Do you have fond memories of seeing the first brand new Dodge Challenger on a dealer lot in 1970? My guess is probably not. For a large percentage of our readers, this event would have happened before they could drive or were even born, so the nostalgia Baby Boomers felt at the launch of reboots like the new Challenger wasn’t really experienced by younger generations.
That’s not to say that members of younger-but-not-necessarily-young folks like me don’t enjoy the design of this muscle car reboot, but for a variety of reasons it’s difficult for me to fully embrace busting out my checkbook for a car that’s supposed to remind me of a time when I wasn’t even driving (if I could actually find where I put the check book).
When Hertz gave me an early Challenger as a rental back around 2009, I eagerly grabbed the keys to this unexpected upgrade. Surprisingly, I hadn’t made it more than a few blocks in the thing before I realized the fatal flaw: It was just too big. Too long and too wide, made more clumsy by the fact that you couldn’t see out of it. As a rental it had the least powerful drivetrain, but additional horsepower wouldn’t have made it more enjoyable to drive. The chassis wasn’t bad; it featured many Mercedes-Benz derived or influenced components from that DaimlerChrysler era.
I just didn’t find it particularly great around turns; Maybe it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but when you’d rather hoon the shit out of your mom’s base E39 BMW wagon than some Mopar sports machine it must say something. I don’t think I’m alone.
Stellantis has a new 2024 EV muscle car on the near horizon, and it does look to still be a rather sizable car. To be fair, it probably should be. There are buyers for such cars, and to build a Challenger or Charger at ¾ scale might make a more manageable car to drive, but it would look somewhat ridiculous. No, a smaller coupe from Stellantis needs to be a totally a different car, and I think I might have the approach for this sporting Mopar.
As with other GenXers, I grew up with cars introduced in the late malaise era in the eighties, which were typically horrible in virtually every conceivable way except for one: space efficiency (it helped that safety requirements were much more lax). Chrysler themselves had one of the best examples of this with their K platform, first launched as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant in 1981. As I’ve pointed out before, this boxy and much-ridiculed sedan was smaller than certain current MINI models but could in fact seat six people in a pinch. Chrysler took the K-Car ingredients and made up a smorgasbord of models from limousines to minivans, and even included a sports/GT car in the mix. The 1984 Dodge Daytona was an attempt to turn the front wheel drive, four-cylinder K platform into a pony car.
Taking on Mustangs, Camaros, and powerhouses from Asia via a front wheel drive Dodge Aries chassis seems like a task akin to making a Michelin rated meal with McDonalds ingredients, but Chrysler actually did an admirable job. With its 142 horsepower turbo four, it could reach sixty in 8.2 seconds (I know, but that was good for the time). Motor Trend called it the best handling production car they’d ever tested, while hard-to-impress Car and Driver raved in their May 1984 issue that it was “a delight to drive hard… The turbo lag is imperceptible from 3000 to 5000 rpm… quite the canyon car.”
Besides benchmarking pony cars, the design seems to have incorporated much from the concurrent Japanese competitors like the second generation Supra and the Mitsubishi Starion. The Chrysler brand even offered a twin version that played these aspects up called the Laser, here described by Darth Vader:
I actually was around at the time of the Daytona’s launch, and while I didn’t really have a burning desire to own one then, the years have given me a newfound respect for it. Refinement and build quality was always a bit lacking in these, but you couldn’t argue with the performance numbers, obtained while sipping fuel at a lower rate than the GM and Ford offerings (EPA rated 22 city and 35 highway for the turbo model).
The styling in particular was rather fetching for the time; Daytonas appeared in trash movies like The Wraith with a pre-tiger-blood Charlie Sheen and even the horrendous Cannonball Run II where Frank Sinatra made a cameo while driving a red Daytona (remember that he was tight with Lee Iacocca). There was also a Daytona that appeared with magnetic police light on the roof in the television show Hunter.
The Daytona was not a big car when new, and keeping that size now will make it tiny by modern standards, which is exactly what we want; that will reduce our frontal area, which means better efficiency, which means we can use a smaller battery to go the same range as a larger car. Here’s a side view of what I’ve got in mind:
I’ve kept the basic shape but lowered the nose, which is something I am pretty sure the original Daytona couldn’t do thanks to the height of the K-Car mechanicals in front.
Later Daytonas received pop up headlights or slim composite units, but I found that those lost a bit of the personality of the original; the revival will have LED light signatures that simulate sealed beams surrounding projectors. You can see that the “shovel” nose flows into the side panels and wraps up the flanks of the car so that it appears to be surrounding the nose and upper body. This means that the lower shell is a bit like a taco, which is intentional since it calls to mind the “Taco Bell” approach of Chrysler’s K-Car eighties where, like the Mexican fast food joint, they had to make a full menu from just a few ingredients.
The hexagonal door window openings are retained, as well as the rear greenhouse that always looked a bit like it was taken from a Porsche 928. I couldn’t resist going full retro with the option of fan-style alloys:
That “wraparound” approach is visible in back as well, where the upper body is surrounded by these lower flanks that appear to cover the full width taillights on the sides and leave only a small sliver for the side marker lights.
I was about to add the typical joke rear seat to this thing when it occurred to me that that would just use up valuable battery space and, no living being could ever fit back there anyway. Still, I never want to make a strictly-two-seater car and kill all sales potential, so I looked to a solution from overseas made with Chrysler’s own Simca in the seventies. The Matra Bagheera (and later Murena) were mid engined coupes that sat three adults across, sort of like a pickup or big American car but with the difference that the seats were sculpted and the driver’s chair was distinctly separate.
Our Daytona will look to all the world like a two seater with a wide armrest until you fold it up to form the center seat. The flat floor and lack of needed gearshift which an EV allows makes footroom not an issue. There’s no point to a rear seat if it can hold zero people.
To clear the feet of a possible center passenger, we’ll need to keep the dash controls elevated on a “floating plane” console. This mock console also includes a pistol grip-style shifter since I just don’t like the idea of tiny little flippers or push buttons for gear selectors in a “sporty” car, particularly a nostalgia-based one.
The buying power of Boomers is starting to wane already, and later generations will soon have to decide if they want the hand-me-down nostalgia of older people. Sure, most GenXers like myself always thought that muscle cars looked cool, but once we experienced GTIs and Civic Sis most of us knew that those big, heavy sedans weren’t where it’s at, regardless of how fast they were off the line or how good they sounded. Like Chrysler in the early eighties, the pendulum will likely shift.
When a retired Lee Iacocca appeared on the Charlie Rose show in 2011 during Chrysler’s umpteenth crisis, he was asked if he could turn the company around again. His response was “yes, by building small cars,” specifically small cars that people want. Lee is gone from this earthly realm now, but I think he’s still right today.
Why can’t Stellantis make a small sporting EV to challenge the world? As Darth Vader said: “the competition was good…we had to be better”.