It’s no secret that the Dodge Challenger is living on borrowed time. However, I’m not sure if everyone realized just how borrowed that time was. See, Dodge announced on Tuesday that all orders must be submitted by the end of July, which means aspiring owners have 13 days to order their dream Charger or Challenger without risking the chance of merely finding one on the lot. No pressure, right?
For the past 15 years, the Challenger has been a constant. We’re talking about a longer production run than the C3 Corvette here, except the Challenger aged in reverse. While the third-generation Corvette, the historical benchmark for an American performance car that stuck around forever, bogged down further and further into the malaise muck as time went on, the current Challenger started life as a parts bin car and morphed into something great.
Back in the mid-2000s, Chrysler finally had its own mass-market rear-wheel-drive platform for the first time in 15 years, and it couldn’t have been more different from the M Body platform underneath the old Diplomat. The LX platform featured multi-link independent rear suspension, double lower ball joints up front, and was thoroughly modern by the standards of the time. Thanks to the doomed DaimlerChrysler merger, Chrysler had a ton of Mercedes-Benz parts to glean inspiration from, so the underside of an early LX platform car will look vaguely familiar to Benz aficionados. After the success of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, Chrysler set its sights on something new — a retro coupe revival.
The recipe was simple: Take one large sedan, slice several inches out of the wheelbase, remove two doors, drape it in ‘70s-inspired sheetmetal, and give it the most thunderous V8 in the stable. In 2008, the reborn Dodge Challenger made its mark on the world with 426 fire-spitting horsepower and… a five-speed automatic. Alright, so first shots are rarely perfect, but even with the slushbox and the dashboard made of the finest Cerberus Capital Management-era plastics, it got the people going.
For about a year, and then the Challenger’s original engine lineup got completely creamed by the reborn fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Look, Chrysler’s 255-horsepower 3.5-liter base V6 was cromulent by mid-aughts standards but weedy by the end of the decade, and the 375-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V8 going toe-to-toe with the Camaro SS’ 426-horsepower 6.2-liter LS3 V8 on price didn’t help either. Once Ford thoroughly revamped the Mustang’s engine lineup to include the 300-horsepower 3.7-liter Cyclone V6 and 412-horsepower five-liter Coyote V8 for 2011, it felt like the Challenger’s legacy was confirmed as a hefty, slightly sluggish cruiser with retro looks and great available V8 noises. However, in 2011, things started to change.
Sure, the low-poly plastic-fantastic interior remained, but two-out-of-three available engines were replaced with substantially more potent units. The 3.5-liter V6 was replaced with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 for a massive jump in output to 305 horsepower. Not to be outdone, the 6.1-liter V8 in SRT8 models was punched out to 6.4 liters, good for 470 horsepower and 470 lb.-ft. of torque.
For 2015, Dodge dropped the mother of all bombs on the American coupe market. After watching Chevrolet and Ford parade around with 556-horsepower supercharged Camaro ZL1s and 662-horsepower supercharged Shelby GT500 Mustangs, Dodge went bigger, bolder, and more powerful still. Even if you don’t know your valve spring retainers from your valve stem seals, you’ve probably heard of the Hellcat V8. A magnificently malevolent 707-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter cam-in-block lump, this destroyer of worlds reinvigorated the Challenger as a dream car. Here was a reasonably attainable coupe with more power than a Lamborghini Aventador and a factory warranty that would run the quarter-mile in the 11-second range, come with a special red key to unlock the full 707 horsepower, and scream like a banshee when you have the traction to put the loud pedal all the way down. Who wouldn’t want that?
Arguably even better is the way Dodge threw customers a bone if they couldn’t afford the top dog engine. The formerly range-topping 6.4-liter naturally-aspirated V8 was shoved in a new stripper model called the Scat Pack, instantly making the Challenger far more competitive against the Ford Mustang GT and Chevrolet Camaro SS. Oh, and it was even more powerful than the old SRT model, cranking out 485 horsepower. For customers who preferred not to shift their own gears, the five-speed automatic was gone, replaced entirely by an eight-speed ZF-derived unit with significantly more refinement. Oh, and the Tupperware interior was finally gone, replaced with a driver-centric dashboard made of far nicer stuff.
As time rolled on, the Challenger just kept getting better. The 2018 model year gifted us the insane quarter-mile-focused Demon that came with a crate of speed parts, made 840 horsepower on 100-octane race fuel, and could pull its front tires off the face of the earth given a sufficiently sticky prepped track. In case you were looking for more cornering grip than straight-line speed, Dodge also added a widebody option to the Challenger for fitting massive 305-section tires. For 2019, Dodge downloaded some Demon parts to the rest of the lineup with the 797-horsepower Hellcat Redeye and a naturally-aspirated 1320 model with a transbrake and drag radials. At this point, it was clear that Dodge knew how to market the Challenger — not with sophistication or luxury, but with hot, nasty, rebellious, all-American speed.
Although production may be coming to a close, Dodge isn’t going out quietly. In fact, it’s dropped its most explosive muscle car yet, the E85-fed Demon 170 with 1,025 horsepower, claimed quarter-mile times in the high eights, and a factory warranty. It’s the muscle car that the golden era dreamed of, a horsepower figure that’s historically been the domain of extreme tuners shoved in a facsimile of iconic ’70s sheetmetal. No compromises, just straight-line speed you can finance.
I’ve been lucky enough to drive a selection of Challengers and can confirm that while not good in a traditional sense, the V8 models are always great. Agility is a hypothetical concept, curb weight is leviathan, seat comfort is middling at best, and fuel economy isn’t in the picture, but if you want big, dumb fun and more emotion than the works of Shakespeare, you’ve come to the right place. The long, weighty throw of the Tremec shifter, the effortless ride quality over awful pavement, the ability to lay rubber for an entire city block in any of the Hellcat models, it all adds up to indisputable proof that the Challenger is the last true muscle car.
The original E-body Challenger only ran from model years 1970 to 1974, but it cemented a legacy solid enough for a rebirth. The 2008 to 2023 Challenger grew powerful enough to ensure immortality. It will soon be replaced by something more modern with the option of electric power, and as we all know by now, the instant hit of fast EVs make them far quicker in the real world than even the most potent muscle cars. Will they be quite as fun? I have my quiet doubts. Not because I don’t expect the Challenger’s successor to be fast, but because I know that any platform developed in the 2020s should be less crude than a platform from the aughts. The Challenger is a bar-brawling cannonball of a car, put on this planet to go really fast in one direction.
Recent cars are technically brilliant, but when every wrinkle is ironed out and sensations start to grow synthesized, the chase towards perfection can neglect emotions. A supercharged V8 feels as real as a double cheeseburger with grease dripping off of it. Sure, too much will kill us all, but don’t you just crave a bite every so often? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what 2024 brings. Until then, grab a slice of that old-timey Woodward Avenue religion while you still can.
(Photo credits: Dodge, Chrysler)
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