With fuel prices rising alarmingly, road tax on performance cars going through the roof and politicians obsessed with CO2 emissions, you have to wonder how much longer cars like the new Dodge Challenger SRT8 will be made. This is part of a new breed of American muscle car, a modern interpretation of a classic with retro looks and a 6.1 litre Hemi V8 pumping out 425bhp and 420 lb-ft of torque.
Chrysler has already decided that it won’t be officially imported into the UK so the only way buyers here will get hold of one is to ship it over themselves. Needless to say they are likely to be a very rare sight on British roads so when a pair of Challengers arrived from America to appear in the Supercar Run in last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed I just had to get my hands on one.
Chrysler told me that the only way I would get to drive one would be if I was prepared to at the crack of dawn on Monday in the heart of the New Forest, just before they went back State-side. Luckily for me, it is a gorgeous morning with deep blue skies, against which the pearl orange and black Challenger looks absolutely stunning, which is a word I don’t use often.
The car has impeccable proportions and clean, uncluttered but muscular lines. With eager anticipation I climb into the cockpit which is a dark, predominantly black but somehow comforting place with many of the controls and switches having a familiar ‘Chrysler’ look and feel about them. I hit the start button – no key required due to the keyless entry and start system - and the big Hemi purrs, rather than explodes into life.
Looking at the narrow British B road ahead of me I select ‘D’ from the five-speed auto box and hit the loud pedal. Any similarities with the raucous, snakin’, rockin’ and a rollin’ muscle cars of the seventies are dispensed almost immediately. The 20” diameter Goodyear Eagle tyres bite into the tarmac without a murmur and the Challenger whooshes up the road in a controlled and completely un-dramatic manner.
Only the blurring of trees flashing past the window and other cars becoming dots in the rear view mirror give any indication of how fast iI'm going. Well, that and the clear, easy to read white-faced speedo and rev counter in front of me but it would be unwise to stare at that. 0-60mph is 4.5 seconds and it certainly feels that fast, while top speed is 174mph.
Also, for a muscle car I certainly don’t need arms like Popeye to work the wheel - in fact the steering is so light I actually wonder if it I'm connected to anything at all. The lack of feel is perhaps one of the biggest downsides of the Challenger and something you have to adapt to.
You find you can make the car go where you want it to with one finger and although its lightness must have huge benefits in town it certainly will not be to the tastes of most British enthusiasts. On B roads and back roads the suspension is firm, not hard, and not at all crashy.
Rear visibility is somewhat obscured by the heavy rear pillars requiring extra care when feeding out into traffic or changing lanes. But I’ll forgive it that for the sake of the styling because this is one handsome brute that drew admiring looks from everyone who clapped eyes on it. If you wanted to buy one from a specialist importer you'd be looking at a £50K - which puts the car up against BMW's brilliant M3.
What you realise after driving the Challenger is that it is not the hot and sweaty, rough-around-the-edges beast that muscle cars once where. It is now much more a 21
century car - powerful, secure, but also easy to drive. So the muscle car may be changing and evolving with the times, but at least we can be thankful that they make them at all.