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Chrysler was an early player, with 426 Hemis powering muscle cars like the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Road Runner. Mopar executives doubled down on the pony car category in 1970, redesigning the Plymouth Barracuda and inventing the Dodge Challenger. The automobiles were fantastic. The time was not ideal. The 1973 oil embargo, emissions rules, and soaring insurance rates all put a damper on the muscle car market, and the Challenger was discontinued following the 1974 model year.
Chrysler’s fortunes deteriorated during the next decade, eventually necessitating a federal bailout in 1980, and when it returned to profitability, it did so with an unimpressive lineup of unimaginative K-cars and minivans. To add insult to injury, the Challenger nameplate was revived in 1978 with a pitiful badge-engineered Mitsubishi, but the car was withdrawn from production in 1984.
Dodge began reestablishing its standing in the high-performance segment with the 1992 introduction of the Dodge Viper, which won the first of three consecutive class victories at Le Mans in 1998. The third-generation Hemi V-8 was introduced in 2003, and before long, the SRT crew was churning out wicked hot-rod versions of 300Cs, Magnums, Crossfires, Neons, and even Jeeps and Ram trucks.
By 2005, DaimlerChrysler was ready to create a car that embodied the brand’s high-performance baby boomer history. Michael Castiglione, a designer at the West Coast Pacifica Studio in Carlsbad, California, was primarily responsible for the exterior styling. “We took a real 1970 Challenger into the studio during the concept car’s development,” he explains. “That car, in my opinion, epitomizes the most impassioned age of automotive design.”
The Challenger concept car debuted in 2006 at the North American International Automobile Show in Detroit, resplendent in Orange Pearl. Onlookers knowledgeable with muscle vehicle history immediately recognized the car as a revival of the legendary Challenger. They were unaware of how much larger the new car was than the previous one. The reason for this was that the new production car needed to be built on the existing LX chassis, which also served as the basis for the much bigger 300 and Magnum. The Challenger’s chassis is essentially a Charger with two fewer doors and a four-inch shorter wheelbase. After addressing the weak spots, the design team produced a vehicle that was far longer and wider than the original Challenger-and weighed in at an astounding 1400 pounds more.
On the other hand, the makeover provided an opportunity to address some of the Challenger’s outward design problems, including the odd fit of the skinny tires inside the wheel wells and the considerable front overhang. However, he had to do it without sacrificing the tall hood, short back deck, iconic grille with floating quad headlights, and wide-hipped rear haunches that gave the original car its signature swagger.
The details are what make the difference. For example, the side-view mirrors were pushed backward and the windshield sloped to make the hood appear larger, and the sills were blacked out to conceal the body’s weight. Rather than focusing on the distinctions between old and new, the eye is drawn to commonalities such as the graceful C-pillar and the nose-to-tail body folds. “We didn’t have to throw everything at the design because the lines and proportions are timeless,” says Mark Trostle, Mopar Design’s chief, who has been working on the Challenger since 2010. “We’ve updated the design by incorporating contemporary technology, but the fundamental lines remain true to the original.”
The concept automobile was such a smashing success that Daimler Chrysler felt obligated to produce it. Although the objective was to strike while the iron was hot and introduce the Challenger in 2008, it was too late for a complete model run. As a result, the business took the audacious-and, as it turns out, brilliant-step of making the high-performance SRT8 the sole model offered that first year.
This meant that none of the 2008 Challengers would include the V-6 engine that will power base models in subsequent years. Rather than that, each car featured a blazing 6.1-liter Hemi engine that exemplified muscle-car ancestry. To be honest, the contemporary engine bore no resemblance to the older one except for the name, and there are real concerns about whether the combustion chamber’s design merits the HEMI brand. However, there is no doubt that it delivered.
The Gen III pushrod V-8 produced 425 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. It had a billet-steel crank and flat-top pistons cooled by oil squirters. When paired with a five-speed automatic transmission – the only choice that initial year – the powerplant accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and rumbled through the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 108 mph in a Motor Trend track test. The top speed, which was limited by drag, was 168 miles per hour.
In SRT8 trim, the car was equipped with 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and four-piston Brembo brakes. As with the Charger, the Challenger benefited from Mercedes-Benz-developed suspension components and geometry-a front control-arm system from the S-Class and a rear five-link setup from the E-Class. However, the rear springs have been reinforced to compensate for the shorter wheelbase, and the shocks have been set for a softer ride to increase the car’s appeal. Despite this, the automobile achieved a commendable 0.86 gs in cornering tests.
“It met all of our functional requirements for sound, speed, braking distance, acceleration, figure-8 time, skidpad gs, and lap time,” says Erich Heuschele, who was an outstanding road racer before joining SRT as manager of vehicle dynamics. “It wasn’t quite as plush as a 300C SRT8, but it was definitely plusher than the Charger.”
Early evaluations have been very positive. “The structure is Diebold solid, the steering cuts like a Mayo surgeon, the ride is disciplined rather than abusive, and the sounds whisper of capability in waiting,” Patrick Bedard wrote in a Car and Driver comparison in which the Challenger was rated higher than a Mustang in top-of-the-line Bullitt trim. The Challenger, priced little above $40,000, rushed out the door; all 6400 vehicles were sold even before they reached dealers.
The complete model portfolio was launched in 2009. The SE was the entry-level model, equipped with a legendary 3.5-liter V-6 producing 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque. Upgrading to the mid-level R/T resulted in the SRT8 receiving a lesser, older version of the Hemi. (With a displacement of 5.7 liters, it generated 375 hp and 404 lb-ft of torque.) A six-speed Tremec manual transmission was now offered as an option-equipped with a pistol grip to satisfy owners’ Vanishing Point fantasies.
The Challenger, like any other vehicle, may be customized with leather this and power that. However, it has always been available in a dizzying array of eye-catching heritage colors (Plum Crazy, Top Banana, Toxic Orange) and special editions (Rallye Redline, R/T Scat Pack 1320, 392 Yellow Jacket). The goal was to fool clients into believing they were purchasing a personalized, one-of-a-kind vehicle.
“The complexity of the construction is out of control”. “That is the very last thing you want as a business. However, the clients adore it.
Two new engines were introduced for the 2011 model year. At the base was a brand-new twin-cam 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 rated at 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque, which wasn’t bad at all. However, SRT models received a punched-out 6.4-liter Hemi named the 392 in commemoration of the late 1950s’ legendary engines. (In fact, the 6.4 displaced only 391 cubic inches technically.) The new engine produced 470-485 horsepower and 470-475 pound-feet of torque.
Several upgrades occurred over the next few years. In 2012, adaptive electronic shocks were installed, and in 2014, the old-school “shaker” hood scoop and storied Scat Pack insignia were reintroduced. However, by 2015, the automobile had reached the end of its useful life. On the blogosphere, detractors lamented that it was excessively large and awkward. Critics said that it was past due for a reboot.
“We considered a new platform”. “It was going to be more compact. It was supposed to be a little bit lighter. It was going to be more maneuverable. However, when we spoke with customers who purchased the automobile, they stated, ‘I chose your car over the competition because it was larger, heavier, because I drive it every day, because I require the back seat, and because I require the trunk. And, by the way, I enjoy the fact that it resembles a muscle vehicle more than a sports car.”
As a result, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) – created following Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009 – chose to stay with the previous LX platform. However, the firm could not remain silent since the Challenger was losing ground in the horsepower duel. The Mustang was available in 662-horsepower GT500 form, while the Camaro was available in 580-horsepower ZL1 form. (The Corvette ZR1 produced 638 hp.) It was a true “go big or go home” moment.
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(SEE PART 2)