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2009 Dodge Challenger: And the Gang's All Here

Challenger Update
Seems only yesterday, really all the way back in May, that we brought you our first-drive impressions of the 2008 Challenger SRT8, the one with the 425HP HEMI and automatic transmission. That day, and my many, many laps on the track, is set to always stand out as a favorite.
And now we’ve had the chance to drive most of the full 2009 Dodge Challenger lineup, which began rolling into dealers in August. Among the highlights: six-speed manual transmission! What muscle car can proudly raise its head without one, no matter how few are actually ordered?

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Full Range: V6 SE, 372HP HEMI R/T, and 425HP HEMI SRT8
The 2008MY for Challenger was a short, limited run of 6500 or so SRT8 products. The 2009MY offers something for everyone looking for a cool, powerful-looking large coupe, whether looking for the entry V6 or the crushing SRT8.
Challenger is impressive in its own right. It is accessible, in image and cost. It is powerful and commanding, if not subtle or graceful. The range starts with the V6-powered SE for $21,995, moves to the well-balanced $29,995 R/T, and supplies total go-fast gearheads of all ages with the affordable $39,995 SRT8.


Challenger SE
Politically correct crowd, tune out for a sentence. The Challenger SE, with its 250HP and four-speed automatic, is the proverbial secretaries car. It gets you all the looks, and in fact has a sexy stealthiness to it with a lack of rear spoiler, but doesn’t overburden you with cost or insurance rates. More accurately than the car for administrative assistants the Midwest over, this is a terrific option for a high-school or college kid’s first car. It offers plenty of personality, affordable at the pocket book, and decent handling, but enough standard safety equipment to sooth the parents (especially if they’re picking up the tab).

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Pros Exterior looks as cool as its bigger-engined brethren, if more subtle. Safe, fast, affordable, and sexy. What more can a first-time new-car owner want?
Cons More power is what most want. In routine driving, the V6 is perfectly acceptable. But it’s not, with this power-to-weight ratio, particularly quick. Among rolling hills and overtaking freeway moves, we longed for more mid-range power.
Challenger R/T, Six-Speed Manual.
This is it! Wow. I’m hooked. The best balanced of the three, from ride to power to price to fuel cost. This is the nicest daily driver, and no R/T owner should ever be shamed for not stepping up to the SRT8. Choosing the six-speed manual gets you an extra 4HP (376HP vs 372HP) versus the automatic, but it really gets you involvement. The six-speed is related to that in the Viper, something that did not in all honesty inspire me, but it offers a smoother clutch and slick shifts. Oh, and you get those V8 noises. Perhaps a slightly different tone than those from the 6.1L SRT8, but wonderful all the same. (The 5.7L engine also boasts improvements like variable-valve timing and dual ignition versus 2008MY that boost power from the known Charger’s 340HP.)
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Pros Manual transmission encourages full use of power and handling, and full involvement. Enough power for nearly anything you’re going to throw at it, with looks that won’t let you forget its aggressive nature. Fuel economy penalty over the V6 shouldn’t be enough to deter you, though the $8,000 difference in base price might.
Cons In context of Challenger range, none yet, but only fifteen miles behind the wheel. Check back later.
SRT8, Six-Speed Manual
We’ve already covered the SRT8 with an automatic, and loved it. This time, we toyed with the manual on a much shorter, tighter road course set up at New Jersey’s Raceway Park (better known for its drag racing lanes). This course did not showcase the car as well as Willow did, being too tight for this very large coupe. It often felt floaty and unsure. But on the road, or on longer tracks or autocross courses, and the car’s a blast. The manual is the same as in the R/T, down to the pistol-grip shifter. The manual adds to the experience, and we appreciate the extra involvement. Keep the automatics for those grand tourers I mentioned a while back!
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Pros Nothing beats more power, really. The SRT8 is a rush, and more so with the manual. Stepping up to the SRT8 gets you the best version of the interior, with cooler contrast elements and nicer leather.
Cons Suspension stiff for daily driving, rough roads. Those who step up won’t be bothered initially, or maybe never, but it can get old and in the daily life of a non-competitive driver, the penalty might not be worth it.
My Verdict: Go for the R/T
Short drive or not, the R/T was my favorite, especially as a real-world daily driver. The SRT8 is compliant enough, but its stiffer nature makes for a brutal ride over rough roads; if you’re not going to put it on the track and put the beefed up suspension to us, why suffer the punishment? Of course, if you are and you’re looking for a track car you can drive to work, the SRT8 is the way to go. If you want the looks, the SE still gets you there without embarrassment.
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