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Dodge’s Challenge: Win back America

The new Dodge Challenger
The new Dodge ChallengerChrysler

Chrysler moved to kick start its failing fortunes at the Chicago auto show earlier this month when it unveiled the production version of a much-anticipated retro muscle car, the Dodge Challenger SRT8.

A car with an EPA rating of 13 mpg in city driving (18 mpg highway) might seem retro in more than its styling, the throwback that Chrysler is really looking for is a return to profitability, and the Challenger is likely to be the car that’s going to bring in much-needed cash.

Thousands of interested customers have already put down deposits on 2008 Challenger SRT8s at their local dealers and the company has announced that the 2008 production run will be limited to 6,400 of the SRT8 maximum performance variants of the Challenger, each with a numbered dash plaque.

Joining the Challenger later this year will be Chevrolet’s resurrected Camaro, another so-called “heritage design,” and both cars will take on Ford’s Mustang which created the “pony” car muscle coupe segment in 1964. The question is which of the three cars consumers will prefer. It’s not clear whether the market, which has seen boom and bust cycles over the years, will support three contenders for the segment.

Michelle Wingard, an Amherst, Ohio mom and drag racer likes the Challenger: “I think the Challenger is pretty much the only one that hit the mark in terms of nostalgia,” she said.

Camaro partisans will surely argue their case, but the Mustang has one significant, objective handicap and that is the current car’s age.

“I think when you get into the battle of the pony car buyers, the Mustang [is] more than likely to be the loser,” said Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting. “That’s the problem historically with coupes — their half-life is two years because somebody else comes out with something newer.”

Ford’s strategy so far has been to issue special editions of the Mustang, such as the Cobra, Bullitt, Mach I and other variations.

“It is really getting stale,” said Phillippi. “I don’t know how many Cobras and GT500s you can do before people say, ‘That’s nice, but I want something really new.’”

Another advantage for car-enthusiast families is the size of the Challenger’s back seat, which can more realistically be used for school pick-ups and drop-offs.

“The back seat looked quite spacious,” said Wingard, who cited that as a significant advantage over her current Mustang.

With a starting price of $37,995, the Challenger SRT8 includes a 425-horsepower, 6.1-liter Hemi V8 engine that’s good for a 0-60 acceleration time of around five seconds. The big 20-inch forged aluminum wheels are wrapped in fat tires that combine with the independent rear suspension to produce 0.88g cornering force, and a standard electronic stability control system helps keep everything pointed in the right direction.

Given the Challenger’s combination of muscular looks and real muscle under the hood, it’s selling at a bargain. But while this is real value, there are nevertheless shoppers for whom that price is unattainable. For them, Chrysler will announce the slate of 2009 Challenger models at the New York auto show in early March. While specific details are not yet available, the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300, upon which the Challenger is based, feature an array of V6 and V8 models for nearly every budget.

Just as initial versions of the new Charger were available with a six-cylinder engine, so will be the 2009 neo-Challenger. The Charger line starts with a 190 horsepower 2.7-liter V6, and includes 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and 340-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V8. Whether all of these engines will be available in the Challenger will be announced in New York, but “look to the other LX platform vehicles [such as the Charger] and you won’t go too wrong,” hinted Dodge spokesperson Kathy Graham.

These cars are needed to boost Challenger’s production volume to profitable levels, noted Phillippi: “They are the ones that are going to fill up the production schedule.”

A critical factor for these less-expensive models is that they must not look cheap, he added.

“Young women traditionally tend to be the dominant buying force for coupes other than high performance versions,” Phillippi said. “Men are not style-conscious.  Women are, so the colors and surface textures are really critical.  It better strike their eye when you present your base version to this customer.”

The new Challenger packs a powerful combination of retro-car styling the takes baby boomers back to their cruising years. Like Homer Simpson, many of them drove Plymouth Dusters during the 1970s, but they longed for the legendary Challenger with its lissome, arching coupe roofline and gargantuan 426 cubic inch Hemi V8 engine.

The new car successfully captures the shape of the original, with details copied from the old car, although its overall appearance is quite different when the cars are examined together. The outside mirrors, for example, started off as exact copies as the ones on the old car before they were tweaked in a wind tunnel to reduce wind resistance, according to the Challenger’s lead designer Jeff Gale.

There are other changes. The new Challenger features flush-mounted lift-style door handles, just like those on the old car. And the new car’s retro-style chrome gas cap cover looks period correct, even though the Challenger didn’t actually have one back in the 1970s.

The cumulative result is a successful evocation of the old car, although the new one is considerably thicker around the middle.

That fat is no optical illusion — the 2008 car is bigger in nearly every dimension but width and weighs nearly a quarter ton more. Such is the price of modern safety standards, notes Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting.

“It was a different era,” he said. “There were no such thing as crash standards and that all plays into how you engineer body structure.”

While six-cylinder Challengers might seem like a contradiction to those who have heard the legend of the Hemi Challenger, only a small number of the original Challengers were outfitted with the Hemi engine. That’s because the old Hemi was a racing engine, and was miserably unsuitable for regular street driving, recalled Joe Oldham in a column for the Inside Line enthusiast site. When the cars were new Oldham tested them for Magnum-Royal Publications, a New York publisher of car enthusiast magazines.

“The Hemi engine, as it came from the factory, in showroom stock condition, would barely run on the street,” he recalled. “It was a race engine, introduced in 1964 to do one thing — win races in NASCAR and NHRA competition.”

Today’s Hemi has been tamed by modern computerized engine management systems and electronic fuel injection to provide both power and drivability. But there is one feature that is so far absent from the Challenger that true enthusiast drivers demand — a manual transmission. For 2008, Chrysler has announced only a five-speed automatic transmission.

That’s what has kept Wingard from placing her order for a new Challenger? A manual transmission. Will her wait be rewarded? Chrysler will tell us at the New York show when the 2009 Challenger is announced.

“Stay tuned,” said Dodge’s Graham.