While Wert spent last week behind the wheel of the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, I had the muscle car's big, boorish bear of a brother, the 2008 Dodge Charger SRT8. The two cars may come off the same production lines, but I'm finding myself using a different set of adjectives than the petals of flowery prose Wert scattered in front of the Challenger's tires. The Charger SRT8 is pitifully crude, boorish and obnoxious. As far as high performance goes, it's a complete piece of shit. But it's the most badass, tire-spinning, smoke-billowingly fun piece of shit we've ever driven.
Where to begin? Well, for starters, you can completely disregard Wert's original review of the 2006 Dodge Charger SRT8. That's right, set his overly verbose love-screed aside because the Charger SRT8 is, above all, about testosterone. This is the kind of car that glorifies the years grease-streaked men have spent in dank, dark, sweaty garages squeezing every ounce of power from the profile of an intake cam. Guts this car has got in spades. The engine is a jewel of power and sound. The exhaust note of the big four-door is far more satisfying than the Challengers' more sedate murmurs. Small children cry in its throaty presence; young women faint; even dogs stare.
But engineers scratch their heads and laugh. How in the hell does a 6.1-liter, computer-designed, computer-controlled V8 provide such atrocious fuel mileage? We've managed to eek out 17 miles per gallon when being gentle, and when we call upon the dogs of war — 12. That's right, 12 miles per gallon. And not only that, but why does the transmission feel like it's getting its signals by way of carrier pigeon? In fully automatic mode, shifting feels less an exercise in maximum performance, and more an attempt at plowing mud with with your tires. Shifting it into manual mode, you gain a lot more control and it gets a lot more punchy, thus more fun, but the E-nannies still kick in too early, and the software fails to blip the throttle like Caddy's code does, making shift transitions awkward.
Finally, how did someone sign off on a suspension which makes a 1996 Toyota Corolla feel sporty in comparison? Don't get us wrong, the car is predictable at low speed, and extremely entertaining when you're writing graffiti on the parking lot, but at speed it feels unsettled, jittery, and unpolished in places where the Challenger shines.
The interior is nearly as bewildering as the traction control software. Things start off beautifully with multi-position, leather-clad seats featuring red-contrast stitching, tastefully embroidered SRT8 logos, and a suede-like seating surface. Nice. But then things get weird again. Instead of a purpose-built cockpit, we are faced with a bewildering user interface split between the speedometer and the navigation screen. And whoever thought a rear-seat Sirius satellite kids' TV package would make sense in this car should be rapped across the brow with a baseball bat. The only channels available are Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. Should it not be The Death Metal Channel, Car Chase Network and Tire Smoke News Channel? The wide swaths of depression-era gray rubberized plastic on the dash help highlight the failed execution of the art-deco styling in favor of the early-millennium "we phoned it in" school of design.
This is the essential problem with the Charger SRT8. It is both everything you love and everything you hate about American cars all wrapped up in one tough-looking package. It's big and rides smoothly, with plenty of space, lots of luxurious elements, and it's more powerful than stink on a wet mule. But the surprisingly sloppy handling, maddening user controls and tragic transmission make us cry uncle. The car manages to be just controllable enough that you have to be really stupid to get yourself in trouble, but it's powerful enough that if you do, you'll be going down in a blaze of twisted metal and tire smoke — a funeral pyre to the Gods of drag racing.
I would hate the Charger, but it's just so much goddamn fun.
- Opening photo: Alex Conley, AlexCConley.com
- Gallery: Fabrizio Constantini