Faithful to the 1970-vintage Challenger that powered its creation, the Challenger features a cool design that should stand the test of time. It is unanimously praised by on-lookers as a cool-looking car and is as faithful to the original as has been done in recent years.
Part of the Challenger's appeal comes from its commanding presence. Many of the Challenger's parts, systems and structures are shared with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans. It's a big car, just two inches shorter than the Charger but wider and lower. The Challenger is also about nine inches longer than the Ford Mustang, and seven inches longer than the Chevrolet Camaro.
Unlike most new cars, the maximum width is carried well out to the ends resulting in a broad, menacing car. The very wide, horizontal grille, spoilers and taillamps accentuate the width, as does a turret-like roof and window treatment, and the haunches over the rear wheels where the roof fairs into the trunk and the character line kicks up. The proportions all seem just right, from the carrier-deck expanse of flat hood larger than most modern pickups, to the foot-high side glass and dark lower body trim, and into the massive rear roof pillars.
The major lines are only part of the equation, with details just as well executed. The four round lamp units and deeply inset grille of the original are still there, though now the inside lights are turn signals and the outer pair the headlamps. Where signals rode below the bumper on the '70 this one has fog lamps, and careful sculpting has maintained the classic look without destroying aerodynamic efficiency.
From the side, the SRT8 392's 20-inch wheels frame bright red brake calipers and slotted discs, filling large fender openings that are creased along the edges. Hood scoops carry Hemi badges on V8 cars and are functional in that cool air goes in or warm air vents to the atmosphere, but they do not feed cold air straight into the engine; the ducts in the spoiler direct cooling air to the front brakes and small winglets at the front wheel openings better refine airflow. The fixed side rear windows do not allow the full open hardtop of the original with its frameless doors but in a nod to that look Dodge kept the pillars behind the glass so they aren't so obvious. A bright fuel filler cap on R/T and SRT8 392 models finishes off the driver's side. The door handles look retro and stylish, but we found them hard to grab.
Out back, there is a full-width panel of red lights with a pair of backup lights wedged in the middle, along with chrome DODGE lettering in a font right out of the 1970s. While only the outer pairs of bulbs light for brake and turn functions, the entire width is used for taillights. On the SRT8 392 the trunk spoiler is a flat black low-profile piece like that on the original T/A, and of course V8 cars have dual chrome rectangular exhaust outlets in the lower bumper. These are also available on the SE model with the Rallye package.
Paintwork on the cars we saw was very good, as it must be, given the vast surfaces lacking any ornamentation or style lines. The paint feels smooth to the touch and looks great. But, at least in V8 form, the Challenger is a muscle car that many insist requires stripes, so plenty of wallpaper is optional.
The interior harkens back to the muscle car era in that many muscle cars were born of generic sedans and had similar interiors. The Challenger also mimics Dodge and Chrysler sedans of a few years ago, though with some nicer materials. The cabin appears functional and well put together, but it has the least emotional impact of any aspect of the car.
To preserve the ensconced feeling, the headliner is a dark material. In fact almost everything is dark. In the SRT8 392 we tested the monotony was broken with chrome highlights on the door handles, control knobs and gauge bezels, light-faced instruments, semi-glossy carbon-fiber-look center panel trim, bright leather seats, a big chrome band around the shifter that bounced sun glare all over and the new SRT steering wheel with aluminum trim. Virtually everything else inside was dark.
While a race-inspired interior is one of the SRT division's major criteria, the primary inspiration here is manifested in the front seats and fat-rim, flat-bottom steering wheel. The contrast-stitched, heavily bolstered buckets in the SRT8 392, with their leather outers and velour inserts, do an excellent job of keeping you in place. However, unlike many so-called sport seats, these do not feel overly firm, though the driver lumbar can tune out some squish in the backrest. Nor are they confining. Big bodies are more prone to be comfortable here than in a BMW or Infiniti sport seat. Front-seat headrests are adjustable for height only and the seatbelt loop goes with it to avoid belt chafing.
