The 2012 rear-drive Dodge Challenger SRT8 coupe is a refined, modern version of the classic early 1970s rear-drive Challenger, which had a mighty “Hemi” V-8.
The 1970s Challenger Hemi (for hemispherical combustion chambers) 425-cubic-inch V-8 had 425 horsepower. But the new Challenger SRT8’s 392-cubic-inch (6.4-liter) Hemi provides 470 horsepower and a pavement-shattering 470 pound-feet of torque.
As with the old Challenger coupe, the Challenger SRT8 is a rival mainly to the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang. It’s essentially a shortened version of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. That improves refinement and ride, but turns the SRT8 into more of a strong muscle car than a nimble sports coupe. It has a 116-inch-wheelbase and weighs a hefty 4,160 pounds.
The smooth Hemi V-8 delivers an estimated 23 miles per gallon on highways. Four cylinders cut out when cruising with the optional automatic transmission to improve economy, although EPA-estimated economy numbers are the same for both manual and automatic-transmission versions. Economy is far better than with the old Hemi — although the new model’s city economy figure is only 14 with either transmission.
Still, the new, refined Hemi V-8 delivers approximately double the economy of the old Hemi V-8, which had virtually no performance-strangling anti-pollution equipment.
Prices for the latest Challenger range from $24,995 to $43,995. The base $24,995 model has a 3.6-liter V-6 with 305 horsepower, but could use more torque. Next up is the $29,995 R/T with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 375 horsepower, which should satisfy many Challenger buyers. But the top performance prize goes to the $43,995 SRT8 with its 470-horsepower Hemi.
The SRT8 is pricey, but you only live once.
Transmissions are a standard six-speed manual or the $995 five-speed automatic with new, easily operated steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The efficient automatic was in my test Challenger SRT8.
The 2012 Challenger looks much like — if not better than — the handsome 1970s Challenger. But the new one is far more refined — benefiting from decades of car and tire technology. The old Challenger Hemi V-8 went like a bat out of hell but offered marginal braking and handling.
The 2011 Challenger got new chassis architecture and suspension tuning that improved ride and handling. It also got the 470-horsepower Hemi V-8. Dodge says the 2012 Challenger can hit 182 mph with the manual transmission and 175 mph with the automatic. The engine emits a nice rumble when idling through two artfully designed dual exhaust outlets.
Steering of my test Challenger SRT8 was firm but accurate. The ride was supple, but I felt sharp bumps with the selectable suspension changed from “Auto” to “Sport” mode.
New for 2012 is a two-mode adaptive damping system with selectable suspension tuning that automatically adapts to road and driver inputs for the best vehicle control.
The Challenger SRT8’s weight can be felt when making sharp moves, but the car handles adroitly. The standard performance brake package provides impressive stopping power of 60 to 0 mph in just 117 feet from large vented/slotted rotors with four-piston Brembo fixed calipers.
There’s also a three-mode electronic stability control system that includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, all-speed traction control, electric brake-force distribution, brake assist and hill-start assist.
The Challenger SRT8 is loaded with comfort and convenience features, along with 35 advanced safety and security items. New are a leather-wrapped, heated steering wheel with paddle shifters.
Options include a $950 power sunroof. And there’s a wide array of connectivity, infotainment and mobile multimedia options. My test car had the new, optional 18-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, which is impressive.
Long, heavy doors facilitate entry to the quiet, attractive interior but can be a bother in tight spots. There’s plenty of room up front in very supportive power, heated seats. But it’s hard to get in or out of the rear seat area, where a tall adult’s leg room behind a tall driver is tight—although the middle rear-seat area is comfortable. A large rear armrest with twin cupholders folds down.
Gauges can be hard to read quickly during the day, and thick rear roof posts partly obstruct vision. Climate and audio controls are easy to use via a fairly large touch-screen display. Small door pockets aren’t very useful, but front cupholders are nicely placed. There’s a moderately large glove compartment and a deep covered console bin.
Styling of the Challenger SRT8 causes the large trunk to have a high opening. Split rear seatbacks fold forward and sit fairly flat, but the pass-through opening between the trunk and rear-seat area is only moderately large.
The Hemi V-8 is set back a lot for better ((54/45) weight distribution. It fills most of the engine compartment, but fluid-filler areas still can be easily reached.
Challenger SRT8 owners who are car buffs might want to occasionally open the hood and admire the legendary Hemi V-8. In various forms, it made the 1955 Chrysler C300 the first American 300-horsepower production car and won many major NASCAR races.
Pros: Nifty retro styling. Brawny Hemi V-8. Good roadability. Refined.
Cons: Long, heavy doors. Tight left-rear legroom. High trunk opening. Rather pricey.
Bottom Line: Modern version of iconic 1970s Challen Hemi muscle car.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and used car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com