One of the most-fun aspects of my job is getting to test cars that turn heads wherever they go and are lots of fun to drive, even though I might not ever have the opportunity to own one of them.That’s the case with the retro-styled Dodge Challenger, the re-incarnation of the iconic muscle car that baby-boomers grew up with – one of the vehicles of that era that generated excitement wherever they went.Chrysler rolled out the current generation of the Challenger coupe for 2008, and a new generation was recently unveiled in New York for the next model year.For now, though, the 2014 Challenger is still available, and there’s really not anything wrong the current model that should compel you to wait for the 2015 version if a Challenger is you’re in the mood for now.My test vehicle for the week wasn’t just a Challenger, though – it was the track-inspired SRT8 Core (base price $39,485 plus $995 freight) model that comes with the biggest engine available in the car.Its price, though, is $5,200 lower than the regular SRT8 Challenger, which starts at $44,685, but has more standard comfort and convenience amenities. “Core” means that it comes with all of the SRT “core” performance features (including the Hemi V-8) – at a starting price under $40,000, Chrysler says. “SRT” stands for “Street and Racing Technology,” and is a designation the automaker puts on vehicles that have been tweaked by the SRT team to be a cut above their non-SRT versions.Granted, you can buy a Challenger for a sticker price as little as $26,495 (plus freight), and still you’ll get a great car with plenty of power, curb appeal and fun. It’s the base SXT model, which comes with a 305-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission.But for the ultimate Challenger experience, enthusiasts will want the 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 (392 cubic inches) that comes in the SRT models, cranking out 470 horsepower and 470 foot-pounds of torque.Although I didn’t do any measurements myself, Chrysler says the SRT Core will go from zero-60 mph in under five seconds, run the quarter-mile in about 12.5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 182 mph with the standard Tremec six-speed manual transmission, or 175 with the optional five-speed automatic ($1,200), which was included on my test vehicle.Fuel economy ratings for the SRT Core are 14 mpg city/23 highway, with the highway rating boosted by the engine’s standard “fuel saver technology” that cuts out four of the cylinders during level cruising at highway speeds. The system is not offered with the manual gearbox, but that model still gets the same EPA ratings.There are paddle shifters behind the steering wheel for those who want to shift the automatic transmission manually (but without having to worry about a clutch). The SRT’s engine has unique valve covers with painted silver ribs and the “392 HEMI” logo on them, something for the crowds to see when you park the Challenger at your favorite weekend car show and leave the hood open. My test vehicle, with its Plum Crazy Pearl Coat exterior paint was meant to be noticed. There really aren’t that many purple cars on the road, after all.The car was a hoot to drive, even though I encountered no roads that allowed me to give it a true test of its abilities, and I didn’t have the opportunity to take it onto a track during my week behind the wheel.Based on the architecture of the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300, which come down the same assembly line in Canada, the new Challenger is a full-size coupe with two doors and seating for five. At least, the car is billed as having that capacity, but legroom is limited in the rear seat, and with my front bucket seat adjusted to my comfort, there was no room for anyone to sit behind me. I did have a passenger on the other side of the back seat a few times, but the front passenger seat had to be moved forward on its track to accommodate the rear passenger.The Challenger’s a relatively heavy vehicle – curb weight is 4,170 pounds. But it has plenty of raw power, and will get up and go when it’s asked to. But it’s also more than just power. Handling was surprisingly crisp and predictable, which is a departure from the original Challengers. Those cars were purely about muscle, and worked best in straight-line acceleration and driving; cornering finesse was never their strong suit.That’s part of what makes this new Challenger so compelling. It has the looks and power of the old Challengers, but the benefits of modern chassis engineering, great brakes, and state-of-the-art safety features. It can brake from 60 mph to a full stop in 117 feet, Chrysler says.But that retro look is what turns heads, and even people who later buy the V-6 version will be able to enjoy that kind of reaction from others.Its modern technology includes advanced electronic stability and traction control, multiple air bags including supplemental front and rear side-curtain air bags, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.Our tester came with a few extras, including a navigation/audio system ($895) with Garmin navigation, a 40-gigabyte hard drive, satellite radio a 6.5-inch color touch screen, and Chrysler’s Uconnect in-car connectivity setup.To bolster that system, we also had the optional Sound Group ($450), which added six Boston Acoustics speakers and a 276-watt amplifier; the Electronics Convenience Group ($750), which brought outside temperature and compass readings, advanced tire-pressure display, universal garage/gate opener, a security alarm, and power/heated foldaway outside mirrors.There were performance tires, as well, which added $150, and a federal gas-guzzler tax of $1,000 tacked onto the sticker. Total delivered price was $44,925, including freight and options.Some of the standard interior features include premium cloth seats (buckets in front, bench in the rear), leather-wrapped shifter and tilt/telescopic steering wheel, six-way power adjust for the driver’s seat (four-way power lumbar adjust), keyless entry with pushbutton start, power windows/mirrors/door locks, steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, automatic climate control, bright pedals, and a rear pull-down armrest with cupholders.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.