the nose, roof sail panel and quarter window profile. However the mandatory hard points imposed by the underlying 300 platform did force some unfortunate tradeoffs – like the very high beltline and short greenhouse.
But overall, Mopar stuck the landing on styling. I explain to Nate that this 2012 Challenger is a very convincing rendition of the original, and he indicates that he really likes the look. I catch him snapping a photo with his phone, so I know the approval is likely genuine.
The interior of the Challenger is cozy, particularly for such vast, heavy car – but at least the rear seat is useful for carrying a couple of live adults. In the Camaro and Mustang the rear seats are only suitable for Hobbits, and very tiny Hobbits at that.
Interior materials and fit/finish have been a major strategic priority for Chrysler since the merger with Fiat, and the investment pays off in the 2012 Challenger. The multi-function sport steering wheel is a big improvement over the previous Challenger wheel. Seating surfaces, shift knob and door panels are high quality leather with excellent contrasting stitch work. The seats are really comfortable with perfect bolstering and support. The dash retains the same retro shape as the original Challenger, but is now covered with a nice matte finish soft touch material. The doors open and shut with a high quality thump.
The 392 Hemi lights off with a ferocious bark, popping and spitting through the pipes as it settles down to a lovely burble. Stab the throttle and the engine responds instantly – the entire car rocking from the engine torque. I look in the rearview mirror and Nate is smiling. He likes this, and so does Dad. A lot. Nate asks if this is what cars sounded like when I was young. “Yes Son” I reply “exactly like this”
The best part of all is the retro Pistol Grip shifter. It looks awesome – angled purposely towards the driver. More importantly, it is perfectly positioned and feels great in your hand. This is one Challenger detail that makes the driver feel exactly like Barry Newman. The iconic MoPar “pistol grip” shifter was a novelty in its day and great fun - but tended to be sloppy and high effort, with mile long throws. The new version is similarly fun, but much better executed. Slipping the Tremec 6060 six-speed into first takes a bit of focus. The shifter pattern is tight, and with a 600 Lb/ft torque capacity, the Tremec is a stout unit requiring a purposeful effort, particularly when the transmission lubricant is cold.
Ease out the Sachs dual disc clutch and the Challenger gets underway easily, even at idle speed. Pedal feel is accurate and light, again trumping the 1970
Yeah, OK, so let’s get the main event. The 392 cubic inch, 470 BHP Hemi – which as anyone knows, is the real franchise of this Challenger. I was a bit mystified by Mopar’s choice of the “392” moniker, because the original 392 - while the true Daddy of the “real” 426 Hemi - dates back to the 1957 Chrysler 300, and never powered the iconic Challengers, ‘Cudas, GTX’s and Road Runners of yore. But who cares? The 392 Hemi had an impressive street and competition resume, so good enough for me. 392 it is.
The 392 Hemi is a stud. It revs, it torques, it pulls and it sounds like Chrysler engineers teleported back to 1970, captured the musclecar mojo, distilled it into liquid and then injected it directly into your carotid artery. 0-60 runs take about 4.2 seconds and the quarter mile is done in 13.1 at 110 MPH. Yes, the SRT-8 is fast - and delivers it's thrust in a way that finicky carbureted big blocks can rarely muster.
For years, I’ve lamented that our kids would never know the magic of the Musclecar era. The Challenger is a time machine that allows you to take them directly back to the very best of those times. But when play time is over – you shove the SRT-8 into sixth gear, let the revs drop and harmony and tranquility again rules supreme. Try doing that in a 1970 Challenger with 4.10 gears.
Better yet, you can drive kids around in the 2012 Challenger without a court summons from the Department of Youth Services for child endangerment. This brings us to perhaps the most appealing aspect of the 2012 Challenger. It is a real car. It is safe. It has brakes that stop, steering that steers and suspension that suspends. Everything works and you don't have to carry a spare ballast resistor around in the glovebox. You can drive the SRT-8 every day, and not go completely, utterly insane.
The chassis dynamics are really quite excellent, particularly for a car with a 4,200 pound curb weight. The 20 inch tires wander a bit on road crowns, particularly when cold, but the Challenger’s steering is true and relaxed, with perfect effort, good straight ahead stability and a most unexpectedly playful side when the roads get squiggly. I was fairly shocked at how much I enjoyed the Challenger in the curves – the damping and body control are impressive. The only downside is that the car is wide and it’s a bit unnerving trying to clip the apex without a good sense for the boundaries of the car. With time and experience, I’m sure I’d learn to live with the size.
Ok, so maybe we didn’t hurtle across the American southwest in the SRT-8 with police in hot pursuit. Perhaps we didn’t race a Jaguar E-Type or get inspired by the musical stylings of Cleavon Little. However we did accomplish a lot.
We met some cool guys at Contemporary Chrysler, got to drive a really amazing Mopar and we transported ourselves back to 1970 – if only for a little while. Most importantly, we also got to show a 13 year old a glimpse of what it was like in our youth.
I’ll be disappointed if the world does end today, but at least there will be one less item on the bucket list
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