The rear seat is quite comfortable and roomier than most would expect. The back seat can accommodate two plus someone little in the middle. Back-seat riders get only moderate legroom, however, caused by the very thick front-seat backrests. The rear bench seat has three shoulder belts, baby seat anchors, a fold-down armrest with cupholders, coat hooks, two central vents, and two integral headrests. The seat folds down to expand the trunk, but the front seat must not be set back too far to be able to flip the seatback down. On the minus side, the only lighting in the back seat area is in the front seat backrests. The side panels are mostly plastic, the windows are fixed, and getting in is a nuisance; the passenger seat has a lift lever that tilts the backrest and slides the seat forward but it doesn't automatically return to its previous position. It may be large, but it is a two-door coupe.
A manual tilt/telescope steering column allows plenty of adjustment and a view of the instruments. For 2012, the SRT has a new, smaller heated steering wheel with leather wrapping and metal trim that is more appropriate for a car with the Challenger's sporting intentions. It's smaller, sportier and feels better than the last one. The fingertip button arrangement is easy to use.
Lights and the trunk release are to the left on the dash, and the multi-function stalk on the left shows evidence of Dodge's old relationship with Mercedes. It has auto-blink signals (one touch gives 3 blinks, a feature that requires some getting used to or you can disable), flash-to-pass high beams, and washer/wiper controls that require you to take your hand off the wheel to activate them. Cruise control is on a smaller stalk to lower right.
Gauges include fuel on the left (which descends progressively more quickly as the tank is consumed), tachometer, speedometer (140, 160, 180 mph on SE, R/T, SRT8 respectively) and numbered coolant temperature. All of the gauges are light-faced with dark numbers and at night they have blue-green illumination that matches the various digital displays.
A message center in the tachometer on SRT8 392 models displays 128 functions, ranging from radio station to performance data. You can do your own 0-60 mph, eighth-mile, quarter-mile, braking distance and lateral acceleration tests. It does fuel economy, too, but we found ourselves happier not looking at that.
Keyless Go on some models is a no-ignition-switch setup that uses a simple pushbutton to start the car. Once inside the car, it's easy to misplace or forget the key because there's no slot for it and the sport seats don't encourage keeping it in your pocket.
The new Garmin navigation system costs less, and the available integrated navigation system comes with real-time traffic. Both come with a 30-gigabyte hard drive to hold thousands of music files. Not only does the 900-watt, twin-subwoofer audio upgrade clearly outdoes any 1970 quadraphonic 8-track, Led Zeppelin didn't sound this good live in 1970. Standard three-ring single-zone climate control is lower on the panel, with switches for stability control, hazard lights, seat heaters and such along the bottom. All of the controls except for the door lock and window switches are illuminated.
The center console has a mild lateral slope to the driver, with a small bin ahead of the shifter, two illuminated cupholders behind it, and space under the sliding-top center armrest. The glovebox is typical but the door pockets are split with a larger pocket at the front edge and a smaller pocket near the rear edge. The passenger door armrest has a small bin that might hold an MP3 player or pack of smokes, at least until a hard right turn.
Although the A-pillars are wide, the driver sits far enough away from the windshield to avoid forward blind spots. With the seat positioned low to the glass line, you can see most of the hood. The view to the rear is fairly good, too, because the side glass goes well back and the rear window allows a full view in the mirror view. However, the wide rear pillars block your view when backing out of parking spots; a rearview camera would be helpful and add a measure of safety. Also don't pull too far forward at intersections with overhead traffic signals or the roofline may get in your way. When it comes to visibility, the Mustang has it over the Challenger but the Camaro is worse than both.
Trunk space won't be an issue. At more than 16 cubic feet, it matches the Dodge Charger and Audi's A5 coupe and clearly betters the Mustang and Camaro. Under the floor you'll find the standard tire-inflator kit (compact spare optional only on SXT and R/T), battery and a vinyl-album-sized bin sure to be filled with a nitrous bottle sooner or later. The 60/40 split rear seat folds wide side on the driver's side. The subwoofers are out of the way, a good thing because there are no tie-downs here so contents will shift. And like an old Challenger, you have to pick up the cargo nearly three feet off the ground, and then over a foot of bodywork before dropping it into the trunk.