Blog: Driving New England In The Dodge Challenger SRT8
By Seyth Miersma
June 14, 2011
Growing up driving mostly small, Japanese, front-wheel-drive vehicles (with the odd Saab, Volkswagen, 4X4, or truck thrown in for good measure), I developed an appreciation for the American muscle car fairly late in life. The 1990s of my driving youth weren’t exactly populated with the best crop of rear-drive iron out of Detroit, and the true authors of the muscle car phenomenon from the 1960s and 70s were (and mostly still are) beyond my reach financially. Thanks, Barrett-Jackson.
Fortunately for me, by the time I started covering the car business for a living, performance cars from the Big Three automakers had become pretty interesting again. For the last few years, we’ve been witness to a full-blown muscle car showdown that has led to some really fun to drive cars, with Chevrolet’s still evolving Camaro, Ford’s freshly updated Mustangs, and, of course, the freshened variants of the Dodge Challenger. All three blend a certain amount of refinement and nice handling behavior with the pavement munching torque you’d already expect.
Any of these competitors for the hearts and minds of American car guys can be a riot to pilot. I’m not crazy about the tomb-like cabin of the Camaro (something about not seeing anything to the left, right, or rear of me makes me nervous), but when I can summon up the courage, the V-8 from the SS is a monster. Mustangs are great, almost across the board, but there is something about that big Dodge coupe that has always lit my fire. The Challenger SRT8, in particular, not only looks and sounds good, but also has an intriguingly comfortable ride for such a powerful car. We at WR can hardly wait for the newer, badder still 2012 SRT8 cars to start rolling out into test fleets.
It’s that ride quality that I was thinking about when I was considering possible vehicle loans for my annual road trip to the northeast part of the country this year. Planning to see my fiancé Molly’s parents and extended family—stopping first in Boston, and then heading north to New Hampshire and Maine—I really wanted to borrow a car that was both fun and kind of laidback to drive. I’d always thought that the Challenger SRT8 would make a hell of a good GT car, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to try out that theory.
Driving to the great state of Maine via Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and then New Hampshire is pretty much a perfect test for the activity of grand touring—a mix of high-speed highway driving with back road and/or carving fare. Molly and I spent most of the ride out east on major freeways, with the attendant scenery staying bland and constant through most of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Our SRT8 proved a fine highway cruiser, with enough ride control to iron out the bad sections of Midwestern, frost-heaved highways, and more than enough power to take some scalps when I grew bored of using cruise control. Honestly, it’s at higher speeds where I like the Hemi power the best, and found it most impressive. While the Challenger doesn’t ever feel quite as quick as the higher-powered Camaros and Mustangs from a standstill, the SRT8 has got deep torque reserves that allow for stellar acceleration from 70 miles per hour to speeds that will get you thrown in the clink. The instant thrust at speed came in handy when I felt the need to jump ahead of the assembled F-150s and Civics and such that tend to pile up in the right-hand lane.
The fun really started, as it does each year, when we headed north from Beantown into the hills and mountains of northern New England. Here, the notion of a “highway” is far removed from what we slap that label on in Detroit, so even the main arteries of traffic flow are pretty winding/twisting. The Challenger is not a 911 by any stretch, but it’s also not that kind of old-school muscle car that is only really happy in a straight line. I found the SRT8 to be pretty wildly entertaining on some very narrow roads, with the thing gripping hard onto off-camber corners, and rolling much less through its suspension than I had remembered. Overall, I got the impression that the Challenger had far higher limits than I was willing to explore on a public road. Running the Hemi hard is a massive thrill.
Of course, some of that reticence to drive all-out was based on a steering setup that was both too vague and too slow to rotate to make me feel more confident near the limit. Also, and not unlike the Camaro here, it’s just hard to place the big, long Challenger on the road—the very low-slung seating position makes you feel like a badass, but it does significantly restrict visibility, too. Being able to see is paramount when seeking out coveted trails like Hurricane Mountain road, a rollercoaster of a mountain-topper that happens to be my personal favorite drive outside of the boundaries of California. Still, even on the very challenging roads that make driving trips to stunning New England so pleasant, the Challenger holds its own in a way that would shame its straight-line-only forbearers.
But, taken as a whole, the Dodge provided excellent service as a GT tool, being a far better companion on a long journey like this than slightly more pulse-pounding stuff like an Evo or an M3. Plus, it never hurts to have a seriously huge trunk out back when you’re going on a long trip to visit family. We came home with samples from every roadside farm stand, village trinket shop, and impromptu craft fair we drove past. Good times.
The SRT8 Challenger was also, of course, a total hit with the family wherever we met them. My future father-in-law told me that the car stood out in Center Lovell, Maine, “like a whore in church.” A fact that he seemed to relish more than a little. Next time we’re headed east, I’ll have to ask Dodge for a purple one.