2011 Dodge Challenger Driving Impressions

The Dodge Challenger is a big, rear-wheel-drive car and feels like it. Yet the further up the power and performance scale you go, the lighter it seems to feel. You won't mistake it for driving the lighter Mustang, or even the also-too-heavy Camaro. Other 2+2 two-doors in a similar price range, such as a BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G37 or Audi A5, aren't going to be cross-shopped because they're different animals. And it's okay to think of the Challenger SRT8 392 as an animal: A well-behaved animal, but always ready to prowl for prey.

The Challenger SE drives a lot like the Charger because the Challenger is based on the Charger with four inches taken out between the front and rear wheels. The new 3.6-liter V6 is an improvement over the 3.5 in both power and fuel economy. It has enough oomph to keep up with brisk traffic, and pass without too much fuss. Given the Challenger's extra 400 pounds, it probably won't keep up with a V6 Mustang.

The 2011 Challenger SE comes with a 5-speed automatic instead of last year's 4-speed. That's one of the reasons the new engine gets two mpg better highway fuel economy. The 5-speed automatic transmission works well with the V6, providing decent passing punch quickly.

The next step up is the Challenger R/T. The R/T features a Hemi V8 producing 372 to 376 horsepower, along with a firmer suspension, bigger brakes and tires, and a choice of a hefty-shifting 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. One could arguably have the most fun with the R/T. There's no need to park it in the winter and no miserable ride just because the roads are bad. The R/T goes quite well, with a 0 to 60 mph time under 6.0 seconds. That power comes on strong, but we found it runs out quickly, as the redline is only 5800 rpm. That means drivers choosing the manual will have to shift before the power runs out during performance maneuvers. Sixth gear doesn't do much on the track or around town. It's strictly a highway gear meant for fuel economy; in sixth, the R/T cruises like a pussy cat, churning out 1800 rpm at 80 mph. The $13,000 saved versus an SRT8 392 would buy brake/suspension/tire upgrades to your preference and specification, or a serious engine upgrade.

The SRT8 392 gets the most changes for 2011, all for the better. Larger and torquier than the outgoing 6.1-liter V8, the 6.4 makes the SRT8 392 a straight-line burner. Zero to 60 mph is in the high four-second range and the car can cover the quarter-mile in the high 12s. The extra torque really makes the SRT8 392 leap forward when pushed, in a way that couldn't be felt last year.

It's easy to make an SRT8 392 go fast, you just stand on the gas and point it where you want it to go. Traction control does a very good job of turning controlled wheelspin into thrust and is easier than launching most high-performance manual transmission cars; there's a solid feel to quick upshifts. It does not make manual downshifts as fast. At the other end of the straightaway, the SRT8's big brakes do a commendable job of slowing the pace, just a bit off some benchmark lighter coupes. There is a lot of travel in the brake pedal so initial bite might not be what you expect but keep pushing and you'll stop quickly.

When cruising, the Challenger is civilized. There is authority in the exhaust note but it doesn't sound like authority grabbed the bullhorn until you get into the gas and are rewarded with a satisfying rumble that becomes more howl as it winds up; manual gearbox cars use different mufflers and have a deeper tone. The automatic delivers crisp-not-jarring upshifts and gets out of first gear in a hurry unless you are hard on the gas. It will downshift once, or again, if you give it the boot.

The Challenger is too big and heavy to merit any consideration as a sports car and isn't ideal for tossing around on tight racetracks or mountain roads. However, the 2011 suspension changes, especially to the SRT8, make it a better handler during performance maneuvers, though it was impressively good before given its size and weight. The Challenger is big and nose-heavy, and there is considerable body roll. That body roll is more controlled this year. Instead of flopping side to side then taking a nice set for a corner, the SRT8 now rolls into that set without the play that it had last year. The R/T still has some of that floppiness, but it too is more controlled and will take a predictable set for cornering.

The grip from the optional Goodyear F1 Supercar tires is substantial and the Challenger is surprisingly balanced in turns. In fact, it's quite easy to steer the SRT8 392 with the rear wheels or make it drift. That speaks well to the job Dodge and SRT did with the suspension geometry. The R/T model, by comparison, acts very much the same way, but its reactions are a bit slower. Power isn't as sudden, steering isn't as sharp, the brakes aren't as strong, and the weight doesn't transfer as quickly. It is possible to upset both versions, but you really have to be working at it or totally inattentive. Driven smoothly you will rarely be reigned in by the electronic stability control. And the stability control can be completely turned off on manual transmission cars if it becomes a nuisance on the race track.

Ride quality in the SRT8 392 is decent. Some of the same hardware (lightweight forged aluminum wheels, aluminum-intensive independent suspension all around, spring and shock calibrations) that improves its performance contributes to the decent ride. The SRT8 is smooth and quiet enough to cover long distances, and it deals well with even marginal roads. On sheet-flat roads it won't enjoy a significant advantage over the Mustang's solid rear axle, but as the surface gets rougher the Challenger's independent rear suspension should cope better even though the car is heavier. The Challenger's mass becomes most apparent under heavy braking on a rippled road, where many lesser-tuned lighter cars have the same issue.

Even in the SRT8 392, the steering feel, while better for 2011, isn't as precise as the Mustang's steering. The steering is quick enough, with less than three turns lock-to-lock, but it feels more like the steering of a big sedan than a sporty coupe. Maneuverability at low speeds is par for a big car.

The SRT8 392's bi-xenon headlights allow it to be safely driven at freeway speeds or along rural highways in no-moon darkness. And with a bit of German in the bloodlines, the fog lights can be used without the headlights, at least where it's legal to light up the road instead of the fog.

With aerodynamics ever-more-frequently dictating shape and wind patterns, it was refreshing to find the new Challenger can comfortably be driven windows down without buffeting the occupants or thundering their ears. Admit it, at least part of the reason you buy one will be to be seen.

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